Consumer demand spurs a corporate sea change

Here’s your weekly Science Matters column by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.

Consumer demand spurs a corporate sea change

Protecting our planet is no longer seen as a fringe activity. Most people now consider themselves to be environmentally aware and are taking steps to help. Caring for the environment has become mainstream – it’s the "new normal". And that’s refreshing!

The environmental problems we face today are so serious that people from all sectors of society must work together to solve them. That’s why it’s so heartening to see an increasing number of corporations pitching in to protect nature and our planet’s ecosystems. From restaurants to grocery stores to clothing retailers, businesses are looking for ways to make their operations more sustainable and environmentally responsible. They’re taking tangible steps by offering better choices to consumers.

One of the best things about the growing number of environmentally responsible initiatives is that they demonstrate how powerful individual citizens can be. Businesses respond to consumer demand, and the right demands can result in real benefits for the environment. Some of the changes we’ve seen as a result of consumers using their power include reusable grocery bags, hybrid cars, locally grown and organic food in stores, products and clothing made with recycled materials, green buildings, and sustainable seafood in restaurants and stores.

So much can be achieved when people work together. Researchers at universities and environmental organizations often conduct studies and provide information. Citizens take that information and change their daily behaviour, sometimes by encouraging businesses to act on this new knowledge. Businesses respond by changing their practices and offering more sustainable choices. This in turn causes their suppliers to improve the way they produce their products.

One quickly growing consumer trend that has been satisfying to me is the increasing demand for sustainable seafood. My grandparents came to Canada from Japan because of the abundance of fish in our oceans. My most cherished childhood memories are of camping and fishing in B.C. But over the years, I’ve seen a lot of changes. Many of the fish species that were once so abundant are now in decline, with some facing extinction.

At the David Suzuki Foundation we’ve worked hard over the years with our allied organizations in the SeaChoice program to scientifically assess which fish and seafood species are still thriving and which are threatened by overfishing and habitat loss. We’ve also looked at aquaculture practices to see which ones provide food without harming the environment and which have unacceptable impacts like spreading parasites and disease to wild fish.

We’ve also been working with fisheries, aquaculture producers, and governments to translate the demand for sustainable seafood to real change in the oceans. After all, the end goal is to protect species and marine ecosystems.

We’ve used this information to inform people about the best and worst choices for seafood. And individuals have responded by demanding that stores and restaurants start offering sustainable choices and refraining from carrying species that are at risk or that are produced in a way that is harmful to the environment or to other species.

Fortunately, the tide has started to turn across Canada. Many chefs, restaurants, and seafood distributors are working with SeaChoice and other sustainable seafood programs to offer better options.

Recently, the Overwaitea Food Group, which operates 117 stores in 80 communities in Western Canada, agreed to collaborate with the David Suzuki Foundation and the SeaChoice initiative on a sustainable seafood program for its stores. The grocery chain is now working with us to develop and implement a six-point sustainability plan for buying and selling seafood. We’re at the beginning of the journey, but we commend Overwaitea for demonstrating leadership and committing to help improve the health of our oceans.

It was especially gratifying to hear the grocery chain’s president, Steve van der Leest, say that he chose to work with SeaChoice because when they started looking for experts to help out, we had the "best science" they could find.

Mr. van der Leest knows that switching to more sustainable seafood comes with challenges, including the fact that some sustainable fish can be more expensive than non-sustainable options, but he noted at a news conference that "Doing the right thing always pays off."

We couldn’t agree more. People everywhere should know that they can help businesses do the right thing by asking them to offer sustainable choices and by supporting businesses that do.

Science Matters has been running weekly since 1999. To read past columns, please visit

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