Knowledge for better food systems

Corporate food power and supply chain sustainability

Image: Phil Dolby, Harvest, Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

FCRN member Susanne Freidberg examines corporate sustainability practices in the food sector, noting that many early projects overestimated consumer interest in environmental impacts information and the ability of the supply chain to produce that data, and that effective initiatives often require businesses to partner with academia and NGOs.


In recent years, many of the companies collectively known as ‘Big Food’ have undertaken efforts to assess and improve agricultural sustainability, both within their own supply chains and as members of multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). Taking up Friedmann’s call for closer attention to corporate sustainability practices, this paper finds that companies are doing more than they advertise, but making slower progress than originally hoped. Up to a point, political economy perspectives on corporate power and governance help to explain both why these MSIs have taken shape, and why their corporate members’ immense market power might not guarantee quick results. Yet these perspectives do not fully capture how corporations’ sustainability efforts contend with not only other actors’ challenges to their legitimacy and authority, but also their own lack of knowledge and access to information. This paper therefore also draws on global assemblage and science and technology studies (STS) frameworks in order to analyze corporate power – and its limits – inside a set of ongoing sustainability initiatives.



Freidberg, S., 2018. Assembled but unrehearsed: corporate food power and the ‘dance’ of supply chain sustainability. The Journal of Peasant Studies, pp.1-18.

Read the full paper here. See also the tag Industry actions/CSR in the Foodsource video library.

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While some of the food system challenges facing humanity are local, in an interconnected world, adopting a global perspective is essential. Many environmental issues, such as climate change, need supranational commitments and action to be addressed effectively. Due to ever increasing global trade flows, prices of commodities are connected through space; a drought in Romania may thus increase the price of wheat in Zimbabwe.

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