SUSTAINABLE FOOD CONSUMPTION: OPPORTUNITIES AND CONSTRAINTS TO ETHICALLY MOTIVATED CONSUMERISM
Smith, Justin Griffis
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The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) identified consumption, mainly in industrialized countries, as a primary driver of environmental degradation. Subsequently, Agenda 21 urges countries to promote sustainable consumption among their citizens. The belief is that consumer demand for sustainably produced goods and services will motivate producers to adopt new practices to meet this demand. Thus, creating a sustainable society rests in part upon a growing number of people who incorporate environmental and social values into their daily purchasing decisions.This dissertation critically examines sustainable consumption, by considering consumer engagement in alternative food provisioning. Three separate studies were carried out to explore some of the drivers and constraints to ethically motivated consumption. In particular, I focus on the discourse of sustainable foods, examining the ways adherents to conventional and alternative agri-food models define and inform the public about sustainability and foods. This is followed by an investigation into the relationship between socio-economic status and attitudinal support for sustainability attributes. Finally, I assess the role of cognitive beliefs about the environment in motivating sustainable food provisioning. The research was carried out through qualitative and quantitative analysis of textual data and survey responses. Textual data defining sustainability was collected from websites of organizations associated with conventional and alternative agri-food systems in the United States. Survey data used in these studies was collected in fall 2010 from households residing in Washington State. Analysis revealed organizations' difficulty in communicating a coherent message about sustainable foods, particularly when informing the public about social equity. This undermines people's ability to make informed, ethically based consumer choices. The second study shows widespread support for foods produced in a sustainable manner has grown. However, this does not equate to a willingness to pay. Affluent consumers may be more effective in determining changes in our agri-food system. Communication problems and potential disparities in "voting" by one's dollar raises concern about the efficacy of consumption driven social change. However, cognitive beliefs about the environment are significant determinants of consumer choice. This suggests opportunities for expanding ethically motivated consumption through the cultivation of empathetic views towards the natural world.