Complete Society

Ideas and strategies for a sustainable world

Walmart & seafood: 2 very big pictures

One of the amazing things to appreciate in my first moments at Presidio is the breadth of incredible experiences my classmates bring to the program and the community. Just one example – a spontaneous conversation during a walk to Starbucks revealed that one classmate knows almost everything about sustainable seafood. Recounting a meeting he had with the CEO of Walmart’s seafood division, he gave two different examples of what the big picture really means starting from Walmart’s commitment to sell only seafood that have been sustainably fished or farmed.

Start with the shrimp industry. Right away, you realize that there aren’t enough suppliers *in the world* with sustainable practices to provide all the shrimp that Walmart sells. So, Walmart could have just said, we’ll take what we can get and that’s the best we can do. Reasonable approach that no one would really fault them for.

But, the power of commitment (and seeing the big picture) can result in step changes that move the world forward. What Walmart actually did was buy up just about every shrimp farming operation in Thailand and convert them all to sustainable practices. That’s using their power and commitment to make a big difference but it’s also business savvy: getting ahead of the curve on anticipated demand for sustainable shrimp and opening up a whole new level of competition with the likes of Whole Foods.

The second story shows some of the perils of huge scale. Walmart also wants all of its wild fish to be sustainably “harvested”. But, scientific experts have told them that its ecologically impossible to sustainably fish the amount that Walmart needs each year. In other words, the demand just from Walmart customers already exceeds the “peak fish” amount the planet can provide ongoing. (Note: see update below)

When asked about this, the Walmart executive actually gave a shortsighted answer: These fisheries are certified sustainable now. Ignoring the big picture realization that the whole system can’t support their objective as is.

Thinking about these stories provides an interesting challenge/exercise for anyone working on sustainability. Consider what your commitment/project/objective looks like at Walmart scale. Does what you’re trying to accomplish work at the global level, for hundreds of millions of people?

Update:  See the comment from the Marine Stewardship council below.  I”ve updated the blog post above to correct the mistake about shrimp farming being MSC certified.  My classmate likely never said that – my mistake.  The statement above about ‘peak fish’ may be wrong also – I haven’t done any deeper research on that


August 21, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,


  1. wow- interesting that Walmart can buy up nearly all the shrimp farms in Thailand. wonder how that changes the local micro-economies, and speaks to Walmart’s power at the macroeconomic level as well.

    and how we all eat a heck of a lot of fish.

    (to answer your question, i am not sure what i do even works at the nano-level, of just my household.)

    Comment by lag2 | August 22, 2008 | Reply

  2. Thank you for your posting about Wal-Mart’s commitment to sourcing only sustainable seafood. Wal-mart’s leadership is a very important motivator for fisheries that supply Wal-mart to ensure that their practices meet the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) internationally recognized standard for sustainable, environmentally responsible fishing. However, I must correct your (or your classmate’s) erroneous statement about Wal-Mart buying shrimp farms in Thailand and converting them to MSC standards. The MSC standard applies only to wild capture fisheries and we do not certify aquaculture, thus no seafood farming operations in Thailand or elsewhere are MSC-certified. Additionally, Wal-Mart’s levels of seafood sales do not exceed “peak levels” that can be sustained globally. Seafood is one of the largest globally traded commodities in the world (greater than coffee, tea and cocoa combined) and Wal-Mart is just one part of that picture. Seafood, managed properly, is a sustainable resource. I encourage your readers interested in sustainable seafood to visit for more information, and to ask retailers and restaurants for the MSC’s blue eco-label. The label assures the fish was sustainably caught and traced throughout the supply chain until purchase by the end consumer.


    Kerry Coughlin
    Communications Director, Americas
    Marine Stewardship Council

    Comment by Kerry Coughlin, Marine Stewardship Council | August 25, 2008 | Reply

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