How Sustainable and Ethical Is the Tuna at Your Supermarket?
Was the tuna at your local supermarket caught sustainably by people treated humanely and paid a living wage?
Greenpeace released its second annual report Monday ranking 16 major U.S. supermarkets on the environmental and human rights bonafides of their tuna supply chains. It turns out that only one of them managed to score higher than an F. However, the purpose of the report isn’t to shame retailers but rather to give shoppers the tools they need to encourage them to do better.
“As a consumer, you have an incredible amount of power because your wallet is casting a vote,” Greenpeace senior oceans campaigner and report editor Marilu Cristina Flores told EcoWatch in an interview. “And so we’re just hopeful that consumers will see this report, will understand these issues, and will engage in their communities to help stop some of these crimes on the High Seas.”
From an environmental or human rights perspective, there are many ways that tuna fishing can go wrong. For one thing, vessels can simply take too many fish from the sea. Five of the 23 main commercial tuna stocks are either already overfished or are in the process of being overfished. For another, fishers themselves can be forced to work in dangerous or unjust conditions. Take the Taiwanese vessel Da Wang. In April of 2022, its leadership was indicted for forced labor and human trafficking, as Greenpeace detailed in an earlier report. That same month, tuna sourced from the boat ended up in Bumble Bee cans for sale at a Harris Teeter — a Kroger subsidiary — in Arlington, Virginia. Further, the tuna was caught during a 2019 trip during which a fisher on Da Wang died after sustaining a beating. And this is just one of the 100,000 fishing industry deaths that tragically take place every year.
In fishing, as in other industries, exploitation of nature and workers is linked. Vessels that engage in Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) fishing practices are also more likely to be the sites of worker deaths and other abuses. Moreover, a similar motivation fuels both unsustainable fishing and unfair labor practices.
“If we catch more, we can make more. If we fish for longer hours or if we hire fishers for lower pay, we can make more money, right?” Flores said. “And so the crux in all of it really is greed. And I think that that’s really what drives some of the bad players to make the decisions that they do when it comes to people’s rights and livelihoods and when it comes to our environment.”
Greenpeace believes that U.S. supermarkets and their customers can play an important role in cleaning up tuna supply chains because the U.S. is one of the world’s main tuna importers and grocery stores make massive profits from selling it — raking in nearly four times more than the $11 billion that tuna vessels earned in 2018.
“[U.S.] retailers have the economic power to influence change in the global tuna industry, mainly through their sourcing decisions and business practices,” the study authors wrote.
Ranking the Retailers
To that end, Greenpeace published “The High Cost of Cheap Tuna: [U.S.] Supermarkets, Sustainability and Human Rights at Sea.” The purpose of the report is to rank major retailers so that both they and their customers know what they can do better. To accomplish this, Greenpeace sent the retailers a survey asking them to answer 39 questions related to six major categories:
- Tuna Procurement Policy
- Advocacy & Initiatives
- Human Rights & Labor Protections
- Current Sourcing
- Customer Education & Labeling
Based on their answers, the companies were given a score for both the environmental sustainability and human rights compliance of their policies. This year, 11 out of 16 companies agreed to participate in the survey. These were Ahold Delhaize, Albertsons, Aldi, Giant Eagle, Hy-Vee, The Kroger Company, Meijer, Southeastern Grocers, Sprouts Farmers Market, Target and Whole Foods. Costco, HEB, Publix, Walmart and Wegmans did not take the surveys, and so Greenpeace ranked them based on research into their publicized policies, inventory, working group membership and other details.
Overall, the survey results revealed that none of the companies are doing particularly well, especially when it comes to human rights. Indeed, none of the stores earned a passing grade in this category.
Aldi U.S. was the only company to receive an all-around passing score of 61.51 percent, the equivalent of a D. This broke down into a 70 percent for environmental policies and a 56 percent for human rights.
Only Whole Foods — which came in third overall — also had a passing score on the environment at 75 percent.
Rounding out the top five scores were Ahold Delhaize in the No. 2 slot, Hy-Vee in fourth place and Target in fifth. The worst scoring companies were Meijer at 16 percent, Wegman’s at 17 percent, Southeastern Grocers at 18 percent, Publix at 19 percent and H-E-B at 24 percent. But for everyone, the takeaway message is that more work needs to be done.
“Grocery retailers continue to turn a blind eye to the worst abuses at sea,” Greenpeace USA oceans campaigner Mallika Talwar said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. “Even as customers press clothing manufacturers and other economic sectors to respect human rights and labor standards, the abuses in tuna fisheries continue unchecked. These fleets need to both implement and follow much stronger labor and environmental standards — these workers, like all others, deserve safe workplaces and decent wages.”
That said, there were signs of progress embedded in the report, including the fact that it was published at all. Greenpeace has been surveying retailers on their sustainability policies since 2008, but this was only the second year that it included human rights as well, reflecting growing awareness and activism around this issue.
Greenpeace noted that human rights awareness in the tuna industry today is around where environmental sustainability was a decade ago. Flores said this was likely due to the distant, hard-to-monitor nature of fishing on the open ocean.
“It’s the Wild, Wild West,” she said.
In addition, fishers subject to workplace abuses were often afraid to speak up. However, she said reports like this one are helping to turn the tide.
“Even in the last six to eight months, things are progressing very quickly in this space,” she said.
This is reflected in the corporate response. Two more companies responded to the survey in 2022 than in 2021, and many of the stores that responded provided more detailed answers. Aldi became the first company to earn a passing grade, no company’s total score went down and some went up by more than five or seven points. The score of one retailer — Sprouts — jumped by 14.91 percent.
Moving forward, Greenpeace has several suggestions for what stores can do to earn passing grades. One major issue is transhipment, in which fish or other wildlife cargo is moved from one vessel to another, allowing the fishing vessel to stay on the High Seas for longer periods of time. Because this vessel is less likely to be monitored, it is more likely to engage in IUU fishing or unfair labor practices. Most of the retailers in the report had no policies against transhipment at all, while Ahold, Aldi, Albertsons, Giant Eagle, Hy-Vee, Sprouts and Target allow transhipment with 100 percent observation. Greenpeace argues that this is insufficient, however, because real world observation rates are low and observers are not empowered to report on labor issues.
“Greenpeace wants retailers to commit to completely phasing out buying fish from companies that allow transshipment,” Flores said.
Other steps they can take include sourcing from vessels using Port States that have signed the International Labor Organization Work in Fishing Convention of 2007 and not rely exclusively on outside audits to assess the human rights issues in their supply chains.
Customers can help hold their grocery stores to account by choosing to shop at chains that have both environmental and human rights policies in place. They can also go further by emailing, calling or writing to store leadership to advocate for these policies, Flores said.
“If we’re going to have significant progress on this, it’s really going to take the consumers to reach out to their grocers… whether it’s a grocery store manager or their regional grocery store manager, let them know that these issues are important to them,” she told EcoWatch.