Discourses of the food retail industry: Changing understandings of ‘the consumer’ and strategies for sustainability

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This paper addresses the various ways in which ‘the consumer’ is portrayed in sustainability debates within the food retail industry and how these are interconnected with concepts of industry responses to sustainability-related issues. Paying attention to the significance of the consumer as a rhetorical figure this research contributes to social science debates on consumer responsibility and the concept of consumer choice. The empirical study examines the attitudes, behaviours, roles and responsibilities ascribed to consumers in discourses on sustainability in “The Grocer” magazine during four time periods between 2005 and 2015. The analysis demonstrates that notions of both, ‘the consumer’, as well as ‘sustainability’ are mutually dependent and subject to change over time. A significant shift in the understanding of strategies and implementations for sustainability takes place, from a rationale of ‘helping’ consumers to make sustainable choices in the supermarket towards a rationale of responding to consumers demand for sustainability by eliminating unsustainable choices. Although the argumentation throughout all years is consumer-centred, this discursive shift detracts attention from the supermarket as a realm for strategies and implementations for sustainability. Based on these findings it is established that rather than assigning responsibility to consumers the analysed debates maintain the paradigm of consumer sovereignty. It is further concluded that it is not so much consumer responsibility expressed through consumer choice that determines which strategies for sustainability are taken into consideration, but the dominant interpretation of values and behaviour of the sovereign consumer located within a particular understanding of sustainability.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)154-161
JournalSustainable Production and Consumption
Early online date10 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018