Unmasking Greenpeace’s Retailer Ranking Shakedown

Each year Greenpeace puts out a ranking of various grocery retailers, listed according to how much the retailers comply with the multinational activist group’s demands on seafood sourcing. It’s easy to mistake the yearly ranking as a publicity stunt. After all, the ranking is trumpeted with a press release from Greenpeace headquarters, presumably sent to news outlets far and wide, and it is touted on social media by Greenpeace’s senior personnel.

Indeed the threat of negative publicity is the leverage that Greenpeace uses in order to strong-arm the retailers into filling out Greenpeace’s survey. The implied warning, Cooperate with us or we will hurt your company and brand by denouncing you in the press.

It’s a clever if crude sort of shakedown but on closer inspection it’s missing a crucial element: the ranking doesn’t actually get any significant press attention at all. In the two weeks since this year’s ranking was released, it has been covered by zero newspapers (regional or national), zero broadcast channels (regional, national, or cable), zero columnists, zero magazines, and zero radio outlets (national, regional, or even basement podcast). Even Greenpeace’s own social media — that is, it’s own actual membership — have shared or retweeted the big news only a couple dozen times in the first day or two and then stopped. Much the same thing happened with last year’s report.

It isn’t hard to understand why. For one thing, the ranking report is completely arbitrary. Greenpeace doesn’t disclose its analytics (which is made up to begin with) and so there’s no way to verify or validate how or why any retailer goes up or down on the list. Second, the underlying survey that Greenpeace claims is the basis for the ranking is also arbitrary — mostly ginned up with unscientific questions that have more to do with Greenpeace’s own agenda rather than widely accepted standards and norms of international seafood sustainability. It’s worth noting that Greenpeace has refused to collaborate with any of the governing bodies that oversee and regulate global seafood sustainability policy — and they have open contempt for the standards that are not their own, established by those concerted efforts by governments, scientists, researchers, and industry.

Even at first glance, the report is cartoonish — literally. The logos of the various grocers are rendered in charts as caricatured illustrations racing through an imaginary ocean world of talking and smiling sea creatures. No wonder serious journalists ignore it.

But it’s critical to understand that the report’s main function really isn’t to inform the press. It’s actually more of an annual report that Greenpeace uses to show its major donors that it is trying to get a stranglehold on seafood retailers and their business decisions. The most prominent features of the report describe detailed examples of how Greenpeace has been able to interact and sometimes manipulate companies into various conciliations.

But even those sorts of concessions don’t shield grocers from Greenpeace’s attacks. Just ask the companies that gave in to Greenpeace demands this year and were nevertheless ridiculed for decisions they made about seafood offerings, sourcing methods, store signage, even about executive personnel shifts.

So here’s what we know. Any hope of positive publicity from cooperating with Greenpeace or filling out their survey is an illusion. They will continue to attack retailers regardless of past concessions to achieve their ever changing agenda fluctuating like a roller coaster. Similarly, the fear of negative publicity is also unfounded. The report gets virtually no public attention and is apparently read only by a handful of Greenpeace staffers and, of course, their foundation donors.

The only practical and tangible result of the survey and ranking is for Greenpeace to justify its budget in front of the foundations that give it huge grants. By filling out the survey, retailers are in effect helping Greenpeace create the information needed to garner more funding to attack those same retailers.

An obvious question arises: why take part in the Greenpeace survey in the first place?