The global food system is facing the imperative to produce more with less, balancing the need to feed a growing population with the need to protect the environment and address climate change.
At the same time, business leaders face pressure from shareholders, regulators, and consumers to demonstrate progress on sustainability goals while continuing to meet financial targets.
Most organizations are taking on these challenges the traditional way: individually and competitively, seeking their own solutions as fast as they can. But there is growing realization that given the scale of the environmental issues society faces—including climate change, deforestation, and plastics pollution—this may not deliver the wide-scale change needed at the speed needed.
That’s why some future-forward leaders are using a different approach: collaboration. Working together offers the potential for organizations to expand capacity, share the costs of innovation, decrease risk-trialing multiple approaches, and increase the chance of finding solutions and adapting much faster.
The farmed-salmon sector has used this approach for the past decade, illustrating how a model of collaboration can enable change at speed and scale. Could this be the sort of transformation model the food sector needs to implement so it can address the vast nutrient and climate risks it faces?
A Faster Path Toward Sustainability
Aquaculture, or fish farming, offers huge potential in meeting a rising global demand for healthy, protein-rich foods without further exploiting wild fish populations and depleting natural resources such as fresh water and arable land. Fish farming also produces one of the lowest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions among all farming of animal proteins.
Fish, and salmon specifically, is high in the omega-3 fatty acids associated with good brain and heart health, and it reduces nutrient deficiencies and the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The health factor is part of what makes aquaculture the fastest-growing food sector today. The average person eats twice as much seafood as people did 50 years ago, and global consumption will continue to grow. That makes it critical for fish farming to take place sustainably and responsibly, using resources more efficiently, reducing harm to the environment, and promoting a more climate-resilient food system.
In 2013, CEOs of salmon aquaculture companies from around the world formed the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI) to make the industry more sustainable. Recognizing their responsibility to advance the environmental performance of the sector, they chose to work together to pool their knowledge and resources to directly tackle the primary environmental challenges they faced.
A Future-Forward Strategy
Collaboration is not the default state in a business context. So how do you get CEOs to come to the table and work together? And what can we learn from this example that can be translated to a broader scale?
GSI unites 15 salmon-farming companies, representing nearly half of global salmon-farming production, alongside key supply chain actors to work on highly targeted areas where they seek a common goal of improving sustainability. They have a narrow focus on areas where there is collective interest, the motivation to drive change, and clear boundaries on areas where the companies cannot work together in line with antitrust and competition laws—as these are competitors in every other frame of their businesses.
From operating in shared waters to facing the same environmental challenges—sourcing of feed ingredients, monitoring and mitigating disease risks, and increasingly, the impacts of a changing climate—these were common challenges each of the companies faced and they saw that only by working together could they implement meaningful change.
As a member, each company must commit time and financial resources to help advance GSI’s goals, and each is held accountable to transparently report on their sustainability metrics every year.
While many companies voluntarily report on sustainability metrics, it is still uncommon for entire sectors to align on metrics, which makes it hard to compare them and see improvements. This alignment in reporting is crucial to the group’s learning and development. Having initiated this model of open-access reporting for its members 10 years ago through an annual sustainability report, GSI recently launched a similar framework for GHG emissions, which generates clearer comparisons and, more importantly, identifies where companies can learn from each other when it comes to effective mitigations.
Within the GSI model, members continually return to the foundation of aligned data and knowledge sharing to support changes in operations. With their commitment to working with the widely acknowledged “gold standard” for certification in aquaculture—the Aquaculture Stewardship Council—and in monitoring the impacts of a changing climate on fish welfare, GSI’s model of bringing companies and CEOs together is to find the common sustainability issues where each company is dependent on improving a shared ecosystem. At its core, this is an intuitive model that other sectors facing shared environmental challenges could easily replicate.
GSI’s model is founded on the premise that if you convene technically adept leaders, give them sufficient data, and allow them to discuss and share ideas, they are likely to find a solution—or at least open the door to new approaches.
One intended consequence of the GSI model is that collaboration doesn’t stop at industry walls. Other stakeholders and nongovernmental organizations recognized GSI for its model of working together and setting clear goals with pragmatic plans by acting as a united voice and inviting both supporters and critics to guide GSI in the right direction. GSI has built partnerships with groups, including World Wildlife Fund (WWF), to develop industrywide improvement programs that strengthen the sector’s environmental performance and credibility. Not all sectors succeed at using this multi-stakeholder approach, but the scale of current global challenges makes collaboration among industry, academia, environmental groups, and policymakers crucial in supporting sectors prioritizing the right initiatives and everyone working off the right information. The salmon sector has not always had many allies in different sectors, but GSI shows that through a commitment to open dialogue and partnership, it is possible to unite groups on a sustainable journey.
Embrace Pre-Competitive Collaboration
GSI calls the collective insight-sharing strategy of its salmon-farming member companies “pre-competitive collaboration”—a term that seems to be gaining traction in the aquaculture sector following the work of GSI. But now the question is how the benefits of collaboration can be expanded in other sectors.
Pre-competitive collaboration is especially effective in industries whose companies use shared resources or face shared challenges. “The private sector can’t just say, ‘I’m doing my part and in my silo,’ without realizing they’re part of a global system,” says Jason Clay, SVP, markets, and executive director, Markets Institute at WWF.
In a time when the global food system is facing mounting pressure, natural resources are being exhausted, and climate change is reaching critical mass, the planet can’t afford to inch toward sustainability one enterprise at a time. Organizations need to embrace collaboration not as an idealistic buzzword, but rather as a critical strategy to make their businesses thrive for the long term.
If more organizations in more sectors embrace the pre-competitive collaboration model that’s succeeding in salmon aquaculture, there is a stronger chance that humanity can make massive strides in our ability to feed the world with nutritious, climate-resilient food.
Learn more about GSI’s work.