Three things to learn from the consumers' shift to more sustainable fish

According to UK supermarkets, the sales of alternative and more sustainable species of fish have risen significantly over the last year. This, of course, is very good news. For many years, cod, haddock, tuna and salmon have been about all the British consumer would happy buy - and stocks of these fish have been under serious strain as a result.

It sounds like a great sustainability success story - and evidence that ethical consumerism can really change the world. But it's worth being very clear what this case does and doesn't tell us.

One. This change has been company-led, not consumer-led. I recall hearing a presentation from Sainsbury's four or five years ago about how it was introducing alternative species to its fish counter, and aiming to use its marketing know-how to encourage consumers to give these a go. Indeed, a big feature of its marketing at the time was in this spirit - "try something different." It wasn't an approach that had overnight success, but importantly the company didn't simply give up, wring its hands and state that they had to follow consumer wishes.

Other companies such as Marks & Spencer came to the same conclusion as they created their own sustainability programmes, and so started offering their own wider choices.

Left to our own devices, our buying decisions become firmly embedded into habit, so when you get a popular food category that used to be fine, but has become more difficult on the grounds of sustainability, it is unrealistic to expect the people en masse to lead the charge. Instead, the companies have to see which way the science is taking us, and use their expertise to persuade, cajole and even seduce us into becoming more accepting of change.

Two. Companies can't do it on their own. The move by companies to stock greater alternatives could easily have foundered on a wave of consumer resistance - and sooner or later even the most determined of champions would have had to cut their losses. But at the same time, trusted voices of campaigners and food writers were, via television, newspapers and internet, raising awareness of the depth of the crisis faced by the oceans.

Not only did they highlight the issues, but they were able - as popular food writers - to encourage and inspire experimentation with alternatives by producing recipes and inspiring people with the fact that these were not inferior varieties of fish, simply ones that had been less fashionable. Fashions can change easily enough, but the new thing has to be at least as good as the old thing.

These voices were trusted because they weren't government, they weren't companies, and they had no personal stake in encouraging this change - except that none of us are going to particularly thrive if the ocean ecosystem collapses.

Three. A growing trend is not the same as arriving at the destination. It's great that Sainsbury's has seen a major increase in sales fo fish like tilapia, trout, pollack and seabass. It's great that M&S are shifting a lot more hake and pangasius. But the truth is the percentage increases mask the fact that we are starting from a pretty low base. There is a long way still to go.

The fact that those that will respond to the challenge to change - and who may be influenced by what top cookery writers may encourage them to do - doesn't mean that we are close to embedding a national habit. Indeed, all we may be doing is seeing the growth of a larger niche that is nowhere big enough to reduce the harm of our main national obsession of cod or haddock with chips.

So maybe it's good news. But maybe it is a complete sideshow. After all, fish consumption globally is now higher than it has ever been, with about a third of fish stocks overexploited.

Less headline-grabbing, but maybe more significant, is the action of companies like Birds Eye, who have adopted sustainable standards, including the introduction of alternative species, into its range of fish fingers products. 185 million fish fingers are consumed in the UK every year. This is 'choice editing', because consumers are not being given an ethical niche brand to choose, instead the brand is, quite invisibly and behind the scenes, cleaning up the act of a mainstream offering consumed by many of those people that would never go into Sainsbury's and buy tilapia.

We need not to be distracted by the niche trend welcome though it is, but keep our eyes on the bigger picture.

Posted on: 6 Aug 2012

Tags: sustainability fish Sainsbury's Birds Eye ethical consumerism

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