Challenging Big Food Sustainability: Dietary Change and Corporate Legitimacy in the Agrifood Landscape
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Growing awareness of the environmental, health, and social impacts from the foods we eat has meant renewed attention on the concept of 'sustainable diets'. The sustainable diets literature, to date, has focused on the environmental impact of meat and dairy, and the potential for environmental improvements from individual dietary change. However, given increased consumption of ultra-processed foods (formulations of industrial ingredients made to be convenient, palatable and profitable) along with their environmental and health impacts, it is important to also examine the role of the corporations that manufacture these foods in debates around sustainability. The world's largest food and beverage manufactures, collectively known as "Big Food" corporations, are the primary makers of ultra-processed foods and are working extensively frame themselves as having a legitimate role in the food system through a variety of corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. This thesis examines three questions. 1) What sustainability strategies are Big Food companies pursuing to claim legitimacy? 2) How do insights from the literature on the global governance of food and the environment help us understand Big Food companies' choice of sustainability strategies? 3) What are the policy implications of Big Food sustainability strategies for achieving sustainable diets? To answer these questions, the research examined sustainability reports, policies, and positions of the eleven largest food and beverage manufacturers globally. The thesis identifies three main strategies connected to sustainable diets that make up part of the larger sustainability activities of these companies. First, as a portion of their CSR, firms engage a variety of 'scientized' data and discourses to measure and discuss their sustainability performance. Second, responsible sourcing has become a strategy of all corporations in the sector, based on the assumption that sustainably-sourced ingredients will make a product sustainable when it reaches consumers. Finally, product-portfolio management ensures that companies have varied portfolios that increasingly feature products deemed environmentally-friendly and healthy. After the strategies were identified, the thesis applied an analytical framework that outlines key political and economic characteristics of the global agrifood landscape that matter for global environmental politics of food. This analytical framework was used to analyze how these features enable corporate actors to make legitimacy claims about the work they are doing and their role in future food security and sustainability. The research from this dissertation illuminates the policy implications of the sustainability strategies being implemented and the governance context in which they are established. First, Big Food companies are pursuing narrow visions of sustainability that may obfuscate issues and their linkages in the food system. Second, the features of the agrifood landscape, as well as unique characteristics of the sustainable diets debate, enable these corporate actors to tie their legitimacy claims to their corporate sustainability work to establish themselves as part of the solution to challenges in the food system. Finally, these strategies, articulated in this context of fraught food politics and sustainable diets debates, protect corporate growth and mitigate risk, partially by downloading risk and responsibility onto the most vulnerable actors in the food system. The intention behind recent conceptualizations of sustainable diets - established at a 2011 scientific symposium - was to bring forward a holistic vision of the food system that recognizes the interconnected nature of human health and ecosystems. However, the interpretation of the concept through corporate sustainability raises important questions about the legitimacy of Big Food corporations and their role in the future of food security and sustainability.
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Caitlin Michelle Scott (2019). Challenging Big Food Sustainability: Dietary Change and Corporate Legitimacy in the Agrifood Landscape. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/14571