How collaborating with WWF helped Thai Union drive sustainability sector-wide

EXCLUSIVE: More corporations should consider partnering with public-sector organisations if they wish to go beyond improving their own sustainability strategies to drive industry-wide improvements, according to Thai Union’s award-winning global director of sustainable development, Darian McBain.

Since it first collaborated with WWF in 2014, Thai Union, the world’s largest tuna producer, has pledged to source all its branded tuna from fisheries that are either Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified or engaged in Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs), which see all the stakeholders in a fishery acting to make the fishery more sustainable, with the ultimate aim being certification.

McBain told edie that the seafood giant’s partnership with WWF had proved “pivotal” and “transformative” not just for the company, but for the fishery industry as a whole.

Speaking exclusively to edie, McBain explained that by pouring more than £67m ($90m) into initiatives that will increase the supply of sustainable tuna, including FIPs, through its ongoing four-year partnership with WWF, Thai Union had helped to spur an “evolution” in the way seafood manufacturers approach sustainability challenges, reframing them as “pre-competitive issues”.

“With fisheries, as will be the case in many other industries, you can really suffer from the tragedy of the common,” McBain told edie.

“If one actor such as Thai Union takes actions to become more sustainable, that does not mean that one fishery which may be used by other firms will become more sustainable. Working with a partner like WWF helps to impact other actors to take a much more collaborative approach.”

McBain – named as edie’s Sustainability Leader of Year for 2018 – added that by funding the five FIPs, with two more set to launch by the end of 2018, the partnership was ensuring that a “whole host of actors”, including fishing vessel operators, government-run fishing authorities and competitor businesses, were collectively taking steps to implement a suite of measures to reduce overfishing, preserve biodiversity and minimise the impact of ocean plastics on fish stocks.

Thai Union’s European brands, including John West, are registered on the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation’s Pro-Active Vessel Register – a database which encourages tuna vessel owners to identify their involvement in sustainability activities. Other examples of Thai Union extending its environmental efforts across the sector include the funding provided to WWF’s East Africa Regional Sustainable Fisheries programme, which has improved data on artisanal fish catches at 113 landing sites that are now included national fisheries reports.

This has amounted to sweeping improvements which proved to be greater than those which Thai Union would be able to achieve single-handedly, according to McBain. 

“We are reliant on governments, NGOs and competitors. We can’t control the entire sourcing systems process – but we can influence it through collaboration,” McBain said.

The progress from the partnership comes at a time when the United Nations (UN) has estimated that 70% of the world’s fisheries are either “fully exploited’, “overexploited” or “significantly depleted”. 

‘Mutually beneficial’

Within the firm’s own operations, McBain claims that partnership has enabled Thai Union to access the expertise it needed to strengthen its in-house sustainability representation and to create a more “joined-up” SeaChange sustainability strategy, putting it on track to ensure that 95% of the tuna sold by its European brands is either MSC-certified or sourced from FIPs by the end of this year.

It has also spurred the firm to improve its transparency measures, which now includes placing a “can tracker” code on all products to enable consumers to find out where their food came from, when it was caught and how it was fished by inputting the code online. 

Meanwhile, WWF has benefitted by being able to “directly influence” the standards set within the seafood market, which is set to grow as the population increases, McBain noted.

Going forward, the company believes that extending the collaboration for a further four years could enable competitors to follow suit and is “in discussion” with WWF about renewing the partnership until 2022 to make an even larger impact.

“We want to continue exploring what can be done to make commercial tuna more sustainable on an even larger scale,” McBain concluded.

“Our intention is to further our work across the industry because if one company is doing sustainability well, that won’t necessarily make a fishery sustainable.”

Sarah George

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