Twice since November, Wal-Mart has made significant announcements about how it buys seafood. Wal-Mart is changing how it buys shrimp, and how it buys the wild-caught fish that it sells in grocery stores across North America (Wal-Mart is the #1 retailer in both Mexico and Canada, as it is in the U.S.).
Two things are striking about the seafood buying news from Wal-Mart.
First, if Wal-Mart takes its own rules seriously, the new standards could have a dramatic impact on fish, the environment, and on competitors. Wal-Mart has taken the uncharacteristic step of turning to third parties to provide both the environmental standards, and the certification that suppliers are meeting them.
In the case of the shrimp it buys from shrimp farms — shrimp is a third of all seafood Wal-Mart sells — the company is working with the Global Aquaculture Alliance and the Aquaculture Certification Council. The standards for shrimp farms include things like protection of indigenous mangrove and seagrass beds, and effluent standards regulating the discharge of pollution from the shrimp farms.
In the case of the wild-caught fish, Wal-Mart announced that it will sell only fish that comes from fishing areas that are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council — that is, fisheries that are managed in such a way that the fishing allows the natural stocks of fish to replenish themselves. Whole Foods Market, the organic and natural grocery chain whose reputation is pretty much the opposite of Wal-Mart’s, also partners with the MSC to provide sustainable fresh fish. (Wal-Mart’s press release says it “takes the lead on supporting sustainable fisheries.” Not quite. Whole Foods started using MSC-certified wild fish six years ago, in 2000.)
So why should we care?
Wal-Mart buys so much shrimp and fish, that if the company changes how it does its buying, there could be considerable impact on improving the environment where shrimp farms operate — from Central America to Asia — and on improving the health and sustainability of devastated wild fish stocks. Shrimp farming, in particular, is an ugly business.
And Wal-Mart sells so much shrimp and fish, that if the company’s new environmental consciousness is seen not just as good citizenship, but as good business, other big seafood sellers could well adopt the same kinds of standards — spreading the good practices.
Just as important, environmental and sustainability standards aren’t about “always low prices, always” — they are about making sure that the price of seafood in the display case at a Wal-Mart Supercenter actually includes the real costs of the seafood, including things like the “cost” of preventing pollution. The fish standards cover a total of perhaps 20 products out of 120,000 in a Wal-Mart Supercenter — .017 percent. But once you add The Wal-Mart effect to price, once the buyers in Bentonville are willing to considering something important in addition to price, you’ve opened a conversation about how to preserve the good that Wal-Mart does, while moderating the bad.
So what’s been the reaction to Wal-Mart’s bold, and extremely un-Wal-Mart-like, behavior?
Silence. Not a single major mainstream U.S. media outlet has done a story on either the new shrimp or fish standards. (London’s Financial Times did a story on the wild fish standards that did little but summarize Wal-Mart’s own press release.) Wal-Mart’s two noisiest critics, the pressure groups Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, claim to want nothing more than to see Wal-Mart change its behavior for the better — but neither so much as acknowledged the fisheries news. Let alone praised it.
Wal-Mart, of course, should be doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because it gets good publicity. Still, if the change is important, why the silence? Are the media, and Wal-Mart’s critics, simply unwilling to give the company credit when it takes criticism seriously? Or is the cynicism about Wal-Mart’s behavior justified?
Tomorrow, a look at one arena where Wal-Mart claims to be taking both public criticism, and social responsibility, seriously — and where the company now has a track record that goes back more than a decade.
Fast Company senior writer Charles Fishman, who has been with the magazine since Issue #1, is the author of a bestselling book about Wal-Mart, The Wal-Mart Effect, which grew out of a story he wrote for Fast Company called, “The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know.” (A chapter of the book was excerpted in Fast Company‘s January/February issue, “The Man Who Said No to Wal-Mart.”)
We’ve asked Charles Fishman to guest-host the Fast Company blog this week, to do a series of postings on the ways Wal-Mart is talking about changing its business; to look at how seriously we should take those changes; to consider their possible wider impact, and Wal-Mart’s chances for success.