“Our planet’s lands and oceans are already stretched to meet the demands of 7 billion people. The human population continues to grow. The search for sustainable solutions is an economic and a moral imperative if we are to create the future we want.”
– Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General

fishesThe hunt for sustainable food options is underway, and millennials are driving this change. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, millennials care about animal welfare, are sensitive about their ecological footprint and desire positive social impact for the people producing their food. Already, millennials are leading consumer trends through purchasing decisions that demand sustainability, transparency and responsible corporate behavior.

In the US today, millennials are estimated to possess an annual buying power of US$200 billion – a number that could only keep growing as they advance in their careers. This strong market trend is being matched by an emerging pattern of large corporations investing in sustainable practices – even if the price tag seems hefty. Last year, Starbucks announced that 99% of all its roast is ethically sourced, after investing over US$70 million to ensure third-party verification; while the world’s largest retailer Walmart has just recently committed to cage-free eggs by 2025.

When it comes to seafood, however, the waters get a little more murky. While the millennial consumer is proven to be on the lookout for healthier and more sustainable food options, they can’t seem to find it easily with seafood.

 Know What’s In Your Sushi?

Unsustainable fishing practices are driving marine life to extinction. The FAO estimates that over 90% of all fisheries globally are overfished, with entire ecosystems under threat as population structures dwindle. As the main source of protein for half of the world’s population, especially in Asia, securing sustainable fisheries is critical to ensuring global food security.
Plenty is at stake here – the livelihoods of local fishers, who are finding it increasingly difficult to haul in fresh catch; businesses in the value-chain, which are concerned about going bust with fish stocks dwindling fast; entire marine ecosystems that may collapse; and – millennials may never know if they will always have access to sashimi!

For these reasons and more, the fishery industry is coming under scrutiny. The Sustainable Sushi Movement is a direct result of the push towards more responsible food sourcing, an attempt to satiate the millennials’ constant questioning of what goes into their food. Restaurants that are responding to the demand for sustainability are now purchasing more produce that has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) – the current gold standard for sustainable fisheries.

Fishy Business

Despite being one of the most important sources of protein in the developing world, the fish and seafood industry remains one of the most opaque and fragmented supply chains globally. Most upstream processing companies have little knowledge of the origins of the fish.

This is a particularly crippling problem in Southeast Asia, home to 4 of the top 10 fish producing countries in the world. Traceability of fish across the supply chain is a critical challenge. Without clear packaging and labelling, consumers are at a loss while making purchases. This was independently verified by IIX’s team through primary field research at a local supermarket as most of the fish was unlabelled, with minimal declarations of origin. Interviews with the local fish mongers revealed an apparent indifference towards the origins of the fish.

Certifications such as the MSC are hard to obtain, due to a lengthy and expensive certification process. And enveloping the entire debate is the problem of governance. Illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing is rampant, particularly in Asia, adding unique challenges to the traceability requirement for sustainable sourcing. IUU fishing reportedly costs Indonesia well over USD $3 billion a year, highlighting the severity of the problem.

Purchasing sustainably-sourced tuna is unfortunately not as easy as picking it off your local grocers’ shelf. Lack of transparency impedes sustainable consumption, while lack of knowledge on the magnitude of the problem promote consumer indifference. 

Cleaning up murky waters

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The growing influence of millennials is compelling private sector players such as seafood processing companies to change their ways. In Singapore, MSC products can be found at IKEA, the Hilton and the Grand Hyatt Hotel. At IKEA, efforts are being made to assure its 600 million customers globally that all of its seafood are sustainably sourced. Announcing its commitment to offer only seafood that is certified to the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standards, this makes the furniture company, the biggest food service provider offering the largest variety of certified seafood globally.

Innovative business models are also being created to integrate the seafood supply chain and to ensure traceability can be achieved. Suppliers such as Annova Seafood is supplying both fresh and frozen fish for European retail and foodservice, with procurement throughout Asia. Through the latest satellite technology, innovative companies such as Spire Global can now help governments track illegal fishing. Working together with the private sector, the Pew Charitable Trust has also launched a project “Eyes on the Sea”, which manages electronic logbooks for fishing vessels to record catch volumes, ensuring better traceability.

The above examples highlight how the sector is moving from the traditional, NGO-based advocacy efforts to market based solutions. The answer lies is not reducing fish consumption but in sourcing it sustainably. The private sector is realizing that sustainability presents an opportunity.

IIX recognizes this potential and is now exploring new ways to channel impact investment capital to help sustain the oceans – the world’s 7th largest economy. The oceans are worth over USD 24 trillion and impact investors can play an important role – not just to generate financial returns but also to support marine conservation, the livelihoods of millions of poor fishermen and food security at a global level. It’s not about giving up your favorite dish of sushi, it’s about eating it sustainably.


Arti Srivastava
Summer Associate, Business Development