Balancing Profit and Purpose at Whole Foods: Red Fish Blue Fish

by cv harquail on September 24, 2010

Jessi Schoner, a researcher at University of Minnesota’s eWorkPlace and a reader, sent me an interesting article about Whole Food’s efforts to nudge customers towards more sustainable choices of seafood.

201009231637.jpg Whole Foods … is launching the first in-store color-coded sustainable seafood rating program this week. … The system relies on three colors–green (“best choice”), yellow (“good alternative”), and red (“avoid”)–to alert customers about overfished species. … all red-listed seafood will be cut from store shelves by 2012.

Jessi honed right in on two important insights from the short article.

As Jessi explains:

I’m not the biggest Whole Foods fan, but this new color-coding system followed by a product phase-out really impresses me.

If Whole Foods overnight just pulled their red-listed seafood from the shelves, some customers would undoubtedly start shopping elsewhere to continue to buy the products they can no longer get from Whole Foods.

But by socially conditioning their customers with this color-coding system for several months before phasing out the products, Whole Foods is trying to get buy-in from the customer by encouraging them to make more sustainable, alternative choices. Customers may learn to enjoy more sustainable seafood choices before the unsustainable choices go away.

I give Whole Foods lot of credit for trying to promote more sustainable behaviors, but I’m even more impressed with how this decision also seems like the best “business” decision.

Whole Foods is trying to get customers to buy someTHING else instead of someWHERE else.

It’s a win for the customers, who can explore new products with better information during the color-coding phase. It’s a win for sustainability because it can help reduce demand for over-fished, sensitive species.

And, it’s a win for Whole Foods. Whole Foods won’t lose as many customers when it eliminate code red seafood from their product line, since it will have taught customers which more sustainable fish to buy. Whole Foods may even gain customers by demonstrating a concern for sustainability while creating sensible action steps.

Balancing Profit and Purpose

Whole Foods’ effort seems to strike a good balance between a “for purpose” mission to promote sustainable food sources and a “for profit” strategy to be the supermarket fish-seller of choice.

It’s also terrific that Whole Foods’ initiative recognizes how people learn and helps them learn. It may even help Whole Foods and its suppliers build capacity and expertise in “blue fish” as they help to build demand for sustainable seafood.

Looks like a win-win-win.

Thanks for sharing, Jessi.

See also:
Can a for-profit business organization that also pursues a social purpose be authentic?
Honey is really bee vomit: Why we should label “NonProfit” Organizations “For-Purpose” Organizations
Authentic Food Organizations: Why I love my CSA

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