‘The right thing to do’: ethical motives in the interpretation of social sustainability in the UK’s conventional food supply

Agriculture and Human Values 36 (2):329-340 (2019)
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This paper explores the role of ethics and responsibility as drivers of a transition to a more sustainable agri-food system, by drawing on an investigation of the governance of social sustainability in the UK’s conventional food supply. The paper investigates how and why various non-state actors in the conventional food supply construe certain social obligations as being part of the remit of the food supply; whether ethics plays a motivating role; and the extent to which their activities are linked to sustainability. The paper uses data collected via two surveys of diverse entities in the conventional food supply, the first a survey of public-facing websites, the second a series of in-depth interviews. The entities ranged from primary producers, manufacturers and food service operators to consultancies, standard-setting organisations and advocacy groups. The study finds that actors view a variety of socially focused or socially beneficial activities as legitimate governance concerns for the conventional food supply, and that ethics plays a role in motivating or justifying these activities. However, the activities are inconsistently associated with sustainability, a finding that may undermine the use of sustainability programmes as tools for driving ethical agendas. Moreover, the dominant business framing of the conventional food supply means that ethical considerations are often expressed in terms of more instrumental priorities. Social sustainability or responsibility actions can be justified on moral grounds as ‘the right thing to do’ but usually have to be backed up in more pragmatic terms as a way of ‘doing well by doing good’.



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