Sustainability of Local and Global Food Chains:
Introduction to the Special Issue
Gianluca Brunori and Francesca Galli *
Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment, University of Pisa, via del Borghetto, 80, 56124 Pisa, Italy;
*Correspondence: email@example.com; Tel.: +39-050-221-8979
Academic Editor: Marc A. Rosen
Received: 25 July 2016; Accepted: 26 July 2016; Published: 8 August 2016
Sustainability assessment is one of the keys to competition by food supply chains
over sustainability. The way it is conceived and embodied into decision-makers’ choices affects
the competitiveness of local and global chains. Science-based assessment methodologies have
made substantial progress, but uncertainties—as well as interests at stake—are high. There are
no science-based methods that are able to give an unchallenged verdict over the sustainability
performance of a ﬁrm, let alone a supply chain. Assessment methods are more suited for
medium-large ﬁrm dimensions, as planning, monitoring, and reporting are costly. Moreover, the
availability of data affects the choice of parameters to be measured, and many claims of local food
are not easily measurable. To give local chains a chance to operate on a level playing ﬁeld, there is
the need to re-think sustainability assessment processes and tailor them to the characteristics of the
analysed supply chains. We indicate seven key points on which we think scholars should focus their
attention when dealing with food supply chain sustainability assessment.
Keywords: sustainability assessment; local; global; food chains
1. Sustainability as a New Terrain of Competition
According to neoclassical economic theory, market transactions are impersonal: all a buyer needs
is knowledge of the price for a given commodity. In this ideal world, when the consumer makes a
choice, she may only consider her expected utility. Many market policies tend to orientate to this
ideal state; for example, by reducing tariff barriers, simplifying labelling rules, harmonizing common
technical standards or sanitary rules, or reducing controls at borders. To guarantee the functioning
of markets, public authorities set procedures, establish information and control systems, distribute
roles and responsibilities among actors, and identify authorities to ensure that commodities are safe
and compliant with a minimum set of quality rules. All these efforts should, in theory, make the
food system a “black box” for consumers—an object whose internal mechanisms do not need to be
known as long as it works effectively. Recurrent food scandals show that these efforts are not sufﬁcient:
free circulation of commodities on a global scale makes the system vulnerable to unforeseen and
unintended disease outbreaks and fraudulent behaviour.
Concerns and anxieties are ampliﬁed by a lack of information and transparency. As lack of
information turns into lack of trust [
], consumers increasingly aim at “looking into the black box”,
and increasingly shape their food choices according to new claims and aspirations of how sustainable
food systems should perform.
In reaction to these concerns, information becomes a key component of the product and an
object of competition: big players have invested in technologies, measurement tools, certiﬁcation
schemes, and social reporting to develop value-based coalitions with consumers and improve their
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Sustainability 2016,8, 765 2 of 7
The availability of information on a product changes the product itself, differentiating it from
similar products for which there is less available information. Information changes consumers’
behaviour, as it brings attention to issues hitherto considered unproblematic. When information
is available, actors of the food system are increasingly encouraged to reﬂect on the consequences
of their actions: consumers are facilitated in their search for coherence with their responsibilities
as citizens, private ﬁrms are asked to account for the consequences of their activities well beyond
operations they control directly, public institutions are encouraged to harmonize the principle of free
circulation of commodities to nature conservation, human rights, public health, and ethical principles.
Media, scientiﬁc research, institutional bodies, and even commercial communication address these
issues in an increasingly systematic way. Concepts such as “ecological footprint”, “virtual water”,
“food miles”, “product life cycle”, “indirect land use”, and “social metabolism”—to mention just a
few—are recognized well beyond a small circle of specialists. Although some are based on limited
data and far-from-robust methodologies, these concepts affect consumers’ choices and lifestyles.
The new form of competition is not only between ﬁrms, it is also between supply chains . Big
players in the food system build their brand reputation by controlling information and setting standards
over the whole product life cycle. The standards they develop add—and sometimes replace—private
governance to public governance. To build trust, they also engage in patterns of “extended governance”
that imply intense interaction with stakeholders and disclosure of information [
]. In contrast,
coordination of local chains—often constituted by farmers and artisanal producers—is mainly achieved
through informal relations. Farmers producing cottage products directly control the whole product
cycle, and respond personally for the quality of their products. At farmers’ markets, producers
exchange information, values, and images through face-to-face encounters [
]. When producers and
consumers belong to the same communities—as as in the case of Community Supported Agriculture
(CSA), Association pour le Maintien d’une Agriculture Paysanne (AMAPS), or Solidarity Purchase
Groups (SPG)—“social control” through frequent interaction is possible [
]. This level of informality
can be an important competitive advantage of local food, as personal credibility allows communication
of sustainability features that cannot be measured but are nevertheless perceived as real.
2. Local Food and Sustainability Assessment: The End of a Competitive Advantage?
In the absence of reliable information and a lack of trust in globalized chains, local food purchasing
has become a strategy for some consumers to keep control of the consequences of their choices.
In many consumers’ imaginations, “local” is associated with attributes such as “organic”, “artisanal”,
“biodiversity”, “natural”, “fresh”, “seasonal”, and “nutritious” [
]. To comply with the demand
for local food, producers have reduced the physical distance between production and consumption,
established direct links with consumers, redeﬁned the area of sourcing, set quality criteria for raw
materials, added value to local resources, and developed appropriate communication strategies.
“Local” has imposed itself as an alternative model to global food provisioning: small, diverse, and
sustainable against big, standardized, and destructive to natural resources [
]. The growth of
“the local”, together with increasing concern for sustainability and suspicion of industrial food, has
stimulated big players to take the issue of sustainability seriously. Large retailers and multinational
enterprises provide an increasing amount of information and broaden the range of claims made about
their products. Environmental, health, and ethical issues are a growing component of food business
communication strategies, which help them to gain a competitive advantage and pre-empt formal
]. Not surprisingly, “localization” has also taken place in conventional business. It is not
uncommon to ﬁnd supermarkets where the availability of local products is organized and promoted.
Some of them have revised the concept of retailing, building upon the supply of a myriad of products
with strong link to their “terroir”.
As a consequence, local and global chains tend to converge. Appropriation by the whole industry
of features originally introduced by local actors may be a threat to the niches local players have built up
over time. As both local and global chains address sustainability, and consumers can ﬁnd “sustainable”
Sustainability 2016,8, 765 3 of 7
products at a lower price, the perception that local chains are more sustainable than global chains may
be challenged. Moreover, not all local chains have the same performance. Accidents or frauds—always
possible when supply chains are opaque—may undermine the reputation of local food producers as
well. If consumers are encouraged to choose between products coming from different chains, they may
not ﬁnd enough evidence to support the choice of local instead of global products. This raises the need
to provide consumers with adequate information and decision-making tools.
3. Sustainability Assessment of Local and Global Chains: Methodological Issues
Sustainability assessment will be one of the keys of competition over sustainability. The way
it will be conceived and embodied into decision-makers’ choices will affect the competitiveness of
local and global chains. Science-based assessment methodologies have made substantial progress,
but uncertainties, as well as interests at stake, are high. There are no science-based methods that
are able to give an unchallenged verdict over the sustainability performance of a ﬁrm, let alone a
supply chain. Assessment methods are more suited to medium-large ﬁrm dimensions, as planning,
monitoring, and reporting are costly. Moreover, the availability of data affects the choice of parameters
to be measured, and many claims of local food are not easily measurable. To give local chains a chance
to operate on a level playing ﬁeld, there is the need to re-think sustainability assessment processes and
tailor them to the characteristics of the analysed supply chains.
The European research project GLAMUR (GLAMUR research project (FP7-311778,
www.glamur.eu) has been investigating which aspects in terms of sustainability and value
distinguish a global from a local food supply chain. It has developed a multidimensional approach
to the analysis of the performance of different supply chain conﬁgurations—balancing economic
determinants with other attributes related to health, environment, society, and ethics. Dynamics in
the value chains, socio-economic and biophysical indicators, local/global categories, and their limits
have been explored. A detailed overview is provided in the paper by Brunori et al. [
] included in
this special issue—here we indicate seven key points on which we think scholars should focus their
attention when dealing with food supply chains sustainability assessment.
3.1. The Multidimensionality of Sustainability
Discourse over sustainability often focus on the environmental dimension. The social dimension
is more rarely taken under consideration in assessment, and exercises for assessing health and ethics
are only in their infancy. Each of these dimensions raises a number of methodological issues, as most of
the impacts are indirect (occurring after a pathway of consequences) and delayed (occurring only after
a time lag). This implies that a wide range of potential impacts should be examined simultaneously.
Moreover, dimensions belonging to the social sphere are far less easy to capture in a quantitative
way. Grivins and colleagues [
] make an effort in this sense, by comparatively analysing the social
performance of global and local berry supply chains (in Latvia and Serbia) and exploring the ways in
which the social dimension is embedded in the overall performance of food supply chains.
Several papers included in this special issue address food chains’ sustainability performance,
explicitly considering its multidimensional nature in different food sectors: for example, Schwarz
and colleagues [
] analyse economic development, resource use, labour relations, distribution of
added value, and governance for local Belgian and global Peruvian asparagus value chains. Galli and
] compare local and global bread chains across 19 attributes of sustainability performance
spanning economic, social, environment, health, and ethics. Schmitt et al. [
] compare cheese value
chains in Switzerland and the UK in terms of affordability, creation and distribution of added value,
information and communication, consumer behaviour, resource use, biodiversity, nutrition, and
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3.2. Boundary Setting and Deﬁnitions
Supply chains are mental constructs applied to formal or informal organizations and can be
deﬁned as the "entire networks of entities, directly or indirectly interlinked and interdependent in serving
the same consumer or customer" (http://www.businessdictionary.com/deﬁnition/supply-chain.html).
Assessing food chains means “following the product”; that is, analysing the material stream from the
raw material to the ﬁnal product. However, doing this may lead to overlooking the importance of joint
processes and products linking different chains. Several questions that explore this complex dynamic
arise, such as: how to assess local produce that is sold in a local supermarket outlet? How to evaluate
a “local” sandwich served in a global fast food chain? How to assess a local wine (local grapes and
local wine for local consumers) when its producer also makes wine with grapes sourced globally and
sells them in Asia?
As part of a multidimensional sustainability assessment of local and global wine chains, Touzard
and colleagues [
] make an attempt to objectivize which aspects of wine are local and which are
global by referring to the geographical distance between consumption and production, the number of
intermediaries along the value chain, the nature of incorporated resources, product identity, and the
leading actors as regards governance.
There are boundary deﬁnition problems also related to the variability of relational and spatial
conﬁgurations of supply chains in time. Given that many markets work as “spot” markets, supply
chain conﬁgurations are subject to continuous change, depending on market conditions. In this case,
boundary setting could be a difﬁcult task. When, on the contrary, food supply chains are coordinated
through governance tools (e.g., Protected Designations of Origin schemes), assessment can be a
relatively easier task, as governance gives conﬁgurations a relative stability.
3.3. Chains vs. Systems
Assessment of supply chains may not be sufﬁcient to properly assess sustainability. A product
can be safe and nutritious, but if not included in a proper diet, its consumption may generate health
problems. Fish is nutritious and healthy, but a generalization of ﬁsh-based diets may bring too
much pressure on ﬁshery stocks. Sustainable ﬁshing techniques may not be sufﬁcient when such
pressure on stocks occurs. To address the level of sustainability with regard to issues such as these,
a system-based approach would be needed. With a systemic approach, the impact of a product may be
anticipated through design (for example, to avoid waste, the product could have a longer shelf-life
or a size tailored to customers’ needs). Firms may coordinate among themselves to reuse or recycle
leftovers. Firms’ communication may provide information about sustainable consumption, as in the
case of the nutritional labels or on indications about how to recycle. In their review, De Laurentiis
and colleagues [
] turn to a systemic approach and identify synergies and trade-offs between water
and energy systems and food systems, and therefore opportunities for efﬁcient resource use and
reduced environmental impact both in food production practices and consumption choices. Employing
sustainable production methods in agriculture, changing diets, and reducing waste in all stages of the
food chain are three main identiﬁed pathways to achieving food security in a (more) sustainable way.
3.4. What Are the Implications of Different Global–Local Value Chain Conﬁgurations on Sustainability?
To be able to assess the sustainability of local food chains, and to compare them with other spatial
conﬁgurations, it is necessary to understand the implications of their speciﬁcity. In other words,
we need to understand whether the characteristics that allow us to classify the chain as “local” or
“global” are decisive in obtaining a given sustainability performance. This question refers to the limits
and potential for each actor in the food chain to improve their own sustainability performance and the
overall supply chain to which they belong.
Oostindie and colleagues [
] show how—for the case of local and global pork chains Italy and
the Netherlands—performance assessment turns out to be intrinsically interwoven with place-speciﬁc
Sustainability 2016,8, 765 5 of 7
and multi-facetted local–global interaction patterns and mutual interdependencies. Food chain
performance analysis is much more about in-depth analysis of place-speciﬁc dynamics, interaction,
and strategies, rather than the description of static and de-contextualized performance proﬁles.
3.5. How to Turn Sustainability Criteria into Metrics?
Sustainability assessment is expected to measure the distance of existing situations from desired
situations and to compare different situations in a consistent way. A number of researchers have
engaged in the endeavour of providing sustainability metrics (see [
] for a review). Despite these
efforts and the growth of an “indicator industry”, we are still far from having reached satisfactory
results in measuring sustainability [
]. Several authors have proposed reasons why outcomes are
so disappointing; for example, uncertainty over the meaning of sustainability, different priorities
given by different groups, insufﬁcient knowledge of the realities under observation. Aware of these
limitations, there is the need to explore multiple measurement methods and indicators, with the
purpose of identifying the limits to existing methodologies and possible future research avenues.
3.6. How to Capture the Evolution of Food Chain Performance?
Different supply chain conﬁgurations may have different performance evolutions. Assessing
performance in a static way—that is, measuring indicators in a given time—would not adequately
capture the motivations, endeavours, and the capacity of the actors involved to change. Re-localization
initiatives may be a response to globalizing chains, whereas, conversely, global chain actors may
re-integrate and re-incorporate “local elements” in their business strategy as speciﬁc responses to a
renewed attention to their potential societal beneﬁts. Similarly, local chains may incorporate global
elements to improve their resource use efﬁciency.
When assessing local food chains, one can detect very radical declared goals and very innovative
practices, but also inefﬁciencies related to a lack of resources or to inexperience. Global food chains,
on the contrary, can be very efﬁcient in pursuing given sustainability indicators, but may be rigid in
adapting their sustainability efforts to changing conditions and societal needs. Moreover, the necessity
of optimizing their processes based on the chosen set of indicators of performance generates, as a side
effect, a systemic neglecting of those dimensions of sustainability that are more difﬁcult to deﬁne and
quantify in an uncontested way—i.e., those referring to cultural values and ethical considerations.
3.7. How to Account for Different Interests, Values, and Perceptions of Sustainability?
Multidimensionality raises a key methodological issue: metrics for the assessment cannot be
summed up to each other because some of them are based on observations referring to different
dimensions and scales. This implies that the quantiﬁcation of some of the assessments is obtained by
conﬂating non-equivalent descriptive domains, reducing non-reducible representations and models,
and requiring the use of different measurement units. Moreover, wide-ranging literature on food
systems provides multiple perspectives and world views. Various stakeholders deﬁne food and food
systems in non-equivalent ways. Furthermore, the relative importance of dimensions may change
according to different points of view in relation to values, interests, and knowledge: who decides
whether the analysis is addressing the “right” set of attributes of performance [
]? How to handle
the fact that different social actors carry legitimate but contrasting perceptions of what should be
considered as an “improvement”?
Multi-criteria analysis overcomes the simpliﬁcation that is generated through cost–beneﬁt
analysis—which only determines a reduction to costs and beneﬁts in monetary terms subject to
available information. However, it does not address the incommensurability of values. A reﬂection on
new ways of developing participatory integrated assessments is needed.
Gamboa and colleagues [
] set out to demonstrate that the pre-analytical adoption of different
narratives about the food system leads to non-equivalent assessments of the performance of food
supply chains. In order to do so, the authors identify a set of relevant narratives on food supply chains
Sustainability 2016,8, 765 6 of 7
in Spanish and Catalan contexts and the pertinent attributes needed to describe and represent food
supply chains within the different perspectives or narratives. Hence, they carry out an integrated
assessment of three organic tomato supply chains from different perspectives, enabling the analyst to
characterize the performance of food supply chains from different perspectives and to identify the
expected trade-offs of integrated assessment.
Galli and colleagues [
] also address the diversity of visions around what counts as sustainable
food. By integrating qualitative and quantitative data, stakeholder consultation, and multi-criteria
analysis, the authors align the visions and the multiple meanings of sustainability. Results emphasize
the value of combining science-led evidence with socio-cultural values, multidimensional sustainability
assessment as a self diagnosis tool, and the need to identify shared assessment criteria by communities
4. Sustainability Assessment of Local and Global Chains: Implications in Policies and Practice
Given that sustainability is a new competition terrain, sustainability assessment will be a key
aspect of food system governance. Smith and colleagues [
] consider how policy can address food
chains within a wider commitment to food sustainability, identifying processes of engagement—by
public policy, the market, and civil society—and points of engagement offered by existing policy
initiatives at global, EU, national, and sub-national policy levels. Scenarios as possible “food futures”
are used to illustrate the impacts on the “bigger policy picture” along the local–global continuum.
Connections are made between policy frameworks (as processes and points of engagement for food
policy) and the food “futures”.
Sustainability assessment is not only about measurement methods, it is ﬁrst of all a ﬁeld over
which different interests, representations, and discourses confront each other. Sustainability is a
“consensus frame” [
], something on which everybody is willing to engage and which, given
its relatively broad and undeﬁned meaning, is open to different interpretations and very diverse
applications. A “consensus frame” allows very different worlds—in this case local and global food
chains—to talk to each other and to learn from each other through deliberation.
To be able to generate change, sustainability assessment should be an open, diffuse, inclusive
process—implying a continuous interchange between science, civil society, business, and public
administrations, and bringing a shared and more robust knowledge.
The research has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework
Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement number 311778,
Global and Local food chain Assessment: a Multidimensional performance-based approach (GLAMUR) project.
Further information is available on the website http://www.glamur.eu/. The views expressed in this paper are
solely those of the authors.
Author Contributions: Both authors equally contributed to writing and revising this manuscript.
Conﬂicts of Interest:
The authors declare no conﬂict of interest. The founding sponsors had no role in the design
of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, and in the
decision to publish the results.
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