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

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August 21, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments