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February 8, 2011

Apparel and Seafood: Paving the road to values-based living with questions

by Rob Snyder

Prince Charles and Yvon Chouinard both gave keynote addresses at the recent Seafood Choices Alliance Seafood Summit in Vancouver B.C. While many were excited to hear from Prince Charles, of the two, I was most looking forward to listening to Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia clothing company.

I had been following the innovations at Patagonia since middle school when by chance I learned through reading a friend's Patagonia catalog that clothes could be made out of recycled milk jugs. Wow, really? This was remarkable to me, and although I couldn't afford the cloths, my eyes were opened to a world where the products that surround us hold far more of a story than meets the eye.

Yvon was born in Lisbon, Maine, the son of French Canadian immigrants. He is a personal hero, and someone I had always hoped to meet-but never expected to come across at a seafood event. Nevertheless, there we were, at a sustainable seafood conference in Vancouver. Apparel and fish? The similarities would become clear soon enough.

In the most casual of manners, Yvon talked about the importance of asking questions, not just the easy ones that come to mind first, but the questions that lay five layers below. The example he used was cotton, a central material in Patagonia clothing. In the early ‘90s Yvon asked where Patagonia's cotton came from and what was known about it. It turned out, not much was known.

He explained how his company soon learned that the cotton used in their clothing was actually 80 percent fiber and 20 percent chemicals. The chemicals were used to enhance the fiber and defoliate the pant for easier harvesting. Patagonia staff would learn that 25 percent of all the pesticides in the world are sprayed on cotton, a crop that represents 3 percent of agricultural production.

More questions came to mind as Yvon and others visited the places where the company was buying their cotton-he found valleys and basins that did not drain and communities that had cancer rates that were 10 percent higher than the national average. While exploring the trajectory of the toxic cottonseed oil byproduct from cotton mills, they learned that it was sent to cattle feed lots and it would be used as an ingredient in processed foods. Cotton dyes were no better. The dying facilities they were sourcing from were killing rivers in Europe.

Asking questions led to choices and change: The company gave itself 18 months to stop buying standard lots of cotton and move to organic product. And they encountered setbacks-the farms that agreed to grow organic cotton could not get financed, so Patagonia had to secure their financing in order to move forward. 

Finally, when they had an organic supply, the early lots of organic cotton they produced were a disaster-filled with sticks and twigs-"like bad pot" he said to a roar from the audience. 

It took many years for Patagonia to move to entirely organic cotton clothes. It required asking many difficult questions, finding what alternative choices could be made, and ultimately remaining committed to a set of values that privilege the environment, healthy living and quality. Rather than drawing parallels to seafood, Yvon challenged the audience of seafood industry groups and NGOs to ask these same questions about fish and commit to making changes.

The first order questions about the fish in the ocean were asked long ago. Early answers to these questions suggested to consumers that over-fished species were being marketed in ways that covered up their source (Chilean Sea Bass), that some fish were mercury-laden (tuna) and that destructive fishing practices meant that fishermen were an enemy of healthy oceans. Major players in the seafood industry such as Walmart, Darden and McDonalds are working overtime to correct these issues, as consumers increasingly demand to know more about the sources of their food.

What values speak to a vision for seafood that resembles the commitments that Patagonia has made to apparel? The discussions at the seafood summit would indicate that a consensus is emerging around a series of second order questions: traceability, transparency, quality and affordability. Can we create local, regional and global traceability of product from sea to plate? What can be done through technology and other means to create transparency in the seafood value chain between producers, processors and consumers? How do we unlock the production of high quality fish at an affordable price-after all, as Yvon pointed out, healthy seafood should not only be for the rich.

These questions are driving rapid changes throughout the seafood industry. The early adapters in the seafood industry, like Patagonia in apparel, stand to do very well while organizing around these values. Businesses like North Atlantic Seafood, the Ready brothers of Catch a Piece of Maine, and others are setting a trajectory for an equivalency to organic cotton in the seafood marketplace. They are grappling with these questions, knowing that to avoid them will only further impair the health of the oceans, our health as consumers and our fishing community economies.

Rob Snyder is executive vice-president at the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine.

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