Toward Sustainable Sourcing

Studying Canada's emerging seafood governance system

When Loblaws, Canada’s largest seafood retailer, publicly committed in 2009 to carry only sustainably sourced seafood, it sparked an industry-wide move towards new sustainability strategies. That move prompted University of Guelph graduate student Dominique Schmidt to look more closely at how private-sector companies can effect system change.

As part of her Masters research, Schmidt, together with Guelph geography professor Ben Bradshaw tracked Canada’s emerging seafood governance system, in which non-governmental organizations partner with commercial retailers to offer customers more sustainable seafood options. Working with retailers, she examined how they are approaching the issue of adopting sustainable sourcing practices and communicating those standards to consumers.

Her findings opened the door to a larger debate.

“My work created a kind of venue for a conversation that would not otherwise have happened,” says Schmidt. “These companies are now reflecting on their sustainability strategies in new ways and learning from the process. Through this kind of increased collaboration and dialogue, we have an opportunity to create and enforce a truly robust seafood sustainability standard.”

Following Loblaws’ bold move, pressure from retailers quickly caused fishery producers to change their practices and standards. The government also increased its commitment to pursuing more comprehensive fisheries certification.

“We now have major food retailers, producers and certification bodies sitting at the table with government, instead of the traditional top-down, state-based approach to fisheries management in this country,” says Schmidt.

Some hurdles remain. High demand for popular products like salmon and shrimp makes it difficult to implement long-term, sustainable sourcing practices. This issue is compounded by the range of competing—and occasionally contradictory—sustainability standards and certifications promoted by different organizations.

“Without a single standard, there’s a lot of wiggle room for retailers to downgrade their sustainability commitment if it runs against their competitive or strategic interests,” says Schmidt. “Consumers have also been confused by the different messaging they encounter in various grocery chains.”

Schmidt hopes her findings will help inspire change.

“I’m interested in alternative forms of governance rooted in the private and civil spheres, and their potential to increase environmental accountability in our food systems,” says Schmidt. “Canada’s seafood retail sector is a prime example of this. It’s rare to see this kind of voluntary, sector-wide commitment to sustainability.”

Research funded by SSHRC: Toward fisheries governance: Assessing consumer responses to sustainable seafood retail in Canada