Walmart says it will begin accepting seafood certification programmes other than the Marine Stewardship Council

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I just read in the Guardian what I honestly thought might have occurred 4 months ago….

Walmart says it will begin accepting seafood certified programmes other than the Marine Stewardship Council.”

Is it true? Have Walmart done an about turn on something they vilified just a year ago? Has Walmart just made an about face accepting the sustainability certification based on the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (COCRF)? I wasn’t sure I was reading correctly until my colleague sent me an email that with the dismissively cool subject title “Walmart accepts RFM standard” and an attached PDF of an article from Intrafish “Walmart: ASMI-backed program meets sourcing guidelines.” But the ‘coolness’ and lack of comment spoke volumes… We both have been following the intrigue and we both know the symbolism embedded in Walmart’s announcement.

So I don’t have to pinch myself… its true… here is some further evidence of its veracity:

On Thursday (23 January 2014) almost 4 months after acknowledging the kinks in its sustainable seafood sourcing policy at a US Senate hearing, Walmart’s Vice President of meat and seafood, David Baskin, announced that Walmart (the world’s largest retailer) had decided to expand its sustainable seafood policy (SSP) to include certification programmes other than the Marine Stewardship Council. Prior to the revision of the SSP the the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) backed Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM)  certification programme was problematic for Walmart, who announced in 2013 that it would have to stop stocking Alaska seafood if it didn’t meet the MSC sustainable fisheries standard.

The progress towards Walmart’s sustainable seafood sourcing policy has been a slow one, with strong pressure being exerted by eNGOs who have undertaken to walk away from Walmart’s sustainability programme [NGOs push walmart to defy congress]. On the other hand, it is arguable that this call to defy congress, is nothing more than final push by the eNGOs who could see the recognition of the RFM by Walmart as inevitable after the United States General Services Administration (GSA) wrote MSC out of their sustainable sourcing policy in September 2013.

In an earlier post I quoted from a letter from GSA’s David Blue to US Senator Murkowski:

GSA’s believes that American managed fisheries do not require third-party certification to demonstrate responsible and sustainable practices.  GSA and HHS designed the Guidelines to make healthy choices more accessible and appealing.  We intended the Guideline’s citation of third-party certification organizations to serve as helpful examples for potential bidders, not as eliminating factors.  Our goal was to broaden choices, not to restrict options.”

In my mind this revision by GSA was the first indication that MSC’s prominent position as the principal market access gatekeeper was being eroded. The revision of the Walmart SSP goes further; by recognising the RFM programme as an acceptable third-party sustainable certification standard, it paves the way for viable market access alternatives to MSC.  In this way the revision of the SSP by Walmart has the potential to have far reaching effects for the sustainable certification of seafood worldwide. The initial effect of this announcement is that Walmart can continue to stock Alaska seafood in accordance with its SSP.

The revised policy provides for the inclusion of a management programme that accords with the Principles of Credible Sustainability Programs developed by The Sustainability Consortium (TSC). It must be noted that acceptance by the TSC may be subject to a third party review. So acceptance is not assured. However, initially the Walmart SSP  stipulated that  all fresh and frozen, farmed and wild seafood suppliers to source from fisheries who are:

What are the short-term and long term effects?

Alaskan Airline's Wild Alaskan Salmon 737 - Note the Alaskan Fisheries Marketing Board Logo just below the Captain's side window.

Alaskan Airline’s Wild Alaskan Salmon 737 – Note the Alaskan Fisheries Marketing Board Logo just below the Captain’s side window. Source: http://www.airlinereporter.com

According to ktuu.com who quoted ASMI Communications Director, Tyson Fick:

The decision comes as vindication of Alaska’s seafood sustainability process. This isn’t just about salmon, it’s about RFM certified seafood like Pollock, cod, halibut, crab, and more.”

And Alaska Democratic Senator Mark Begich (chairman of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard):

This is why I’m pleased that they have finally come full circle with a full reversal of their sustainability policies … to purchase Alaska seafood

So first hats off to Walmart!!!

Just like the ASMI they are trail blazing! And trail blazers are fabulous aren’t they?

Walmart deserve recognition as trail blazers because, not only did they soak up to the pressure; they had faith in seafood professionals who implement progress before PR, who put in the work to make sure their harvest is responsible and that their resource endurable. But mostly they deserve the trail blazer tag because of their acceptance of the RFM as a legitimate and acceptable seafood certification programme, even though the RFM is a sustainability programme that is outside environmental NGO sphere of influence. This is a move that cannot be under-estimated given that for the past decade environmental NGOs like WWF, have been (at least in fact) the self-imposed “what is sustainable and what is not sustainable” gate keepers. This position as market access gatekeepers has been a lucrative cashcow for a number of eNGOs who have built ticket clipping consultancy businesses around demonstrating sustainable sourcing. I am happy to see this position being abraded… I for one do not equate eNGOs with commercial consultancy.

In my opinion:

The acceptance of the RFM by Walmart is a step into the future… where primary producers will demonstrate the responsibility, the endurability and yes, the sustainability of their harvested resource, and where in consideration of the demonstration retailers will stock it and sell it to their customers…

This recognition of the Alaskan Responsible Fisheries (RFM) certification programme by Walmart is courageous, it will no doubt attract some flack from the media and eNGOs (who are no doubt very aware of the symbolism of the RFM recognition). But us netizens… as shoppers of sustainable seafood, as quid pro quo for Walmart’s bravado, should blaze a trail with our dollars and embrace Walmart’s purchasing policy.

Sadly I am unable to purchase seafood in Walmart today… But I am not based in the USA nor in a country with a Walmart. So please go give Walmart a pecuniary high five on my behalf… and have some salmon for dinner. ^^

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