Restructuring Food Supply: Food, Sustainability and Supermarkets
Environmental Policy Wageningen University Wageningen, Netherlands
In just a few decades, supermarkets have become central locations for selling and buying food worldwide and thereby they have also become obligatory passage points for sustainable food sales. Even though still some specialised shops and dedicated distribution mechanisms exist, most "sustainable foods" are nowadays sold via supermarkets. Mainstreaming sustainable food provisioning therefore requires the inclusion of supermarkets.
This paper will discuss different supermarket strategies towards sustainable food provision with particular attention to consumer involvement. Many retailers have subscribed to the importance of sustainability but they differ in:
- if and how they share this with their consumers;
- their understanding of sustainability and food;
- the marginal or structural integration of sustainability in their overall strategy;
- their passive or pro-active stand in relation to other actors in the system of provision
Hereby, supermarkets are confronted with two key tensions:
- between uniform global standards and local specificity in response to different understandings of sustainable food mediated by producers, consumers, NGOs and governments
- between consumer and provider roles as sustainability can be achieved through consumer empowerment ("political consumerism") or organised "behind the consumers" back within the system of provision.
This paper will conclude by confirming the key position supermarkets have in transitions towards sustainable food provision. Their contribution should however not be understood in isolation but as a key node in a chain of systems connecting food production and consumption. This includes in particular the supermarket floor where provider logic and consumer logic meet each other and understandings and practices on sustainable food are (re-)created. There are different strategies to increase sustainability in food provision whereby some are provider induced and others government or consumer induced.