The (re)localization of food systems is often presented as an alternative to the ‘globalized’ food system and its presumed unsustainabilities. Studies on sustainability transitions and food systems (re)localization predominantly address the role of Alternative Food Networks whereas the role that conventional supermarket based retail can play has not been as thoroughly studied. Supermarkets, however, take a central position as a main access point for food. Conventional retailing practices are increasingly guided by corporate sustainability principles and therein also increasingly offering locally sourced foods. Supermarkets thus cannot be ignored in discussions on food systems (re)localization and agro-food sustainability transitions. In this paper we assess how food system (re)localization is translated within conventional globalized supermarket-based food retailing in Belgium and the Netherlands taking a practice theory informed approach. First, we discuss the tensions and reinforcing mechanisms between local and conventional food retailing. We demonstrate that to overcome tensions between local and conventional retailing there is a need for increased flexibility (i) in deviating from conventional retailing practices for individual stores; and (ii) within the definition of locality – the definition of ‘local’ determines what local practices look like. Second, we assess how local retailing relates to corporate sustainability. Conventional and local retailing practices are motivated by corporate sustainability strategies. Local retailing is predominantly motivated by social-economic sustainability considerations, whereas the environmental sustainability of local food is implicitly assumed. However, our results suggest that local food retailing may be ineffective and even counterproductive to corporate environmental sustainability objectives. Finally, we address how regional policies pushing food system localization influence local food retailing within supermarkets. Regional policies may drive supermarkets to retail local foods. Nevertheless, in the absence of a centralized strategy, store managers may find themselves stuck between their regional context and their corporate retailing practices.
- Conventional retailing
- Corporate social responsibility
- Local food
- Social practice theory
- Sustainability transitions