Perspectives on the sustainability promise of alternative food networks, by Sini Forssell

 PhD thesis defended, with the permission of the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry of the University of Helsinki,  on 15 September 2017, under the supervision of Dr. Leena Lankoski.

Abstract. This doctoral dissertation examines the phenomenon of alternative food networks (AFNs) from the perspective of food system sustainability. AFNs are seen as a promising response to the sustainability issues associated with the conventional food system, but have also attracted criticism. Criticisms include uncertainty over AFNs’ actual sustainability impacts; arguments that many AFNs are hybrid rather than purely alternative; and that their impact on food system sustainability is limited, due to their marginal position. In this dissertation, comprising three original research articles and an introductory section, I explore the above-mentioned criticisms to advance understanding of AFNs’ sustainability. I seek to i) understand what sustainability claims we can make for AFNs based on their characteristics, ii) to develop understanding of AFNs’ hybrid nature and their complex relationship to the conventional food system through empirically examining the negotiation of acceptable practice in AFNs; and iii) understand how this negotiation can be understood to drive wider food  system sustainability transitions by shaping norms. The main theoretical framework used is convention theory. This theory examines the deployment of different notions of worth in coordinating economic activity, as actors navigate in different situations, and shape these situations through their negotiation of acceptable practices. I also apply convention theory to the framework of sustainability transitions, to frame the examination of norm-shaping within the niche of AFNs. The empirical focus of this study is an often-overlooked AFN  actor, alternative food retailers, involving a qualitative, multiple case study research covering nine cases of alternative food retail in Finland and the UK.  My findings suggest that AFNs may potentially contribute to sustainability, but their sustainability should be critically assessed on a caseby-case basis. The findings also suggest a plurality of shared ideals in the domain of AFNs and several areas of tension in AFN practice that AFN actors  must navigate. In doing this, the actors may also shape the norms and ideals in the sector. The conceptual examination contributes a clarified overview of AFNs’ potential sustainability impacts and limitations, and provides a practical framework to assess different food networks’ sustainability. The empirical analysis challenges certain underlying assumptions in the previous literature, and contributes a new understanding of AFNs’ hybridity, its causes and consequences, and the challenges involved in adopting sustainable practices. The analysis can help practitioners understand consumer considerations, and opportunities and obstacles to more sustainable practices. It also deepens the understanding of how new norms are negotiated in the sector, and suggests an alternative view of AFNs’ potential to drive change, besides scaling up and gaining a larger share of the food market. It uncovers the deeper ideals that the alternative food retailers promote, and how these are different from or similar to conventional food system norms and ideals. This understanding can also help practitioners in their norm-shaping work. Theoretically, the study contributes a more dynamic application of convention theory to agri-food studies. The use of convention theory contributes a new understanding of the human and cultural aspect of sustainability transitions. AFNs are ultimately both more and less than their promise. They are not automatically sustainable, or always purely alternative, but can challenge the conventional food system. Their indirect impact on the wider food system may be greater than suggested by their small size and reach. AFNs operate in a dialogue between different parties, and the general direction of this dialogue is instrumental in shaping what AFNs might be or become, and the achievement of sustainability in AFNs.

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