Tales from the deep - Thai Union's dark art of greenwashing

World’s biggest tuna producer accused of conning customers with empty sustainability promises

Tuna being overfished in the Indian Ocean - photo credit - Alex Hofford

A global seafood company that supplies more than a third of the tinned tuna sold in the UK has been accused of cynical greenwashing and failing to act on promises to protect threatened ocean species.

Thai Union – which made a £124 million profit in the first quarter of 2024 – is the world’s biggest tuna processor and supplies all the John West tuna sold in the UK as well as own-brand tinned tuna and salmon for Tesco, Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons, and Iceland.

The Thai-based megacompany boasts of being committed to sustainability – but an investigation by Shark Guardian has exposed a chasm between its promises and actions towards sustainability as well as workers’ rights in its global supply chain.

The Thai Union cannery

Shark Guardian’s report titled ‘The Art of Greenwashing: Thai Union’s Sustainability Smokescreen’ exposes a pattern where, rather than meeting existing sustainability or workers’ rights targets, Thai Union simply publishes new goals.

By examining publicly available reports from the Thai Union Group, the report finds critical disparities between the company’s commitments and promises and evidence of a lack of progress in addressing either ocean sustainability or labour abuses.

“Talk is cheap and meaningless without action,” says Brendon Sing, Co-Founder of Shark Guardian. “The disparity between Thai Union’s promises and its actions has major implications for the health of our ocean.

“Customers are being hoodwinked by empty promises while shark populations collapse, especially in the Indian Ocean where Thai Union stamps its destructive ecological footprint.”

On paper, Thai Union Group promotes a progressive and transparent image. In reality, labour and environmental abuses are regularly exposed in its supply chain with no evidence of any concrete steps being taken to address the issues.

Greenpeace take action

Global tuna fishery supply chains are notoriously complex, which allows tuna processors like Thai Union to distance themselves from problematic suppliers and hide behind opaque informal relationships.

Thai Union has faced years of criticism for human rights and environmental abuses in its supply chain. Revelations of labour abuse, shark finning, or overfishing in the Thai Union supply chain have come from outside organisations, including environmental NGOs, rather than from the industry-driven mechanisms that were set up to tackle these very issues, such as Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs).

The Shark Guardian report states that FIPS “which are held up as examples of sustainability initiatives, do not meet their objectives, with essential risk assessments for serious allegations like human trafficking and forced labour postponed as if they were minor infractions.”

“Industry-funded FIPs appear to be used as an additional layer of greenwashing” says Alex Hofford, a marine wildlife campaigner at Shark Guardian. “Promoting a narrative of progress in the absence of tangible evidence looks more like a comms strategy than actual policy.

“Thai Union makes promises it has no intention of keeping as a way to deflect criticism. A case in point is its so-called SeaChange2030 ‘sustainability strategy’ which they’ve put up as a front to bamboozle investors, the public, and the media.”

Hofford believes there is a demonstrable pattern of greenwashing across industrial fisheries, and that as an industry leader Thai Union needs to be dissolved.

“Thai Union claims to be committed to supporting responsible and sustainable fisheries, but the company’s supply chain network and traceability are murky at best,” he argued.

“They are laundering dodgy tuna onto the market to an unsuspecting public. I believe that to save crashing populations of sharks, turtles, whales and yellowfin tuna, this unethical company should be broken up and sold off for parts.

“Our new report reveals that Thai Union are masters of greenwashing. Making promises is easy, but renewing empty promises every few years is pernicious. We’re calling on Thai Union Group to step up and deliver the sustainable future the company claims it aspires to, or else it should be broken up.”

Download the report here