Traitor Joe’s Cleans up its Act


Kim White/Greenpeace
Dressed in Hawaiian shirts similar to those worn by Trader Joe's employees, Greenpeace activists visited stores to engage customers in asking Trader Joe's to stop selling red-list species.

In 2008, Greenpeace USA launched the Carting Away the Oceans campaign to highlight the U.S. seafood industry’s leaders and laggards in sustainability. The campaign appraises seafood retailers according to four key criteria: sourcing policy, political and corporate initiatives, transparency and labeling, and overall inventory. In three reports, Trader Joe’s was identified as the poorest performing national retailer.

At the time, several retailers were already making progress in these areas: Wegmans was working toward a strong sourcing policy. Whole Foods was taking aggressive stands on key initiatives and political issues, including supporting efforts to end bottom trawling. Ahold was disseminating information to its customers about sustainable seafood and its own supply chain. And Target was initiating a massive inventory reform that would eventually result in the elimination of many “red list” products, such as farmed salmon.

Trader Joe’s was performing abysmally in all four categories. The company had no sustainable seafood policy. It didn’t lobby for conservation measures or participate in any initiatives regarding seafood sustainability. Transparency was nonexistent. In fact, the company was deliberately disseminating misleading information: a Trader Joe’s in Virginia was caught displaying a sign that read, “Our seafood comes from sustainable, legal sources that have a minimal impact on the environment,” only a few feet away from a freezer full of orange roughy, a fish that has suffered severe population decline due to unsustainable harvesting. Trader Joe’s overall inventory contained many red list species, such as farmed salmon, Atlantic cod, Atlantic sea scallops, Greenland halibut, and the aforementioned orange roughy. Each of these species has a high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries.

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Kim White/Greenpeace
Outside a Trader Joe’s store, an activist deposits a signed postcard urging Trader Joe’s to support sustainable seafood practices.

In August 2009, Greenpeace launched a campaign designed to communicate the truth behind Trader Joe’s seafood practices to the company’s consumer base and the public at large. Activists conducted demonstrations in front of Trader Joe’s outlets up and down the coasts of the United States, supported by an online campaign that lampooned the company through a caricatured antagonist, “Traitor Joe.” Traitor Joe was a cartoon pirate who reveled in oceanic destruction in the name of profit and bottom-of-the-barrel prices. Along with his homepage (www.traitorjoe.com), the animated buccaneer had a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a significant online following.

From a certain point of view, the campaign against Trader Joe’s was particularly poignant: it went beyond the simple illumination of the unsustainable actions of a seafood merchant. Instead, it targeted a store that, because of its long-standing reputation as a down-to-earth, trustworthy grocer, many shoppers had considered to be “one of the good guys.” There even proved to be a significant crossover between Greenpeace supporters and erstwhile Trader Joe’s loyalists.

In the end, it was largely the demands of Trader Joe’s consumers that catalyzed real change in the retailer’s behavior. Customers who were concerned about seafood sustainability rallied around Greenpeace’s campaign message. They pressured individual store managers—who are relatively empowered in terms of inventory and product selection—to discontinue unsustainable seafood items and to communicate the need for better options to Trader Joe’s corporate-level buyers. In March 2010, after nearly eight months of active campaigning by Greenpeace, Trader Joe’s agreed to change its policy. In a customer update on its website, Trader Joe’s publicly pledged to eliminate all unsustainable seafood items from its inventory by the end of 2012, beginning with the immediate discontinuation of orange roughy and red snapper. The update also describes the importance of marine reserves, the company’s intent to use its purchasing power to leverage positive change within the seafood industry, and its plan to revamp seafood labeling to enhance transparency at point-of-sale.

Thanks to these improvements, Trader Joe’s score leapt from a dismal one out of 10 in 2009 to a four out of 10 in the April 2010 assessment. This is barely a passing score—Trader Joe’s still has a tremendous amount of work to do—but the campaign was extraordinarily successful in prompting progress from a notoriously reticent and isolated retailer.