Five years on: Progress and opportunities for the Sustainable Seafood Coalition

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In 2011, ClientEarth brought together leading seafood retailers, suppliers, brands and foodservice outlets in the UK to tackle a shared issue: sustainable sourcing and labelling in the seafood industry.

Together, we created the Sustainable Seafood Coalition (SSC) – a voluntary, progressive partnership of businesses selling seafood in the UK with a shared commitment to responsible sourcing. ClientEarth helped develop voluntary Codes of Conduct signed by SSC members in 2015, marking a pivotal moment in developing best practices for sustainability in the industry.

In the five years since establishing the Codes of Conduct, the SSC has grown to include 40 members, including eight of the UK’s ten biggest food retailers. It has offered businesses practical and collaborative ways to improve their sourcing policies – and has even shared best practices globally.

As the SSC Secretariat, ClientEarth reflects on the initiative’s beginnings, its success so far, and how the Coalition hopes to lead on sustainability in the future.

Filling the legislative gap

In the UK, there is a lack of legislation defining environmental claims made about seafood by businesses.

Existing EU legislation only requires fish products to be labelled with the species name, its approximate catch area, and whether it was caught or farmed in fresh or sea water. It has no control over using terms like ‘sustainable’ or ‘responsible’. This can lead to voluntary environmental claims made on retail seafood products that are misleading and unverified.

In 2013, the EU passed a new regulation that ‘environmental information’ be provided on a voluntary basis for seafood, providing it is ‘clear and unambigious’. However, the law does not specify any parameters to ensure consistency.

In response to this, ClientEarth instigated a platform to develop industry-led voluntary commitments on how to responsibly source and label seafood in the UK.

Creating industry-wide best practices for sustainability

ClientEarth helped develop two Codes of Conduct – the Labelling Code and the Sourcing Code – which ensure consistency and minimum criteria standards are established in areas where laws are insufficient or non-existent.

“SSC members came together to agree on what terms like ‘sustainability’ and ‘responsibility’ actually mean in relation to seafood,” says Oliver Tanqueray, Sustainable Seafood Coalition Coordinator. “This helped us develop clear guidelines to make sure voluntary environmental claims made by businesses are clear, consistent and meaningful.”

One condition in the SSC Codes is that the terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘responsible’ are not used in isolation, but specified, such as ‘sustainably sourced’ or ‘responsibly farmed’. It also means businesses commit to annual risk assessments, ensuring public transparency, and making sure seafood  can be traced to its source.

SSC members commit to align their sourcing and labelling practices with the Codes of Conduct within a year of joining the Coalition. This means all own-brand products should be sourced and labelled in line with agreed standards.

Making an impact, at home and abroad

The SSC has already made an impact on the industry. In 2017, an independent sustainability consultant found that that consistent labelling in the UK had increased by 15% since the SSC was founded.

It also found that, of 80 products assessed, 97% of voluntary environmental claims from SSC members used language in line with the SSC Labelling Code. On the flip side, 14% of environmental claims made by non-SSC member businesses did not align with SSC labelling best practices, compared to only 3% of SSC members.

“One of the great things about the SSC is that it has been recognised as a world-leading platform for leveraging market influence to achieve positive change,” says Tanqueray. “Businesses in the seafood industry that are not SSC members still look to our Codes as informal standards by which to measure their own practices. This influence helps move the sustainability dial in the right direction for the entire industry.”

The impact of the SSC is not limited to the UK. ClientEarth is asked by emerging initiatives all over the world for advice on mirroring the SSC model.

For example, the Hong Kong Sustainable Seafood Coalition was able to establish itself in the market three times faster than the initial UK platform by adopting SSC Codes of Conduct as its model. To bolster global collaboration, ClientEarth also convenes the Dialogue for Pre-Competitive Collaboration Platforms, which brings similar international initiatives together to catalyse global progress.

New initiatives and future goals

ClientEarth and SSC members are continually trying to strengthen sustainability guidelines as we look to the future.

From 2018-2019, we helped build updated risk assessment templates for sourcing both wild and farmed seafood. These templates provide new tools for businesses to identify environmental metrics for their seafood sources, and find areas for improvement within current sourcing practices.

Efforts to improve UK sustainability in the seafood industry has also resulted in advocacy initiatives. Last year, UK retailers launched a global campaign to reform management of the North East Atlantic Mackerel stock. This was spurred by the SSC commitment to improve problematic areas within supply chains – in this case, the failure of coastal state co-management in setting appropriate fishing quotas for mackerel.

As the SSC looks ahead, identifying problematic areas within supply chains and mitigating harmful environmental impacts of overfishing will be a priority.

Tanqueray says, “The vision of ClientEarth and the SSC is that all fish and seafood sold in the UK is from sustainable sources. In the coming years, we hope to bring more of the industry on board, build new alliances, and promote responsible and sustainable seafood at the consumer, business and government levels in the UK and beyond.”