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Tesco joins alliance to improve seafood supply chain sustainability

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Following an external audit of its seafood supply chain,  UK retailer Tesco has joined the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership to support its implementation of more sustainable practices. 

  • Tesco has joined the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) to address bycatch risks identified within its supply chain.
  • Bycatch is one of the greatest threats to marine life, but around 75% of leading European food retailers have a near-total lack of safeguarding policies in place. 
  • As public scrutiny intensifies, the business case for supply chain improvement is growing stronger. Recent developments suggest we may finally see a shift away from corporate greenwashing towards more dedicated commitments with more meaningful impact. 

What is the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership? 

The Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) is a globally operating non-profit organisation which aims to address the environmental and social impacts of fishing and fish farming. 

It works in collaboration with retailers, brands and foodservice companies, using their influence to promote improvements throughout seafood supply chains.  

The organisation manages several fishery and aquaculture improvement projects, hosts roundtable discussions where attendees can share their experience, provides customised risk analysis using its own metrics system, and encourages its members to participate in its Open Disclosure Project (OPD). 

Its OPD is an online platform that enables companies to publicly disclose the details of their seafood supply chains, including any policies or commitments regarding sustainability. 

Disclosed audit raises alarm bells 

It was this process of auditing and open disclosure that led to Tesco’s decision to join the SFP, as alarm bells were raised by an independent audit conducted by the SFP, Whale and Dolphin Conservation and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The auditors assessed the potential risks to ocean wildlife within the fisheries that supply Tesco’s seafood.  Specifically, they examined the risk of larger marine animals being accidentally captured by commercial fisheries. The capture of non-target species, commonly referred to as ‘bycatch’, is one of the greatest known threats to marine wildlife.

The audit revealed several risks within Tesco’s tuna, salmon, shrimp, prawn, cod and lobster supply chains, each of which included fisheries using equipment that poses a threat to other animals.

Tesco disclosed its audit voluntarily via the SFP’s open disclosure initiative, and has joined the partnership with key targets in place such as the implementation of 100% observer coverage on all vessels within its supply chain and its transition to an ‘ecosystem-based’ fisheries management approach by 2030. 

Ian Romanis, global markets deputy director of the SFP said, “as a result of the audit, Tesco can prioritise areas for change and use it as an example to encourage other retailers to take similar action to protect ocean wildlife through their sourcing practices”. 

“We identified specific actions to rapidly improve effective monitoring at sea including observer coverage in priority fisheries and are pressing for improved implementation of effective measures to stop bycatch, especially in the risky longline fisheries for tuna. These measures have existed and been required for years, but compliance is lacking – we hope this process helps to change that”, adds Rory Crawford, bycatch programme manager at RSPB. 

Public scrutiny drives corporate action 

Tesco’s environmental and social practices have had a rocky history. 

As the UK’s largest supermarket chain, it has been criticised for a number of ethical issues including palm oil consumption, insubstantial environmental reporting, habitat destruction, pollution, human rights abuse and engaging in anti-social finance. 

The brand has been subject to a high degree of public scrutiny, including a large-scale protest against the deforestation resulting from its meat supply chain.  

Led by Greenpeace UK, a petition was launched demanding that the company stop purchasing meat from companies owned by major industrial meat supplier JBS. To date, the petition has received almost 265,000 signatures. In more direct action, the message “Tesco meat = deforestation” was written in chalk outside more than 200 of the retailer’s stores. 

More recently, in June 2022, Tesco was in the spotlight again when the Advertising Standards Authorities placed a ban on one of its advertising campaigns. The company had promoted its own-brand plant-based burgers as having environmental benefits that were accused of being ‘misleading’. 

This history could prompt concerns that Tesco’s latest sustainability initiative is simply another case of greenwash.  

Taking a more optimistic perspective, it is worth acknowledging that public scrutiny over corporate sustainability is on the rise, and that this could prompt a genuine shift towards more meaningful corporate action.

In 2021, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published its Green Claims Code, establishing clear guidance on how businesses should go about accurately communicating their green credentials. 

Following an initial bedding-in period, the CMA has begun reviewing corporate sustainability claims in a bid to protect consumers from being misled. Such initiatives demonstrate the growing pressure against major corporations to begin cleaning up their act.

Not only are buyers becoming increasingly committed to purchasing from companies that share their values, they are also growing more empowered to do so. New channels of communication have allowed passive consumption to be replaced by higher expectations of open engagement and transparent disclosure. 

Companies that fail to adjust to these expectations are subjected to highly publicised shaming, as evidenced by the protests launched against Tesco.   

Whether for the sake of their reputation or due to increasing recognition that the long-term viability of their business is dependent on maintaining sustainable supplies, UK supermarkets appear to be taking these issues seriously.

The motivation behind such a shift is not necessarily important. What matters most is the measurable impact of actions taken.

Although the outcomes of Tesco’s collaboration with the SFP are yet to be seen, it is promising to see UK supermarkets diverting significant resources towards the sustainability of their supply chains.

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