Why Shopping Our Way to Sustainability Won't Work

Can we shop our way to sustainability in the supermarket aisle?

Eco labels are cluttered, confusing and unreliable.

Organic food gets a tiny slice of the market.

Most shoppers don't pay much attention to environmental factors. Perhaps understandably so. They're busy, or ignorant. Or they don't care.

Which makes me believe that we can't count on consumers to bring about a sustainable food system.

So, like it or not, that it's going to be up to business to fix the food system.

That's my takeaway from discussions at the Sustainable Food Institute, part of Cooking for Solutions, a great event on food/ag/sustainability organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I was there for a couple of days of good talk, good food, good wine, shared by reporters, chefs, people in the food business, scientists, activists and a farmer or two.

In several panel discussions -- one on eco-labels, another about the popular but nevertheless limited Seafood Watch program run by the aquarium, and also during my own interview with Louise Nicholls, a sustainability executive from the British food and department store Marks & Spencer -- it became clear to me that the dizzying complexity of food and agriculture systems, including as they do health, environmental and economic concerns, will make it very difficult to communicate simply to shoppers what's "good" and what is not, even assuming scientists can reach consensus on that.

Persuading shoppers to then change their habits is even tougher.

Consider Seafood Watch, known best for the wallet-sized pocket guides that rank popular seafood choices as green (recommended), yellow (good alternatives) and red (avoid). By most measures, Seafood Watch, whose recommendations are science-based and peer reviewed, has been a big hit. The aquarium has given away nearly 40 million guides, and millions more have been accessed on smartphones and the web.

Here's the thing, though: Only about 500,000 consumers regularly use the guide, the aquarium's market research has found. What's more, the guide is limited in its scope -- it focuses on healthy oceans, but doesn't take into account social issues, workers rights or carbon emissions. A fresh Alaskan salmon that travels by air to a New York City restaurant can get the green light.

The good news? Chefs and retailers are paying more attention to Seafood Watch. "We didn't have the ear of business 10 years ago," said Sheila Bowman, senior outreach manager at Seafood Watch. "Things have changed." What's more, they are getting recommendations on 2,000 kinds of fish, not just the 70 in the pocket guide.

Similarly, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which has a consumer-facing label, has been gaining ground with big companies.