Maybe it was shame. Maybe their corporate social responsibility heart grew three sizes last Friday. Whatever the reason, Costco, the nation's largest retail fish buyer, will halt sales of 12 varieties of fish, certified as unsustainably farmed by the Marine Stewardship Council. The decision has Greenpeace congratulating itself for pressuring yet another targeted supplier to buckle under its annual shaming (er, report). As the latest big name to adopt sustainable practices, Costco stands to impact the majority, if not the entirety, of the $31 billion U.S. industry.
Costco has consistently placed near the bottom of Greenpeace's annual fish sustainability report. And the environmental group created one of their colorful campaigns against the retail giant, dubbed, "Oh no Costco." (A snarky campaign against Trader Joe's a year earlier titled "Traitor Joes" coerced the specialty grocery retailer into changing its buying behavior.) According to the campaign website, "Over the past two-and-a-half years, Greenpeace has repeatedly asked Costco about its seafood policies and practices, both in preparation for our original Carting Away the Oceans report and for subsequent retailer performance updates: The company has failed to respond to any of Greenpeace’s inquiries."
Fast Company also reached out to Costco. The company doesn't clearly post media contact numbers and calls seeking a spokesperson were directed to a voicemail at Costco HQ. Messages were not returned by post time.
Not content with simple digital shaming, Greenpeace chartered a blimp adorned with the spoofy campaign phrase, "Costco Wholesale Ocean Destruction." Eight months later, voilá, Costco issued a sweeping decree to eliminate all varieties of unsustainably captured fish—although we were unable to confirm a direct connection between the campaign and the decision (again, calls were not returned).
The billion dollar question is, will it make a broader impact on the industry? Both Costco and Trader Joe's are known for their liberal vibe. At Trader Joe's, employees in Hawaiian T-shirts stock selves full of vegan-friendly products, such as Hemp milk and soy chicken nuggets. Costco, previously profiled by Fast Company for its sterling social conscience, gives employees a generous health care package and powers its warehouses (partly) with solar panels.
Greenpeace is optimistic the trend of big name brands has some moral momentum. "No one wants to be at the bottom of the list," Greenpeace researcher Kurt Davies tells Fast Company. As a comparison, Davies pointed to the success of their anti-PVC campaign to rid plastics of a compound thought to damage development in children. A decade ago, Mattel was pressured into removing the compound from its toys. Today, Apple boasts a range PVC-free electronics, and Dell has pledged to follow suit by the end of this year.
Greenpeace senior markets campaigner, Casson Trenor, is confident that nature gives the seafood campaign a unique advantage. "There are some species, by their very physiology, that cannot support industrialized fishing on a large scale." Overfishing will ultimately cause those fish to "disappear, and with them, so will the seafood departments, so will the seafood industry." Thus, buyers have a vested interest in thinking in the long term.
Sustainability is especially important for Trenor, as a sushi restaurant owner in San Francisco. "If we abuse the ocean through sushi, we will lose both."