Sustainability awareness and agency in food

This project endeavoured to understand the psychosocial, sociocultural and structural factors that encourage or prevent sustainable food citizenship practices in Cardiff, UK. This project found that sustainable food citizenship practices can exist at the global as well as the local, in supermarkets as well as local initiatives. Sustainable food citizenship belongs not to a physical place, but a psychological place. As such, in addition to understanding structural opportunities and obstacles for sustainable food citizenship, my research focuses on the psychosocial influences such as values, attitudes, self-efficacy and locus of control.

This project amended and applied Hirschman’s (1970) ‘exit, voice, loyalty’ framework in order to identify the different behavioural responses that people have in the face of sustainability problems in the food system. Hirschman’s EVL framework is useful in researching food behaviour since food procurers are faced with a variety options when they become concerned about sustainability problems and decide whether to exit and search for an alternative, voice their concern and try to contribute to change or, lastly, remain loyal to the status quo. In order to distinguish between those who are unconcerned and those who are concerned but are unable to act, resignation was added as another potential response.

Participatory photography (photovoice) formed the basis of semi-structured interviews and focus groups with food procurers, NGO leaders and policymakers. The use of photovoice added value in four ways: (1) it built a rapport between the researcher and the participants; (2) participants reported thoroughly enjoying the process; (2) they gave verbal insights that they admitted would not have been possible without the exercise of photovoice; (4) and the photos in themselves add another layer of non-verbal data that enriched the interviews and subsequent analysis.

One key takeaway from the data is that a certain level of understanding and care for sustainability issues in food cut across demographics and food behaviours. Nevertheless, food practices did not often reflect this due to structural or psychosocial barriers, such as price and external locus of control. Health was the predominant driving factors for the procurement of sustainable food and spatial distance of sustainability problems in the food supply chain caused cognitive dissonance and, often, inaction. The majority of participants expected businesses and/or governments to fix the problems, putting into question the idea of citizen engagement. Finally, a divide was felt between supermarket shoppers and ‘other’ procurers who were perceived as wealthy or pretentious, thus resulting in community-based food practices appearing unattainable or undesirable.

In terms of policy recommendations, there is a need for a more holistic approach to increasing citizen engagement. The high levels of individualism mean that passing the buck or ignoring and the problem was common. Nevertheless, there is a widespread desire for social justice and environmental change in the food system which must be harnessed. Attempts to increase altruism by highlighting distant problems may be ineffective at producing behavioural change, whereas great interest in health (and other egoistical concerns) should be used to communicate sustainability issues and increase sustainable food citizenship practices.

Key words: sustainable food, food citizenship, sustainable behaviour, sustainable consumption, consumer behaviour



Researcher: Marie Quinney