Schooling customers in sustainable consumption

Schooling by Benson Kua

new development in the way Whole Foods displays its seafood has me thinking about how consumers use information in their decisions. The supermarket chain recently started labeling the seafood in its fresh cases with a color-coded system to indicate the sustainability of fishing practices for each type of fish offered. (For example, fish in danger of being over-harvested, or caught using ecologically damaging practices, are labeled Red or “Avoid.”)

Initially, I thought this was an odd move: why carry “Avoid” fish at all? But if I consider the Whole Foods tactic as an information strategy, there seem to be some advantages to giving consumers more data related to their purchases, rather than simply adjusting prices or changing the variety of products offered. I have tried to identify and outline the important components of the Whole Foods information strategy in my analysis below.

Consumers act in a social setting in a supermarket. A consumer may be less likely to order an “Avoid” species in front of other customers, even if she does not personally worry about collapsing fisheries. The social pressure to responsibly consume could impact on the overall demand for certain species.

Perhaps more importantly, consumers gain lasting information from a single transaction. The next time a consumer purchases fish – even if it is not at Whole Foods – he may likely remember certain species labeled “Avoid.” In this way, the labeling tactic could inspire a shift in demand throughout the marketplace, or at the very least cause consumers to ask more questions about the origin of their seafood.

Prices are point-in-time data, and may inaccurately reflect the sustainability of consumption. We suspect many fisheries may be close to collapse, and the negative impact of fishing practices worldwide will affect all points of the food chain. We are not able to price a salmon fillet to capture the opportunity cost of fisheries collapse (the 1992 collapse of the Northern Cod fishery demonstrates some of the complexities of gauging the health of a fishery). Consumers need more information than price alone to make sustainable choices.

Whole Foods sends a powerful message about its perceived role as a corporate citizen. Corporations are supposed to care about the profits in this period or this year. However, sustainable practices require a longer view than quarterly (or even annual) earnings statements can offer. By giving consumers more information, Whole Foods takes the long view on the seafood market, the importance of ocean ecology, and its place as a food retailer, while continuing to give consumers optimum choice.

We are surrounded by information constantly. Curiously, though, the information available to us as consumers in the grocery store is truncated by federal regulations, and in some cases, state laws. The seafood labeling practice at Whole Foods demonstrates the possibilities of giving consumers clear, salient information to encourage sustainable and healthy choices in the supermarket.

(You don’t have to go to Whole Foods Market to refer to the Seafood Watch guidelines. Downloadable guides are available through the Monterey Bay Aquarium.)

Photo by bensonkua. Available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

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