Can sustainable fish go mainstream?

Sensemaking / Can sustainable fish go mainstream?

Consumers are catching on to the fragile state of sealife. But how can we persuade them to put their money where their mouth is, asks Andrew Purvis.

04 Apr 2012

 Consumers are catching on to the fragile state of sealife. But how can we persuade them to put their money where their mouth is, asks Andrew Purvis.

For the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and, by default, for fish, 2011 was a good year. The number of fisheries in the MSC programme grew by a third, and products certified as made from sustainably sourced fish passed the 12,000 mark.

Meanwhile, research across the major countries where MSC-certified products are on sale showed that nearly one in four adults (23%) now recognises the label, up from 9% in 2008. Recognition is highest in Germany, at 52% of the populace. France comes in at 22%, Britain at 18%, and Japan was least aware at 16%. “The growth in awareness is incredible. While Japan is currently behind other countries we are tracking, the awareness there has doubled since 2008,” says Simon Edwards, global head of communications and marketing at the MSC. “The level of support we are seeing in Japan from retailers, fisheries and the young middle class perfectly illustrates the growing value consumers place on seafood sustainability across the globe.”

Shoppers want a badge of trust saying someone else has done the work 

However, recognising a label isn’t the same as understanding it. The MSC tests whether consumers can accurately describe what its ecolabel signifies when all the text has been removed. In Britain, only 3% of people could describe the MSC ‘fish tick’ as a mark for sustainable seafood, compared with 17% in Germany. In an ideal world, they would be more informed. But, as Chris Sherwin, a sustainability consultant with brand development agency Dragon Rouge, points out, “a label is a short cut. Consumers don’t have to know the detail, the intricacies of whether a standard is the right one. They’re looking for a badge of trust saying someone else has done the work.”

Edwards concedes there is also a gulf of difference between recognising a brand and buying it. “With all products that have a price premium, including environmentally and socially responsible products, you have to establish the value of it to overcome any barrier to purchase.” For the MSC, this involves a lot of communications activity to build awareness with consumers that their purchasing decision rewards sustainable fisheries.

The latest survey certainly points to a public appetite for this, with 44% claiming to be “very concerned” about seafood sustainability, and agreeing that buying eco-labelled products made a difference. Yet MSC-labelled products still only account for 6% of the seafood market. Why? In part, of course, it’s due to supply constraints, but research shows that consumers can all too easily forget their values in a retail environment where there are so many other choices on their minds.

Hence the MSC’s new tool: joint marketing campaigns in store, notably with French retail giant Carrefour and seafood brands Findus, Connétable and Labeyrie. Known as Les Jours Bleus (Blue Days), the French campaign features evocative images of abundant marine life and colourful front-of-store displays of MSC products. “The in-store campaigns we run in partnership with retailers and brands around the world remind consumers of values that are very important to them”, says Edwards, “at the point of a purchasing decision.”

`The campaigns seem to be working. Les Jours Bleus – which Carrefour will host for the third time in 2012 – had a significant effect on sales in 2010. During the 10-day campaign, Connétable sold 10 times more MSC products than in a typical year. Findus reported a 47% increase in sales of MSC-labelled unbreaded products. For Stephanie Mathey, Sustainability Manager at Carrefour, sales are not the only function of Les Jours Bleus: “It’s more an institutional mission, something that enhances Carrefour’s image and makes us stand out. It also raises consumer awareness of responsible fishing.”

So is this the way forward? Chris Sherwin is impressed by the results, but cautions that raising awareness alone may not be enough. And he sets out a challenge for the next stage of MSC’s campaign. “Our recommendation to nearly every brand is that ethical issues must be a support to a primary benefit. The big question for the MSC is what is the primary benefit that a good fisheries standard supports? It’s got to be about a direct benefit such as health, quality or taste. Only by addressing that will sustainable seafood become mainstream.”

Andrew Purvis is a freelance journalist specialising in food, travel and sustainability.

The Marine Stewardship Council is a Forum for the Future Partner

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