James Griffin of Johnson & Wales University: “Always be honest and transparent”

Always be honest and transparent — Finally, smart organizations are transparent when it comes to sustainability — warts and all. Most Chilean Salmon farmers now publish sustainability reports. They also share environmental data via the Global Salmon Initiative. Transparency fosters trust, though it also comes with criticism when areas for improvement are evident. Trust leads to collaboration, and collaboration, […]

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Always be honest and transparent — Finally, smart organizations are transparent when it comes to sustainability — warts and all. Most Chilean Salmon farmers now publish sustainability reports. They also share environmental data via the Global Salmon Initiative. Transparency fosters trust, though it also comes with criticism when areas for improvement are evident. Trust leads to collaboration, and collaboration, to improvement.

As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Griffin.

Jim Griffin is a professor at Johnson & Wales University, a food and hospitality expert, and a director of the Chilean Salmon Marketing Council — an organization founded in 2018. From 2012 to 2014, he was president and CEO of the former Coolfish division of Slade Gorton. Prior to joining Slade Gorton, Griffin spent more than two decades with Johnson & Wales University, where he advanced to several senior roles including associate provost and vice president of academic affairs.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in Gloucester, the oldest fishing port in the U.S. where my family arrived in the 18th century. My hometown was founded in 1623 and was known for its robust supply of wild caught North Atlantic seafood species until the early 1980’s when the natural resource started to rapidly decline due to overfishing by domestic and international organizations. The impact was devastating. During the same period aquaculture was on the rise, and it became quickly apparent that a long-term solution to global demand for seafood would have to involve both wild and farmed sources. It was during this time that I shifted my focus to include farmed seafood and transitioned to being an expert in both wild and farmed species and sustainability as an industry professional and a university professor.

What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?

The largest organization I am part of is the Chilean Salmon Marketing Council or CSMC. CSMC’s mission is to “strengthen the Chilean Salmon brand and image in the U.S. and to increase salmon consumption by positioning Chilean Salmon as a premium product and a preferred choice.” We are trying to improve Chilean Salmon’s place in the U.S. while, in return, using U.S. market perception to improve practices back in Chile. Our approach is symbiotic where we facilitate interaction, dialogue, and influence between the U.S. and Chile in a mutually beneficial way. The organization was formed by ten major salmon farming companies in 2018, which is when they asked me as a researcher and professor to be director. The organization’s mission was developed during a face to face meeting in Puerto Varas, Chile (in northern Patagonia) in January 2018. The leaders were clear about how mission and vision inform strategy.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

There are many — but our main priority right now is reduction in the use of medicines when farming salmon. The oceans in Southern Chile naturally include bacteria unique to the region that can cause illness in salmon. When bacterial levels are high, salmon that become sick are treated with medicines to restore health. Once they return to health, medicines are discontinued and, by policy, the fish go through a ten day period without treatment prior to harvest to assure there are no residual traces of medicines in their system. That said, the industry recognizes the need to reduce the use of medicines while concurrently assuring fish health and animal welfare. In 2018 we launched a project titled “the promise of Patagonia” and entered a collaboration with Seafood Watch at Monterey Bay Aquarium to address one of the pervasive problems in salmon farming — the need for veterinarian supervised antibiotic usage when fish become sick due to naturally occurring bacteria.

The Chilean Salmon Antibiotic Reduction Program (CSARP) is an initiative between the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program and the Chilean salmon farming industry to reduce antibiotic use by 50% by 2025. The program is part of a broader collaboration to improve production practices and for Chile to eventually reach a Seafood Watch Good Alternative recommendation.

The program has defined specific guidelines at different levels (site, neighborhood, industry) to reduce the usage and ecological impact of medicines in the Chilean salmon industry. As a result, salmon farmers in Chile have increased investments in innovation and farming methodology to reduce the potential for illness and the need for treatment. The project is having a lasting positive influence on farming practices though there is tremendous work ahead. CSARP is the only project of its kind in the world working to improve and entire industry. It’s an incredible initiative on a massive scale with potential to yield significant and positive results ecologically and economically.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

The first step in shifting focus toward sustainability and environmental consciousness is to strengthen how you think while concurrently mitigating anxiety. Any type of important change can trigger anxiety within an organization, and that anxiety becomes a barrier. I once took a course with Dr. Hal Gregersen at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and during the course he spoke about how organizations become good at something and then overtime the thing they’ve master becomes the wrong thing. This forces the organization to shift its focus to the right thing and then to work again at becoming good at it. In other words — there’s a shelf-life to “the right thing” and we must always be on a path of continuous inquiry and improvement.

The salmon industry in Chile is a perfect example of changing perspectives and continuous improvement. For context — it’s a multi-billion dollar industry exporting north of 2 billion dollars’ worth of salmon to the U.S. each year. CSMC’s board is made up of the CEOs of the largest salmon producers in the country — and once per quarter we host a meeting with these leaders at the table.

Here are the top five things I have observed while working with the CEOs of these multi-million dollar organizations as they dramatically improve sustainability in Chile:

  1. Embrace change to organizational culture — sustainability requires a permanent shift in mindset and a change in perspective — when an organization’s culture shifts toward sustainability and a reduction in ecological impact, the shift permeates everything they do. Smart organizations aim to shift their culture — from the top to the bottom and back.
  2. Engage in continuous improvement — our work is not a project with a start and end, it’s a permanent shift in how we do business. Rather than view sustainability as a crisis or a threat, we see it as an opportunity. No longer does the industry see itself as permanently damaged from an environmental perspective; instead to it sees in the mirror an industry ripe for improvement. The same can be said of other industries that are catching up when it comes to environmental consciousness. Most organizations that score poorly on climate change and sustainability should not be considered completely broken; instead, they should be viewed as opportunities for improvement that are worth investment and ongoing dialogue.
  3. Problem-solve using both short and long term strategies. When you shift away from the wrong thing and toward the right thing — work quickly to earn a few “wins” with your team. Change is hard, especially when you leave what you thought was the right thing for new priorities. Pursue the low hanging fruit to help your team find their footing. Move quickly to solve short term problems and then make time and space for those that take longer.
  4. Move toward not away from organizations that are critical of your practices and collaborate with the loudest detractors to gain perspective. Strong organizations move toward their critics rather than away from them and work to collaborate in pursuit of long-term change. In today’s world, it is easy to get caught up in rancor, but unending conflict gets us nowhere. Sometimes it takes extraordinary patience and humility to turn the corner and foster collaboration. This is hard but incredibly worthwhile in the long run for all parties and, more important, the planet.
  5. Always be honest and transparent — Finally, smart organizations are transparent when it comes to sustainability — warts and all. Most Chilean Salmon farmers now publish sustainability reports. They also share environmental data via the Global Salmon Initiative. Transparency fosters trust, though it also comes with criticism when areas for improvement are evident. Trust leads to collaboration, and collaboration, to improvement.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are two individuals who helped me realize the potential to drive ecological improvement in the seafood industry at a global scale — Professor Cathy Roheim at the University of Idaho and Professor Barry Costa Pierce at the University of New England. Both are renowned experts in fresh and saltwater ecosystems and sustainability. Back in 2011 we collaborated to host a symposium on sustainability at Johnson & Wales University and while working on the project we grew to know each other well. Both, in their own way, recommended ways to systemically change how we interact with and harvest from the ocean. Both have a go-big or go-home attitude which inspired me to think beyond my comfort zone; to think like a scientist while also thinking from a consumer and commercial perspective. It is this type of thinking that fuels the change we are investing in now. Change that impacts the entire industry in Chile not just a few individual companies.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

In many ways, the world can change in the blink of an eye but sometimes it is wise to consider the things that DON’T change in addition to the things that do. One thing that will never change is the need for global collaboration and healthy food. Regardless of our worldview, politics, country of origin, or religion, we need — now more than ever — to work together for global good and to assure healthy food for everyone. Thought challenges and conflict will always arise, let’s build our capacity to collaborate in a positive manner and lead with that as a strength. Always work toward collaboration for global good — especially when it is difficult.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

I’ve spent my whole life in the food business and one of the reasons I love it is our open culture and warm hospitality. We’ve always been an industry where everyone and anyone can find respite and comfort if only for a few hours during the day. In a world riddled with tension and conflict, this couldn’t be more important. To this end, I have a saying that reflects our open culture: “There is room for everyone at the buffet.” I believe this to be the case in hospitality, in our country, and the broader world.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

You can find out more about the Chilean Salmon Marketing Council at chileansalmon.org and follow us on social media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) @chileansalmonmc

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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