Sustainability & fish farming: working with a real case

Aquaculture, such as fish farming, is a key industry to ensure  sustainable food production in the future. Foods deriving from the seas face many challenges such overfishing and water pollution. At the same time, sea food has many benefits such as low climate impact and high nutritional value.

It is quite clear today that wild fish supply is not sufficient and that aquaculture is necessary in some form in order to supply current populations with sea food. However, fish farming has been criticized for unsustainable practices through the years and the industry still struggles with some of them like sea lice, escapes and sustainable feed sources.

In the course I teach at NHH ‘Measuring sustainability’ we each year work with  a real case on how to measure sustainability. Last autumn, we collaborated with Norwegian Responsible Investment association Norsif on how we can measure and evaluate the sustainability of aquaculture companies. One of the things I love about these cases is the creativity the students show when coming up with new ideas and solutions. I truly believe this kind of creativity, combined with academic thinking and facts, is one of the most important skills we can teach students.

One of the learning points from working with the aquaculture case is how important national regulation is for sustainable fish farming. One of the drastic differences is the use of antibiotics. Aquaculture uses significant amounts of antibiotics, which is a critical issue considering antibiotic resistance, but the industry also shows that it can do without it when it has to, such as in Norway.

Another difficult issue is that fish farming in Europe is mostly done with omnivorous fish such as salmon. It is less efficient to raise fish that partly eats other fish than fish that only feeds on algea. Instead of feeding the salmon other fish, we could eat this fish directly and thus skip the step of raising the salmon. The fish in the feed can also lead to further overfishing. Of course we can feed salmon a vegetarian diet but salmon that are fed on vegetable rather than animal proteins may be lacking in Omega-3, which is one of the main reasons salmon are so healthy for a human diet. A better solution would be to instead farm a fish that naturally feeds on for example algea.

Another key issue for sustainability, the students discovered, is future orientation of the companies and investment in research to find sustainable solutions to issues we have not yet solved. During the course, we we’re visited by the head of sustainability and risk at Cermaq, Wenche Gronbrekk, who explained how the company works to address sustainability issues. Wenche has answered a few of my questions below and also describes their investment in future solutions: iFarm.

Sabina: The Norwegian aquaculture industry has made quite some progress in terms of addressing its sustainability challenges. What are, in your opinion, some of the main achievements? 
Wenche: We have made great progress in lifting the industry standard the past years through collaboration –  through dialogue and knowledge sharing between government, research and industry. Also, in the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI), addressing key issues such as standardization, feed ingredients and biosecurity. Vaccine development has also been key to advancing sustainability to the level we see today.

Sabina: Still, as we have learnt when working with this case, challenges remain. What’s on top of your to-do-list in terms of sustainability?
Wenche: Sustainability requires continuous effort, and we work every day to be better than just complying with minimum standards. Developing new solutions that address key problems is also a priority – such as our iFarm concept. It may solve many of the key challenges today through individualized treatment of each fish, increasing animal health and welfare, optimizing feeding and any need for treatment, which may in turn reduce the environmental footprint of our activities.

Sabina: Sustainability is, according to its definition, about the long term perspective, future generations even. Still most organisations operate with a shorter time perspective in their day-to-day business. How are you able to take the long term perspective into account?
Wenche: Salmon farming is largely dependent on taking a long term view – we operate in the sea and biological risks do not respect financial quarters. To have a business over time, our operations need to be sustainable in all aspects: environmentally, socially and economically. 

Sabina: Many who work as sustainability officers or even head of sustainability find that change management is crucial in order to conduct their work. Is this your experience as well?
Wenche: As a sustainability officer you need to work across the organization, break silos and in many ways be a change agent. Integrating sustainability in business strategy also means that many companies need to innovate their business model – and it is my experience that sustainability professionals often play a central part in this transformation.

A big thank you to Wenche and Cermaq for sharing your experiences with us and also to Norsif and Norsif member Folketrygdfondet and Tine Fossland who attended the students presentations and provided feedback on their evaluation models. We could not have done this without you!

Is expensive fashion more sustainable?

You might, as I once did, think that you avoid the sustainability issues in fashion because you don’t shop at H&M, Gina Tricot, Dressman etc.

The short answer is no, expensive fashion is not necessarily more sustainable. Luxury production in Europe should guarantee better working conditions and less chemicals, but only a few luxury brands still produce in Europe. Those who do might only produce certain parts of the collection in Europe. And ‘Made in Italy’ can these days mean made by Chinese in Italy. Even when something is made in Europe, the fabric may be imported. Luxury brands often source their materials from outside of Europe and then we have the issues with conventional cotton and synthetic fibre etc.

There are also environmental issues with the chrome and heavy metals involved in tanning of leather. If you do want a new luxury bag, check where the leather came from, that it can be tracked to sustainable farming, and for vegetable tanning. I found that Swedish brand Palmgrens had a longstanding relationship the Italian farm the leather derived from and used vegetable tanning processes for a certain bag. Thus it’s the last bag I’ve bought, before my current year of no-shopping, and I don’t feel I compromised on design just because I focused on sustainability.

Another issue with luxury brands is that they don’t consider the environmental impact of care. Many put dry cleaning on the care instructions (as on this Ralph Lauren jacket, made in the Philippines) which isn’t environmentally friendly. And, in many cases, the items are better cared for by hand washing. I don’t know how many times the dry cleaner couldn’t remove stains and when I try at home, as a last resort, it works perfectly. Money and chemicals wasted.

The luxury conglomerates seem to lack a thorough understanding of sustainability issues. For example, when LVMH reports on biodiversity, they write about how they finance biodiversity research rather than how they take biodiversity into account in their sourcing of raw materials. Now I am all for funding research, of course, but certain issues we already know a lot about, such as pesticides and biodiversity. We can act on these today.

Similarly, it is admirable that Kering has developed the Environmental Profit and Loss account (which I often teach to students) but more important is how they handle their everyday sustainability challenges. I searched for organic on Kering’s website and only found ‘organic growth’.

Taking the opposite road, many cheap brands are not as diligent about working conditions and where things are made* but are instead rapidly increasing their share of ‘better’ or organic cotton and renewable fibre. They hardly ever prescribe dry cleaning. But then again they don’t make clothes that should last.

Thus while some brands are working on social issues and others focus on some of the environmental, few brands cover all the necessary issues. Those who do are generally those that started their business with a sustainability focus. These brands are generally slightly more expensive than fast fashion but usually much cheaper than luxury brands.

So the answer is no: price is not a good indicator of sustainability.

* The Inditex group (Zara, Massimo Dutti etc. ) is an interesting exception. Around 60% of their suppliers are located in proximity to the headquarters in Spain.

Sweden to become a ‘circular economy’

The Swedish government is investigating how it can promote a ‘circular economy’.  Now, what is a circular economy? While it is not so well defined, I’d say it’s an ambition to keep materials in a loop. Nature tends to work with cycles (the carbon cycle for example). Businesses, the circular economy proponents say, should mimic such systems. In a circular economy,  waste should become input to new production. In addition, there’s the idea that sharing and renting is better than owning things (I’d like to see some evidence for this).

The Swedish government’s investigation into the circular economy resulted in a 400 pages report, released last week. The report suggests tax deductions for rental, second hand and repair services, which sounds like more of what the Swedish government has already done. Other suggestions are for example to increase access to carpools and to facilitate prevention of waste (the latter is always a good idea).

When I encountered the ‘circular economy’ concept, I was initially a sceptic. It might be an academic instinct to question terms the industry has invented. ‘Isn’t this just a new fancy concept for recycling?’. Lately, however, I have slightly changed my mind. The more I learn about the waste issue the more it seems necessary that companies ‘design out waste’ (as the circular economy proponents put it). We need to have a plan for what happens to the materials and products when they are discarded. We need to make sure that our products are safely recyclable and can potentially be recycled more than once. If the circular economy concept is helpful for businesses (or states!) in order to work on these issues, then that’s more important than the lack of definition.

I also find the circular economy system diagram useful. The ways in which materials circulate are put into a hierarchy where maintaining products (such as mending) is more desirable than recycling. This seems very reasonable.

Now my research area is really the measurement of such initiatives. And, as it happens regularly, I got a really good question from a student some week ago: “How can we measure whether a business is circular?”  While businesses are quite different from nation states, the Swedish government’s report has in fact suggested some indicators for whether a country is ‘circular’. The proposed indicators measure the amount of recycled materials, the use of raw materials and the amount of waste produced. These are standard indicators that companies disclose in their sustainability reports. In a business setting, such indicators are nothing new. However, they might be more difficult to calculate on a national level. The government report suggests no indicators for the sharing, renting or repairing ideas of the circular economy.

Clearly, this is an area that needs some more work. Now if the Swedish government would want some help with measuring their circular economy ambitions, I am here to help 😉