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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Saving the Fisheries: Greenpeace Lauds Safeway for its Ethical and Stately Leadership

In April 2011, Greenpeace gave fifteen supermarket chains a passing grade; five others failed. Surprisingly, Safeway came out on top, above even Whole Foods. Safeway pledged to stop selling Chilean sea bass (Patagonian toothfish) because current fishing levels are unsustainable. Furthermore, the grocer called on governing bodies to declare the area in the southern Antarctic where the bass is fished a marine reserve. According to Casson Trenor of Greenpeace, such an act of “corporate marine activism” had “never been done before.” Safeway also discontinued the sale of orange mughy, which is unsustainably being fished in the deep sea off New Zealand.  In fact, the company stopped adding red-list species to its inventory.

Beyond any added sales from the enhancement of Safeway’s reputational capital, the company’s moves, going even as far as activism, are in line with facilitating the future supply of the seafood products.  In other words, the moves represent a sort of long-term investment, with the cost being the additional money that could be made in the short term from selling the fish. That other grocers, such as Giant Eagle and Publix, failed in the Greenpeace grading suggests that other companies are profiting in the short term from Safeway’s self-imposed restraint for a long-term benefit available to every grocer. 

In other words, it goes against the law of externalities for one company to voluntary exclude an otherwise salable product from the shelves while competitors benefit from not only that exclusion, but also the long-term benefit of full fisheries available to any grocer. Ordinarily, this dynamic is why a cartel or government regulation is necessary—so all companies recognize the constraint in the short term for the good of the whole industry in the long term. As compelling as that long-term benefit may be, some people will refuse to shove the trough away while there is anything left in it—such is the instinct of instant gratification over deferred enjoyment in human nature.  Hence, it is amazing that any one business would observe a self-imposed constraint at the expense of expediency that is not being observed by others in the industry.

Safeway may represent a case of ethical leadership that is in line with statesmanship. In addition to being ethical (i.e., following an ethical principle such as sustainability), standing alone in the activism (i.e., the leadership) in this case forsakes immediate self-interest for the public good (i.e., statesmanship).  The three elements—ethics, leadership, and statesmanship—can thus be distinguished and related.

An interesting question is whether corporate managers are being ethical in terms of their fiduciary duty if ethical leadership in line with statesmanship is not in stockholders’ financial interest even in the long term. In the present case, it could be argued that the foregone profit is not worth the added profit in the long term from sustainable fisheries.  Additionally, it could be argued that Safeway could have continued to sell the unsustainable fish as Target and Wegmans sacrificed for the eventual benefit that Safeway too could enjoy. The problem of fiduciary duty could be obviated in such scenarios by securing stockholder approval at an annual meeting. 

At the level of property rights, profit-maximization is only a default that a company’s stockholders, as the owners, can modify or even replace.  Therefore, if a majority of shares vote to use the company to save the fisheries even at the overall financial detriment of the company, such a use of property/wealth is proper and legitimate for owners, with the caveat of minority stockholder rights being respected. Such rights can be satisfied by giving minority stockholders the right to sell at a worthwhile and fair price. Such selling would result in more solid ownership support for the new mission. Moreover, to use one’s property not only to make money, but also for a cause that one is passionate about can make life itself more enjoyable and thus worth living.   

Click to add a question or comment on Greenpeace, Safeway and fisheries.


Kim O’Donnel, “Safeway Scales the ‘Seafood Scoreboard’ by Greenpeace,” USA Today, April 18, 2011, p. 5D.