Sustainable food consumption in urban Thailand: an emerging market?

K. Kantamaturapoj

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


The food market in Bangkok has developed from a purely traditional one to a combination between traditional and modern sectors. In 1970s and earlier, fresh markets accounted for a hundred percent of food shopping in Bangkok. From that time on, the modern food retails in Bangkok has rapidly spread since the late 1990s. Many chain stores of the transnational supermarkets such as Carrefour, Tesco Lotus, and Casino are discovered everywhere in Bangkok. These multinational supermarkets have global sustainable development policy which the local chain must select some elements that compatible to the local context to implement in the country.

In Thailand, most of foods are produced in the rural area, processed by the food factories, supplied by food suppliers, and sold by the providers. At the end of this long food supply chain, there is a consumer in the urban area of the country who never knows sources of food and how were foods produced. Moreover, food scandals such as pesticide-use, bird flu, and swine flu makes consumers in Bangkok start questioning about safety of food sold in the stores whether they can be trusted. Besides, the urban lives and increase tension and physical health problems, which make Bangkok people pay attention to health issues. The consumers in Bangkok are modernized, urbanized, richer, and more concerned about food safety. The small part of consumers in Bangkok more frequently shop in the specialized shop for sustainable foods such as organic food, chemical free food, and fair-trade food that safe for their health and the environment. 

This research focuses on both providers and consumers to study emerging sustainable food market since any increase in the level of sustainable food consumption requires both providers and consumers to change their strategies and behaviour in a more sustainable direction. Providers possess the power to influence the level of consumption of sustainable food products by offering green foods to consumers. They play a powerful role in creating and expanding green market, because they can also influence and lead other actors, such as farmers and producers, in the supply chain.

In Bangkok, there are two main channels that distribute sustainable foods: 1) specialized shops and 2) supermarkets.The specialized shops constitute the niche market while the supermarkets form the mainstream market. The specialized shops and the supermarkets differ in their views on sustainable food, their existing market shares, management systems and the connections they have with their suppliers and customers. Consequently, they develop their strategy to introduce and promote sustainable food in Bangkok in different ways.

The specialized shops form the “Green Market Network” to work together and empower individual shop owners. The major tasks of the network are to procure sufficient and reliable sources of sustainable food for the individual shops, to improve their businesses by learning from each other’s experiences and to expand the market for their products.  Their main task is to locate reliable suppliers to supply real sustainable food to the shops in the network. The specialized shops are not so focused on certification but, instead rely on trust: going to the farms and seeing the way of production with their own eyes.  Then, they are confident about the products they sell and can pass this trust onto their customers.  This trust in sustainable food is primarily generated by personal interactions. The specialized shops communicate with consumers in an informal and friendly way, talking directly to the consumers in the shop and organizing activities with the consumers. The specialized shops regard themselves and their organization as well-defined and well-established. They believe that they do what they have to do energetically and do not compare themselves to the mainstream retailers. They do not feel that they are behind the supermarkets which are offering modern, imported, certified, sustainable, food. They are self-confident about their own way of realizing (green) growth. Instead of growing in terms of quantity, the specialized shops would rather follow the ‘small, specialized and beautiful’ concept and develop their network. This analysis of the present position and strategies of the specialized shops suggests that they will continue to play a role in providing sustainable food but are likely to remain niche market actors for the foreseeable future.

Unlike the specialized shops, the supermarkets see themselves as actors operating in a global business system characterized by increased competition for green business. The sustainability policy generally comes from management at the head office and is passed down to the action level in the chain stores. For a multinational supermarket, like Carrefour, the sustainability policy is established at the head office in the mother country and developed for its outlets all around the world. Due to their formal management strategies, the supermarkets are more removed from their consumers and communicate with them in more indirect ways. The supermarkets tend to use standard certification and labels as important information strategies to inform their consumers and give them confidence about green offers. Although national regulations for sustainable food in Thailand are not well developed, the supermarkets do not wait for help from the government. They develop their own quality signs or a symbol of reliance to inform their customers and to give consumers trust in sustainable food. The supermarkets are aware of the global tendencies towards more green preferences and how these are influencing consumers in Bangkok. They realize that, in the near future, consumers will probably buy more sustainable food from their supermarkets. In an effort to guarantee market shares, we can expect supermarkets in Bangkok to contribute to the on-going growth of sustainable food provision. This is especially true of the multinational and upscale supermarkets.

Following on from the focus group discussion result, it was assumed that there were three types of consumers in Bangkok: i) specialized shop customers who always bought food in green stores, ii) high-end supermarket customers who always bought their food in upscale supermarkets, and iii) discount store customers who always bought their food in discount stores. The survey found many shared characteristics between the three groups. First, they were modern consumers who shopped at modern retailers such as specialized shops and supermarkets. Secondly, the education level and income of these three types of consumers were quite similar: all of them can be categorized as middle class. Thirdly, their eating habits were similar in terms of eating traditional Thai food both at home and outside.

As stated before, this study assumed that there were three groups of consumers. It is obvious that the customers of specialized shops differed from the other two groups in terms of their awareness, knowledge, and their perspectives on providers’ strategies. They were more concerned about the safety of food and looked for information in the shop as well as at the products for certification standards and information on the package. Their knowledge about sustainable food was distinctly higher than that of the other two groups. Moreover, they realized the health benefits of sustainable food and understood the reason for paying extra for safer food. This study did not find any clear distinctions between the customers of high-end supermarkets and those of discount stores. They were rather similar in terms of their consumption of sustainable food and both had limited knowledge about sustainable food. They can both therefore be categorized as conventional consumers. This survey leads us to the conclusion that, in terms of sustainable food consumption, there are two groups of consumers in Bangkok: green consumers and conventional ones.

The results from this research indicate that the specialized shops in Bangkok already perform well in presenting a green profile and selling green products to a specific group of consumers. However, if the overall consumption of sustainable food in Bangkok is to increase, conventional consumers need to engage in shopping for sustainable food. The supermarkets can play an important role in offering green food products to these consumers. At the moment, the assortment and proportion of sustainable food available in the supermarkets is still limited. In addition, the available sustainable food assortments do not match the eating habits of most consumers. All the groups of consumers in the survey usually eat Thai food, which normally consists of rice and side dishes. However, many sustainable food items currently available in the supermarket cannot be considered as basic Thai foods. These western sustainable foods do not fit the eating habits of most consumers in Bangkok and this does not give most consumers in Bangkok much opportunity to go green.  

The final conclusion of this thesis suggested ways in which supermarkets can improve their green provisioning and make this more visible to consumers. Firstly, supermarkets can present themselves as a ‘green’ company by engaging in sustainable practices such as using energy saving light bulbs, recycling waste and offering a wider variety of sustainable food products in their outlets. These sustainable performances should be clearly displayed to the consumers to create the image of a green company. This green image can in turn be used by the supermarkets as a selling point, because consumers will be aware that they are buying food from a green company. Secondly, sustainable food products must be placed in a prominent position. However, a separate product shelf does not work very well by itself. Information, provided through some form of information bar, should be available directly beside the shelf. If a supermarket offers certified sustainable food, the meaning of each certification must be shown to help consumers distinguish the level of sustainability and make the choice that fits their preferences. Thirdly, since consumers in Bangkok consider sustainability to mean the same as health and safety, the information given to them must be focused on the health benefits of sustainable food. For example, it should communicate a story about the production process behind sustainable food, which does not allow the use of pesticides and chemical substances and is therefore safe for human health. Lastly, most consumers in Bangkok normally eat Thai food. Therefore, the supermarkets should offer more sustainable Thai food assortments, such as rice, various vegetables, meat and sauces, that fit Thai eating habits. Since many consumers in Bangkok do not cook, the supermarkets could also offer pre-prepared, ready-to-eat sustainable food. If sustainable food is offered in ways that fit Thai consumers’ lifestyle and habits they will buy more sustainable food and the level of sustainable food consumption will increase.


Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Spaargaren, Gert, Promotor
  • Oosterveer, Peter, Co-promotor
Award date21 May 2012
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789461732316
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • sustainability
  • food consumption
  • consumption patterns
  • food chains
  • food production
  • food products
  • urban areas
  • thailand
  • developing countries
  • south east asia
  • asia

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