Discourses of sustainability and imperial modes of food provision: agri-food-businesses and consumers in Germany

It is widely accepted that overcoming the social-ecological crises we face requires major changes to the food system. However, opinions diverge on the question whether those ’great efforts’ towards sustainability require systemic changes or merely systematic ones. Drawing upon Brand and Wissen’s concept of "imperial modes of living", we ask whether the lively debates about sustainability and ’ethical’ consumption among producers and consumers in Germany are far reaching enough to sufficiently reduce the imperial weight on the environment and other human and nonhuman animals.

By combining discourse analysis of agri-food businesses’ sustainability reports with narrative consumer interviews, we examine understandings of sustainability in discourses concerning responsible food provision and shed light on how those discourses are inscribed in consumers’ everyday food practices. We adopt Ehgartner’s discursive frames of ’consumer sovereignty’, ’economic rationality’, and ’stewardship’ to illustrate our findings, and add a fourth one of ’legitimacy’.

Constituting the conditions under which food-related themes become sustainability issues, these frames help businesses to (1) individualise the responsibility to enact changes, (2) tie efforts towards sustainability to financial profits, (3) subject people and nature to the combination of care and control, and (4) convey legitimacy through scientific authority.

We discuss how these frames, mirrored in some consumer narratives, work to sideline deeper engagement with ecological sustainability and social justice, and how they brush aside the desires of some ostensibly ’sovereign’ consumers to overcome imperial modes of food provision through much more far reaching, systemic changes. Finally, we reflect on possible paths towards a de-imperialised food system.

Steffen would like to mention that whilst this paper derives from his work with colleagues at the University of Graz, Austria and uses empirical data from Germany, a lot of SCI-DNA is involved in this paper. Mat Paterson and Ulrike Ehgartner have provided very helpful comments on earlier drafts and the paper draws conceptually on insights from Ulrike’s PhD thesis (and slightly extends them). We also draw upon Dan Welch’s and Alan Warde’s recent reflections on "renewing theories of practice" in Cultural Sociology.

The full article can be accessed here.

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