Costco announced last week that it would discontinue selling 12 species of seafood on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species. The move comes after an eight-month campaign by Greenpeace, which used fliers, petitions and a blimp flying over Costco’s Issaquah, Wash., headquarters to pressure the warehouse club store chain into implementing more sustainable policies. “Given the magnitude of the company, this is a hallmark of a major, major shift — it will have far-reaching implications for the health of the planet,” said Casson Trenor, Greenpeace’s oceans campaigner.
Jeffrey Lyons, Costco’s senior vice president of merchandising for fresh foods, said the chain actually began implementing sustainable seafood policies more than four years ago, and hasn’t sold seven of the 12 fish for some time. “We didn’t change what we were doing [last week]. Greenpeace used us as their poster child. [We thought], if they’re going to make all this noise, we’re going to report [what we’re doing] to our members and the world. We don’t generally announce these things — we just do it. Their actions encouraged us to be a little more vocal.”
Even as he applauded Costco’s actions, Trenor said the company still has a long way to go. For one thing, he said, Costco insisted on a proviso that will permit it to reintroduce any of the 12 endangered species if it can find product that can be certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, a nonprofit whose benchmarks for sustainability have come into question. Costco also continues to sell farmed species, such as salmon.
Costco, however, also agreed to support best practices in aquaculture, and to work with the World Wildlife Fund to develop the most sustainable methods possible for sourcing its remaining wild-caught species.
Ken Peterson, spokesman for Monterey Bay Aquarium, lauded Costco’s move. “A lot of major buyers are making similar moves; it’s great to have one the size of Costco joining them,” he said. Earlier this month, Sodexo, a global foodservice provider, committed to have 100 percent of its contracted fresh and frozen seafood certified as sustainable by either MSC or Best Aquaculture Practices by 2015.
“I think Costco’s announcement just says that this is what American consumers are expecting. American businesses are saying, ‘This is what we require.’ More companies will find ways to bring fish to market that meets these requirements,” Peterson said. There are already several branded sustainable seafood products in the marketplace, like Blue Horizon, EcoFish and Wild Planet Foods.
Still, Costco’s not exactly a nimble start-up. Making a change of this magnitude “is like steering an ocean liner that sees an iceberg,” said Robert Vosburgh, group editor of Supermarket News. “They have to talk with their suppliers and open a dialogue with the [MSC] and figure out what to do with all the extra space in their freezer and seafood cases. Even though they don’t sell a lot of the 12 species that were announced, they did take up space, and in food retailing space is money.”
Despite the short-term hit, the boost to the company’s reputation will probably help Costco’s bottom line over time. And then there’s the longest view of all: “It will definitely positively affect their sales of seafood over the long run because they will still have fish to sell,” Trenor said.
Costco has agreed to stop selling the following 12 fish.
· Atlantic cod
· Atlantic halibut
· Chilean sea bass
· Greenland halibut
· Orange roughy
· Skates and rays
· Bluefin tuna