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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.

Just last week, the MSC said, Kroger, Costco, Supervalu and Walmart announced new seafood commitments around MSC standards.

Kroger, for example, which has about 2,500 stores in 31 states, has set a 2015 goal of sourcing 100 percent of its top 20 wild-caught species from "sources that are certified by MSC, in full assessment, or involved in a Fishery Improvement Project with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)." Big retailers, in other words, are increasingly making sustainable choices on behalf of consumers.

Other ecolabels almost inevitably capture only one or two attributes of a food product. This poses dilemmas for even the most conscientious consumers.

Are organic grapes from Chile better than conventional local grapes? Should you favor Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee? Industry-backed labels like the food industry's Smart Choice initiative are not just confusing but misleading, as we learned a couple of years ago when Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies were deemed Smart Choices.

Jon Johnson of the University of Arkansas and The Sustainability Consortium made a great point-- that no label can be universal (applicable to many product categories), accurate and simple. You can have two of those three, but not all three -- and in particular there are tensions between accurate and simple. For its part, the Sustainability Consortium is engaging, with numerous partners, in science-based life cycle analyses that will be hard to translate into a simple, consumer-facing label.

Again, the good news is that while the Sustainability Consortium was started by Walmart, its partners now include Best Buy, Kroger, Safeway and Marks & Spenser as well. Provide those retailers with actionable data about sustainability, and they can then be persuaded to make smart choices on behalf of consumers. It's easier to change a few hundred big brands than it is to change a few hundred million consumers.

As Johnson put it: "It’s not going to be the consumers who drive market change. They’re going to rely on retailers and others, government agencies and NGOs, who are going to force change.”

To an impressive degree, this is what Marks & Spencer is doing with its sustainability program, Plan A. Why Plan A? Because there's no Plan B. The retail chain is being pushed by consumers but it's pulling them as well-- for example, the stores stopping giving away plastic bags, instead charging 5p per bag, and dropped its plastic bad use by 83 percent. M & S used to give away more than 460 million carrier bags a year. In M&S's cafes, consumers need not worry about the coffee-- every blend is Fair Trade, organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified.

Still, in the end, the consumer is king. M&S sources as much food as possible -- including all of its fresh beef, pork, chicken, turkey, duck, goose, farmed salmon and trout, shell eggs and milk -- from the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The store has even worked with farmers to extend the UK growing season for asparagus.

Still, there are limits to what a company can do. Paula Crossfield of Civil Eats asked Louise Nicholls about reports that asparagus farming in Peru is causing severe water problems there. (See How Peru's wells are being sucked dry by British love of asparagus.) That sure doesn't sound sustainable.

So why not stop selling asparagus in the winter? That, evidently, is a step too far, even for M&S. Business is business. And so the dance continues.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Stephen Cummings.

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