Supersizing Responsibility, Not Portions

posted by Chad Tragakis

by Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton, Washington

Hard to believe that the end of another summer is upon us.  Earlier this month I was on Cape Cod, enjoying a week of vacation, which included eating a lot of fresh seafood.   The menu included cod (of course), clams, flounder, haddock, lobster and scallops.  All of it was delicious, but with every bite there was a little remorse.  Ever since I first read the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP’s) prediction that the world’s fisheries could be depleted by 2050, I have suffered a tinge of guilt with every plate of broiled scrod, every cup of seafood stew, every lobster roll.

According to UNEP, 30 percent of global fish stocks have already collapsed – meaning that they now yield 10 percent or less of their previous potential.  I also know full well that some one billion people around the world, most of them from developing countries, rely on seafood as their primary source of protein and a major source of their sustenance.

Responsible fisheries management and improved practices here in the U.S. and around the world are a good start and help alleviate some of my guilt.  Fish farms also have a role to play in meeting the world’s growing demand for seafood, but they are not without their challenges or critics.  And while I’m intrigued by the promise of genetically altered fish, there are many unanswered questions and many associated risks still to be addressed.

Although my concerns about the health and vitality of the world’s fisheries are rooted in a desire for ecological sustainability and preserving biodiversity, a connection between overfishing and societal health and wellness (in America at least) is becoming increasingly clear.  I’m talking specifically about portion sizes and how (and how much) we consume.  The seafood platters I saw this summer were huge – as big, or bigger, than I can ever remember.  This trend isn’t limited to fish, and it certainly isn’t limited to Cape Cod.

A new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) shows that at restaurants across the country, “regular” portions are now super-sized:  two, three (or more) times USDA and FDA recommendations.  No surprise then that CSPI believes this is contributing directly to the two-thirds of adults and one-third of children who are obese or overweight.

The same nation that now heralds the organic, fair-trade and locally-grown food movements is the same one that spawned the massive portion trend and the “endless,” “bottomless,” “unlimited,” “all you can eat” buffet.  I’m no expert on the economics of running a restaurant, but I’ve never understood how these buffets can be profitable.  Nor do I understand how such limitless consumption – of seafood or any other food – can be sustainable.

Businesses must make a profit, but there is increasing evidence that they can do so by encouraging sustainable consumption on the part of their customers.  From the television programs we watch, to the clothes we wear, to the toys we buy our kids, businesses play a major – maybe even a central – role in conditioning us as consumers.  Businesses help us define what constitutes value and normalcy in the products and services we consume. 

This is a discussion that every company in every sector should be having and many are, encouraged and aided by a great Business for Social Responsibility report – The New Frontier in Sustainability: The Business Opportunity in Tackling Sustainable Consumption.  Clearly, it’s bigger than restaurants – but food (and seafood in particular) is great place to start.

More often than not this summer, my wife and I shared the huge seafood platters at the restaurants and clam shacks we frequented.  If any of them had offered half-sized portions for half the price, they would have seen a lot more of my business.  Don’t tell them, but I would even have paid a little more than half.

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Big thumbs up Chad – we are definitely looking for a strong answer to the promise of sustainable seafood. If you haven’t already seen it, there is a fantastic Ted Talk from New York Chef Dan Barber, called “How I fell in love with a fish” that talks about his search for a sustainable fish he could love to eat.

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