Ocean Disclosure Project: a case study on transparency

Ocean Disclosure Project Overview (PDF)

In April, 2017 the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) announced that, through its Ocean Disclosure Project (ODP), US retailer Publix would move to publish a list of all of the fisheries from which they source seafood, as well as information on management at those fisheries, catch method, and environmental impact.

As Blake Lee-Harwood of SFP said regarding corporate transparency, “The public disclosure of sustainability performance data has allowed investors to better understand the risks in their portfolios, has stimulated companies to benchmark themselves against others, and has hugely increased public accountability.”

Similarly, we heard from many organizations and companies we interviewed that transparency is simply a credible way to communicate a company’s good management practices to customers, investors, and supply chain partners. Read more background on Transparency >>

The following case study on the Ocean Disclosure Project is the first in a series of case studies that will delve more deeply into companies’ approach to transparency, the catalyst for change, how they prioritized, the return on investment, and finally how they’re adapting for the future. SeaWeb asked SFP to explain their approach to supply chain transparency in seafood. Click on the topics below to learn more.

This conversation will continue at the 2017 SeaWeb Seafood Summit in Seattle, June 5-7, where Blake Lee-Harwood, the SFP’s Communications & Strategy Director, will lead a session titled: “Where Did You Get That Fish?” – A New Trend For Transparency In The Seafood Industry. We hope you will continue the discussion with us there.

The Ocean Disclosure Project (ODP) approaches transparency through a voluntary disclosure process. We do this because voluntary disclosure of sustainability performance data by the private sector has proven to be a powerful tool for driving change, for example through initiatives such as the Carbon Disclosure Project (now known as CDP). The public disclosure of sustainability performance data has allowed investors to better understand the risks in their portfolios, has stimulated companies to benchmark themselves against others, and has hugely increased public accountability.

These are the main arguments SFP uses to encourage participation in the ODP:

  • Commitments to sustainable or responsible sourcing without public metrics are meaningless. Any company that expects to have its sustainable seafood commitments taken seriously needs to have the metrics to prove it.
    Transparency is a phenomenon in many other sectors (e.g. forestry), and represents good practice for responsible industry.
  • If you have invested in the costs of traceability you might as well prove it to the public by disclosing the sources.
    Participation in the ODP gives strong public positioning to responsible companies and exposes commercial rivals that lack traceability systems or have failed to address sustainability in their supply chain
  • The ODP is cheap! Companies just need to supply a list of source fisheries to SFP
  • ODP is a useful marketing tool for suppliers, and a useful way to offer reassurance to customers and explain how their sustainability commitments are being met
  • ODP is an important tool for communicating with investors about the sustainability of the resource base used by the company and a proof point for CSR commitments (important for responsible/ethical investors)

We launched in 2015 with a goal to provide a useful common reference point for anyone interested in sustainable seafood. Right from the start it was decided that companies would be encouraged to report on a common template that would provide intelligible data, rather than the rather patchwork quilt approach that existed then.

Our aim is to provide consistent and revealing metrics that can be derived from data that a company can provide easily and cheaply. The spirit of the ODP is about full disclosure, and frank admission of the problems yet to be solved, and we viewed any kind of ranking as threatening and undermining of that spirit.

When the project began it was anticipated that the first objection from companies would be around commercial confidentiality, but in fact we don’t hear that argument very often. Once we made it clear that no one was going to reveal suppliers or volumes it was relatively easy to find the first five companies to participate in the pilot phase (or maybe they were just very brave!).

We have spent a lot of time experimenting with different formats, indicators and methodologies and we have not quite got it right yet. At the moment we focus on:

  • The identity of the fishery
  • The nationality of the catcher
  • The gear type
  • The presence of certifications and improvement projects
  • An assessment of whether the fishery is ‘well managed’, ‘managed’ or ‘needs improvement’.

We also provide some notes on typical environmental impacts because there’s no easy way of scoring such things in a consistent manner.

SFP’s belief is that corporate transparency can only benefit those who seek better-managed fisheries. There are a number of use-cases for transparency:

  • It allows companies to showcase their achievements while also pointing at problems that still need to be addressed;
  • NGOs can access the data that they need to promote sustainable seafood;
  • Responsible investors that value sustainability can see how the companies they invest in are performing;
  • And consumers, journalists and others can see for themselves exactly where the fish come from and how those fisheries are being managed.

Companies that participate in the ODP see benefits almost immediately. By setting up an ODP profile, companies see where all their fish come from and the associated risks, and they often see issues that may have been missed. It also acts like a great bridge between the company’s sustainability team and the buyers by giving them a practical way to understand each other and work on a common project.

Once an ODP profile is published it usually gains a lot of positive feedback (including from NGOs like Greenpeace in the UK), and can serve as a tool for communicating with customers. For instance, some of the aquaculture feed manufacturers in the ODP use their profiles to demonstrate compliance with ASC and GAA BAP feed standards. Other companies use the ODP as an alternative to completing NGO questionnaires about sustainable sourcing.

At a more generic level, the ODP acts like a very visible badge of responsibility for a company and sends a clear corporate message that “a) we know where our fish come from, b) we understand the challenges and c) we are taking action to sort out the problems.”

The feedback we have received from ODP participants is very positive. Andrew Young, Food Policy Development Manager for Co-operative Food in the UK, said, “As a responsible retailer, we are committed to being open and honest to customers about the way we source our products. Supporting the Ocean Disclosure Project will help to drive a new level of transparency and confidence amongst our customers by showing the lengths we go to ensure all our own brand fish is responsibly sourced.”

The future looks bright for the ODP and we continue to add companies to the list of participants. The UK portfolio is almost complete and we have our first US participants joining in early 2017.

Moving forward, we are considering including ratings from other NGOs like the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the US or the Marine Conservation Society in the UK. We have also spent some time thinking about which certifications we would accept as defining a fishery as ‘certified,’ but from 2017 we plan to only accept those that meet the GSSI benchmark.

Our biggest challenge now is to find a way to extend the ODP to aquaculture, which has huge enthusiasm for joining this effort. This is because aquaculture works at a different level than wild fisheries – a farm is roughly the equivalent of a boat in a fishery, but we seek to frame ODP at the production zone level.

Another challenge is the format of the report. Currently, ODP company profiles only exist in PDFs. In the future we would like to create a standard database to house the whole data set and allow users to apply their own search criteria.

Now that we have proven that disclosure via the ODP does not present any threat to commercial confidentiality, and in fact brings many benefits, we are hoping that recruitment of companies will rapidly accelerate and that the ODP can become a global platform for disclosing data about sustainable seafood.

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