Strategies for a Sustainable Food System: Issues of Governance in a Corporate-led Model of Food System Localization

Open Access
Bloom, J. Dara
Graduate Program:
Rural Sociology
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
August 27, 2013
Committee Members:
  • C Clare Hinrichs, Dissertation Advisor
  • Leland Luther Glenna, Committee Member
  • Anouk Patel, Committee Member
  • Stephan J Goetz, Committee Member
  • Karl Stephen Zimmerer, Committee Member
  • Dr James Mc Carthy, Special Member
  • Hybrid Governance
  • Corporate Governance
  • Local Food Systems
  • Sustainability
  • Produce Supply Chains
  • Wal-Mart
Corporate sustainability programs have emerged as a mechanism for addressing the negative social and environmental externalities of current production systems, and often complement or supplement the role of nation-states in agri-food governance. This dissertation focuses specifically on how the Wal-Mart Corporation’s sustainability initiative is applied to the agri-food sector through its local produce sourcing program, and uses theories of governance to conceptually frame (1) how supermarket retailers’ practices supersede governmental regulations in the areas of development and sustainability (2) how outside organizations facilitate the implementation of Wal-Mart’s local produce sourcing program as a form of hybrid governance, and finally, (3) how this program operates on-the-ground by using theories of supply chain governance. This dissertation used qualitative research methods, including semi-structured interviews with fifty-nine agricultural producers in Honduras and the US. In addition, forty-three representatives from organizations that facilitate the integration of producers into Wal-Mart’s local produce supply chains were interviewed. Finally, store audits were conducted at 37 urban and rural grocery stores in the US to collect price data for local produce. Analysis of public/private partnerships in Honduras found that when non-profits assumed a commercial role to facilitate producer access to supermarkets, it undermined their legitimacy and led to the exclusion of producers with limited capacities. Relatedly, development projects were found to integrate food safety standards into agricultural outreach programs, thereby influencing perceptions of what constituted sustainable practices and extending corporate control beyond formal third party certification systems. In the US, ecological modernization theory and theories of corporate culture illustrate how Wal-Mart’s contextually-derived business strategies served as barriers to promoting local sourcing. In addition, a spatial analysis contributes to a growing literature about corporate social responsibility and consumer impacts, and found few differences between Walmart and other store types in terms of the accessibility and availability of local produce in the US. Overall, this dissertation finds that, absent a price premium, the value-added quality of being “local” is subsidized by public, private and non-profit organizations. Therefore, Wal-Mart’s local produce sourcing program continues to externalize costs and side step the challenges of introducing sustainable practices to the conventional food system.