Case Study: Unilever

An examination of how, through working with suppliers and WWF, Unilever established a certification system to manage the supplies it purchases and minimise the impact it has on world fish stocks.

Fish stocks worldwide are in serious decline: 48 per cent are fully exploited, 16 per cent overfished, and 9 per cent depleted, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO).

Unilever is one of the world’s biggest buyers of fish. Their fish business relies on access to dependable supplies into the future. In the UK there is well documented evidence of the depletion of cod supplies from the North Sea and over the past decade Unilever has been encouraging production of sustainable sources of fish for the UK market.

In 1996, Unilever began working with the WWF to help establish a certification programme for sustainable fisheries – known as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). This became an independent non-profit organisation in 1999. Under the MSC programme, fisheries voluntarily apply for independent assessment to see if they meet strict environmental standards for sustainable and well managed fisheries. If they pass, then products from the fishery can display the MSC eco-label.

“We buy fish from around 100 suppliers, with whom we have long-term relationships, contracting to take agreed quantities over a set period,” says Dierk Peters, International Marketing Manager. “To secure our fish supplies in the long term, we need to work closely with them to bring about change in the management of fish stocks and fisheries practices.”

A dedicated Unilever sustainability manager assesses each fishery against five indicators: fisheries research; quota system; regulatory tools; control systems; long-term management plan. The effect of fishing on marine ecosystems is also taken into account.

The assessment is graded into a traffic light system. A fishery that gets all green is deemed sustainable and Unilever encourages them to seek certification to the MSC Standard. Those that show a mix of green and yellow are deemed managed and progressing, and those that get one or more red, poorly managed. Unilever categorise a fishery as unmanaged if it scores red against all five indicators.

“We no longer source from fisheries that are unmanaged, but do continue to support those that are making good progress towards sustainability,” says Dierk Peters.

However, the switch to sustainable sources of fish faces two challenges: not only supply but also demand. On the supply side, Unilever continues to work with fisheries, but the MSC certification process is new and takes time.

“The MSC programme hinges on finding incentives for fisheries to change their management practices, and the biggest incentive is customer demand,” says MSC’s Communications Manager, Jessica Wenban-Smith.

Increasingly, shoppers can choose fish products that bear the MSC logo. The logo provides the assurance that the fish comes from sustainable fisheries, independently certified to the MSC Standard. Nearly 250 products made by different companies worldwide now carry the MSC logo.

“Certification completes the link from fishermen to consumers, allowing us to include on-pack information – in the form of a well recognised, reputable logo – that allows consumers to demonstrate to suppliers that sustainable fishing counts,” says Unilever Non-Executive Chairman, Antony Burgmans.

However, consumers are still understandably resistant to change without good reason. In the UK Unilever are limiting the use of cod – now severely overfished in some areas – and introducing sustainably sourced alternatives.

“We need to help consumers understand the environmental reasons for these changes and find ways to reassure them that eating a new type of fish does not mean compromising on quality or price,” says Dierk Peters, Unilever International Marketing Manager. “We are continuing to work with the Marine Stewardship Council and others in the food industry to raise consumer awareness of the benefits of sustainable fishing.”

By the end of 2004, Unilever was buying more than half of its fish from sustainable sources and is expecting to reach about 60% in 2005.

MSC-labelled sustainable fish products can now be bought in Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.

Editors’ Notes

Unilever’s work with fisheries is one of their three sustainability initiatives, alongside agriculture and water. Conserving biodiversity – as set out in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity – is central to all three initiatives.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an independent, global, non-profit organisation with its head office based in London, UK. In a bid to reverse the continued decline in the world’s fisheries, the MSC is seeking to harness consumer purchasing power to generate change and promote environmentally responsible stewardship of the world’s most important renewable food source.


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