Sustainability values in Alternative Food Networks
: the case of Box Schemes and CSAs

  • Paola Andrea Guzman Rodriguez

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    The industrialisation of agriculture has transformed it from a subsistence to a commercial activity. Aided by the change to neoliberalism in the 1980s, multinational food corporations used industrialised agriculture to globalise their businesses. This conventional food system integrates production, processing and marketing into a few firms which operate around the world. Its effects have caused detriment worldwide to rural life, the environment and people’s health (Welsh, 1997; Clunies-Ross and Hildyard, 2013). The organic movement was created to overcome this new system. However, it also fell prey to neoliberalism and therefore conventionalised to the point that organic produce is available in most supermarkets today (Conford, 2001; Darnhofer et al., 2010). Within the organic and sustainable food movement there were some that disagreed with the move towards neoliberalism and therefore a subsector of independent farmers and retailers was born (Guthman, 2004). This sector is studied by the Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) literature.

    AFNs include commercial initiatives such as box schemes, community supported agriculture (CSAs) initiatives and farmers’ markets and non-commercial initiatives such as community and school gardens (Allen et al., 2003). Early literature established that AFNs are an alternative to the conventional food system, but subsequent literature evidenced that AFNs implement both alternative and conventional values (Ilbery and Maye, 2005) and that some AFN characteristics can be adopted by multinationals (Tregear, 2011). As such, the literature has not been able to determine the difference between AFNs and the conventional food system. This research argues that the difference is that AFNs promise to be sustainable through the implementation of sustainable values. As such, to establish their difference it is necessary to study how sustainable values are practiced and to what extent.

    Existing research on sustainability is unsuitable to study how sustainable values are practiced and to what extent. Sustainability assessment tools are unsuitable because they do not approach sustainability holistically, are design for specific purposes, define sustainability form their own perspective and they do not expose the values of the food system (Schader et al., 2014; Alrøe et al., 2016; Maye and Duncan, 2017). Moreover, research on sustainability of AFNs tends to skirt around its practice to focus on behaviours, cultural advantages and methods that contribute to sustainability. The few papers that study the sustainability of AFNs concentrate on the contextual factors that shape sustainability, aspects involved in its practice and the social, economic and environmental impacts of AFNs (Miller, 2015; Forssell and Lankoski, 2017). However, none of these studies set out to determine how and to what extent sustainability values are practiced.

    To this end the research developed a novel methodology based on a ‘quilt’ of analytical tools adapted from Alternative Food Networks (AFN), Values Based Supply Chains (VBSC) and business studies literature. To understand how sustainable values are practiced, the methodology concentrates on one type of AFN. Hence, box schemes and CSAs are chosen due to their similarities. The methodology uses as data operational and financial characteristics as these concentrate on the enterprise rather than on the individuals involved. It is argued that these characteristics are a result of how sustainability values are practiced and traded-off. Eight case studies from England and Wales were chosen to develop the methodology.

    The research proposes that box schemes and CSAs practice sustainability by choosing two main values: first, the ‘principle value’ which is the most important and the one case studies achieve the most, as their operations are designed to accomplish it; and second ‘commercial behaviour’ which is the way they behave towards earning money. These two values impact social, economic and environmental values, making case studies trade-off between them. The extent to which values are practiced is dependent upon principle value and commercial behaviour.

    The thesis makes an original contribution to knowledge in several aspects. First it has developed a detailed analysis of the operational and financial characteristics of eight box schemes and CSAs in England and Wales. Second, this thesis develops a new methodology to study the sustainability of case studies from their own terms rather than from a predetermined list and considering social, economic and environmental issues. By doing so the research advances knowledge of AFNs in operational and financial characteristics, economic aspects, customers, sustainability practice and study, trade-offs, hybridity and values. Finally, the research contributes to the debate about the difference between AFNs and the conventional food system. It proposes that whilst commercial AFNs practice a principle value that contributes to sustainability and trades-off other sustainability values, businesses within the conventional food system practice a principle value that is primarily economic.
    Date of AwardSept 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorMoya Kneafsey (Supervisor) & Ulrich Schmutz (Supervisor)


    • alternative food networks
    • sustainability
    • values
    • box schemes
    • community supported agriculture

    Cite this