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Collective purchase: moving local and organic foods beyond the niche market

Ruth Little*, Damian Maye and Brian Ilbery Countryside and Community Research Institute, University of Gloucestershire, Dunholme Villa, Park Campus, Cheltenham, GL50 2RH, UK (rlittle@glos.ac.uk; dmaye@glos.ac.uk; bilbery@glos.ac.uk). * Corresponding author

Paper submitted for Goodman, M, Maye, D and Holloway, L (2010) Ethical Foodscapes?: Premises, Promises and Possibilities, Environment and Planning A


Collective purchase: moving local and organic foods beyond the niche market
Abstract. This paper draws attention to the creative possibilities offered by collective purchase as a mechanism to move local and organic foods beyond the niche market. The food buying group and cooperative style of food purchasing has received only scant reference in the alternative food and ethical consumption literatures, but it offers much in terms of historical context and future lessons for growth in the sector. “We can do it better” is an experimental ethic of the1960s and 1970s counterculture, but it resonates strongly with the present-day ‘alternatives’ associated with the local and organic food movement. The paper uses Gibson-Graham’s (2005) notion of ‘diverse economies’ to examine selected buying groups and food co-operatives in North America, mainland Europe and Japan. The results reveal a highly pixilated and evolving mix of motivations and ethics. The ideology first, practicalities later approach appears to be a powerful influence, symbolising the ‘becomingness’ of ethical purchasing in these contexts.

Introduction Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) have been constructed as a constituent part of an everevolving ethical food-scape that enables consumers to partake in an expression of personal belief through their choice of food products and their means of production. AFNs are often represented as organised flows of food products that connect those who wish to consume ‘ethically’ with those who want a better price for their food, or who want to produce food in ways counter to the current market logic (Watts et al, 2005; Whatmore and Clark, 2006; Clarke et al, 2008). Through such networks consumers are encouraged to make moral judgements about what they buy based upon ‘additional criteria’; criteria that project the act of consumption beyond the immediate biological satisfaction that food brings (Barnett et al, 2004). The growth of AFNs and ‘valuesbased’ purchasing is well documented within agri-food studies (Maye et al, 2007; Kneafsey et al, 2008; Harris, 2009). Fair trade has attracted notable attention (Raynolds et al, 2007), with significant focus also afforded to organic and locally-based modes of provision (Allen et al, 2003; Wilk, 2006; Guthman, 2007a; Feagan, 2007), including the growth of short food supply chains and direct marketing (Ilbery and Maye, 2005; Kirwan, 2006; Holloway et al, 2007).

Direct food sales are based on the premise of encouraging greater ‘contact’ and ‘context’ within food transactions. There is an assumption that the social interactions between producers and consumers, coupled with a stronger attachment of products to their place of origin, will have


beneficial outcomes for the food system as a whole, which includes reinvigorating consumer confidence in what they buy (see Pollan, 2006). Critiques of such networks suggest they rely upon romanticised visions of the countryside, defensive forms of localism and/or positional acts of consumption (Guthman, 2007b). This applies especially to high value goods (e.g. local quality foods, organic foods) that cater for niche-orientated retail markets. These contrasting viewpoints have culminated in a complex mix of motivations that have worked together to fuel the growth of AFNs. Crucially, the attachment of additional criteria is fundamental to the creation of purposive acts of consumption that go beyond purely price-based choices.

Taking into account the processes that surround food in relation to environmental, social and political consequences is one of the fundamental tenets behind AFNs and the rise of ethical consumption (Barnett et al, 2004/2005). As Harrison et al (2005) note, the understandings of the ‘ethical consumer’ as a category are not straightforward. There is commonality, however, in the concern for “the effects that a purchasing choice has, not only on [consumers] themselves, but also on the external world around them” (ibid, 2). The oppositional characteristics of a local food system, which is deemed to be embedded within more direct and accountable socio-spatial associations, is a phenomenon that has fed the rise of a binary ethic that essentialises the position of the global as ‘bad’ and the local as inherently ‘good’ (Born and Purcell, 2006). The ‘local’ is transformed into an incubator for sustainable rural development, enhanced consumer confidence and the cultivator of a more positive socio-ecological agenda for agriculture. This forms an approach of ‘sustainability through proximity’ and forms a moral landscape predicated upon the creation of an ethic of ‘positive localism’ (Friedmann, 2007).

Johnston et al (2009) dissect this binary construction of global/local, good/evil by drawing upon Hinrichs’ call to create a more ‘reflexive’ account of localism, which seeks to “complicate the spatial” (Hinrichs, 2003: 36) and debunk the essentialised link between localism and progressive


In particular. 1997. Belasco. associated with food buying groups and food co-operatives.g.change. This paper contributes to these debates through an explorative analysis of collective purchase. capable of animating ethical consumption practice. The paper sets out a framework to examine these groups and provides an analysis of local and organic buying groups from North America. is an example 4 . 2007). political influence of individual ethical purchasing (Barnett et al. Kneafsey et al. politics and ethics. but their utilisation in the context of creating greater access to local and organic foods has been afforded only cursory reference within either the AFNs or ethical consumption literatures. 2004/ 2005). but here also little attention has been paid to cooperative and collective action. This paper suggests that collective purchasing groups may represent an important form of agri-food network and. selected to illustrate different modes of collective purchase. crucially. Hiding diversity beneath a veil of positive stereotypes obfuscates the process of how these interactions. have been bypassed within this research agenda. Despite an abundance of research on local and organic foods. including informal buying clubs and more commercially-orientated food co-operatives. The local is viewed instead as a heterogeneous entity that contains a multitude of interactions. there has been relatively little recognition of the diverse range of initiatives that are seeking to encourage the proliferation of AFNs beyond their niche market status (although there are exceptions . politics and ethics are enacted and created. such as collective food buying groups and food co-operatives.e. The ethical consumption literature does recognise the cumulative. contributions from ‘grassroots innovations’ (Seyfang and Smith. may also offer greater room for consumer voice and action. Europe and Japan. Diverse food economies and ethical consumption Friedmann (2007) argues that the scope for ‘scaling-up’ local and organic foods has reached its limits within the retailing sector and suggests that new ‘mechanisms’ need to be investigated. Food co-operatives are not a new phenomenon (Bell and Valentine. 2008). Collective purchasing. 2007).

2002. which shifts the focus away from the primacy of producer-led approaches. 2003.g..of one of these neglected mechanisms for growth. In order to investigate the possibilities for other strategies of broadening the reach of local and organic foods. transactions and productive processes that are frequently invisible to conventional development practitioners. Through the process of creative experimentation. this advocates a turn towards multiple. A focus on collective purchasing in turn requires a re-conceptualisation of the agri-food system. they suggest that what is conceived of as the ‘economy’ in more traditional political economic terms is merely the ‘tip’ of a deeper set of processes and relations that often remain hidden within developmental agendas. for e. Kneafsey et al. and opens up conversations about how to create growth within the sector that goes beyond purely market-led initiatives. Using the metaphor of an iceberg. bottom-up solutions” which culminate in the creation of ‘new “systems of provision”’ (Seyfang and Smith 2007: 594). 2008). Holloway et al. grassroots action. Hendrickson and Heffernan. These include all the neglected sites. such as households and communities purchasing food together. capitals and relationships that are taken to be the poor cousins of the waged market economy. These sites of action have been highlighted in work on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and community-led initiatives (see. DeLind. can generate “novel. market-led and monetary depictions of the ‘economy’ and argue that attention should be given to the full diversity of interactions. but they remain relatively small interventions in the efforts to scale-up local and organic food consumption. Gibson-Graham undermine the predominantly neoliberal. Instead of privileging growth through market forces. Allen et al. 5 . This resonates strongly with Seyfang and Smith’s (2007) work on the latent potential of ‘grassroots innovation’. it is instructive to draw on Gibson-Graham’s (2005) ‘diverse economies’ work and emerging ideas on food and citizenship. 2007. diverse ‘ecologies of productivity’. It is in this context that other productive units such as households and community spaces can help to galvanise the growth of AFNs. 2003.

recognising the worth and value of non-capitalist practices and non-monetary transactions within the economy (see also Graham et al. From the perspective of ‘grassroots innovation’. interesting conversations can be created about how to go about expanding these food networks in the context of a diverse food economy. which Harris (2009: 60) refers to as a “politics of the possible”. It also opens out the debate beyond the prescriptive associations between market-led initiatives and socio-economic development as an instructive step forward for research into the possibilities for AFNs. AFNs can be driven forward by producer and/or consumer input. it becomes productive to seek out creative interventions and “experiments of alterity” (Amin. In starting to uncover these multiple possibilities. Using Gibson-Graham’s more “hopeful geographies” (Lawson. Through widening the conception of where the potential drivers lie behind the growth of AFNs. This paper argues that these neglected elements of the economic process are crucially important in terms of understanding how food buying groups and food co-operatives function. This provides an opportunity to move beyond the negative critiques of ‘exclusivity’ that are levelled at some AFNs (Slocum. 2002. 2007a/b) and look towards the more positive project of finding mechanisms to tackle the barriers that prohibit greater consumer participation and inclusion. Through modes of experimentation in distributing local and organic foods. it is also instructive to draw upon a growing body of work that seeks to reconceptualise consumers as active. ‘Currencies’ such as payment-in-kind and neglected economic units such as household and community spaces are examples of these ‘other’ spheres of productivity. Gibson-Graham. 2005: 628) that may have the potential to broaden the niche and create more inclusive alternatives. Guthman. with influence from both the social and market economy. 2006. new routes of access and affordability can be investigated. As Holloway et al (2007: 4-5) state “there should be other ways of thinking about food networks that retain a sense of their diversity”. 2005: 36). 2003). innovative and effective agents 6 .

they demonstrate a multiple set of influences driven by necessity and choice. fashion and positional status. conscious ethic of transforming the food chain ‘for the better’. everyday routines of life such as shopping can become sites of civic participation. 2005: xvii). Clarke et al.of change (Clarke et al. 2007). they suggest the consumer is an active participant in the shaping of a deeply value-laden consumptive landscape (Friedmann. therefore. 2007: 240). This change in consumer demand is not guided by a single. 2007). however. it is argued that consumers utilise farmers’ market. papers drawn from the geographies of consumption literature have moved beyond the portrayal of the consumer as a passive agent. However. the personal becomes political based upon a negotiation of doing the ‘right thing’ within the wider confines of the “practicalities of everyday life” (Clarke et al. it is a key mechanism in the expression of a cumulative moral sentiment. In terms of ethical consumption. In particular. Food becomes a vector for change in professing a wider consumptive ethic of demanding traceable. 2007) of consumers involved in collective purchase may coalesce into a general ethics of creating an ‘alternative’ mode of local/organic food supply. Bringing collective purchase back into the frame: history and methodology 7 . By association. 2007). direct sales and the like as a mechanism for expressing values-based choices (Wilkins. the ‘pixelated politics’ (Latour. In the same vein. instead. It may stem from changes in shopping habits based upon income. In the case of ‘food citizens’. 2002). 2005. Consumers are not united in their motivations. transparent and trustworthy consumer products. Food is more than a material component in the food chain (Dixon. whereby consumers can express an opinion based upon “the politics of the everyday” (Mayo. the cumulative influence of this change in consumer choices galvanises critiques of the global food system and transforms food into a rallying point around which to enact a more sustainable way of living.

In trying to balance ‘economics vs. food was a powerful “edible dynamic” (Belasco 2007: 9). food cooperatives were frequently constructed as a means of creating change through the everyday acts of food purchasing and distribution. they faced continual ‘dilemmas’ between continued growth and the retention of their founding principles. These visions also come together in the form of collective purchase. herbal teas and soy products. propelled by the renewed interest in creating ‘alternative visions’ of how society should function. variations on the collective theme were ‘endless’. idealism’. the 1990s saw the emergence of CSA and direct sales as focus points of activism.The history of consumer action within the cooperative movement shows that food purchasing has been used as an organising component around which such actions have been hinged for generations. the guiding binary ethic of “we can do it better” remained. Experiments in this “new wave” (Cox 1994: 46) of collective purchase ranged from a few neighbours purchasing wholefoods in bulk through to storefront cooperatives. however. ‘price vs. This consumer-based collective activism resonates into the present day. The source of this diversity was that generally the ideology came first and the experiments in distributing and retailing came afterwards. the motivations behind individual members’ decisions to join the cooperative movement were multiple. As Ronco (1974: 34) explained. The rest of the paper will focus on this mode of purchasing in its contemporary context and examines the role that buying groups 8 . As Lang and Gabriel (2005: 43) document. Food co-ops and buying groups were thus part of the experimental alternatives to ‘mainstream foodways’ (Belasco 2007: 2). Looking to the prominent example of the counter-cultural movements within 1960s/early 1970s America. such as wholefoods. offering access to goods associated with the ‘countercuisine’. As the membership of these groups increased. As Cox (1994) explains. whilst the 1970s alternative visions were based around the wholefood coop. ideology’ groups undertook different growth trajectories based upon a negotiation between their ideals and what they could achieve in practice.

and telephone interviews with 18 of the 30 buying groups. The schemes provide illustrative examples of the various types of collective buying groups functioning in different geographical contexts that procure local and organic foods. A more focused strategy was used to identify examples from the USA. North America and Japan. Information for the sample was compiled using Internet searches. The sample of 30 groups thus represents a small proportion of the groups found in the initial data search and in operation more generally. Numerous buying groups function without any additional concerns for provenance and production process. especially schemes that actively source local and organic foods. using the sample to open up conversations about the possible practical benefits of buying groups and the types of ideological and ethical motivations that lie behind their formation. The material is therefore illustrative.and food co-operatives are playing in the development of AFNs. contacts established through intermediary organisations and personal recommendations of ‘successful’ groups gained from taking part in practitioner conferences held in the UK and mainland Europe. They reflect a diversity of schemes that fall under the ‘collective purchase’ label which procure organic and/or local foods as part of their product listing. which involved searching through local and organic food databases. This includes examples of groups that function on a national scale down to small. Interviews were conducted with key informants from the schemes. including the values and motivations behind their formation. directories such as localharvest. embryonic buying groups within a small neighbourhood setting. 9 . It is based on a purposive sample of 30 buying groups from mainland Europe. with the inclusion of local and/or organic foods within their purchasing agenda.org and the “FoodRoutes” catalogues. information was accumulated on their practical day-to-dayfunctioning and their more ideological stances. Interviewees tended to be the scheme organisers rather than consumers connected to individual schemes. These groups fall beyond the remit of this paper. Through secondary data analyses of websites and newspaper articles. The buying groups were identified based upon the definition of collectively purchasing food at wholesale prices.

with additional material provided by the other groups via email communication. formalised structure of a store-front co-operative or a community buying scheme. through to the large-scale. more explicitly.although. The next section of the paper introduces the 30 schemes. what spaces are available to them for 10 . The specifics are open to much discussion among the groups themselves”. Local and organic food buying groups in the US. and some way for them to distribute the food back among the group. informal example of a number of friends purchasing together. Europe and Japan The phrase ‘buying group’ is an umbrella term coined to include enterprises and initiatives that range from the small-scale. someone to sell them the food. these individuals were also purchasing goods. The majority of interviews were carried out with respondents from US-based buying groups because of language and translation constraints. paying particular reference to the diversity of politics that underpins the formation and priorities of these groups. Three of the nine European schemes were interviewed. some space to put them in. their length of time in operation and their legal structure. Two schemes are afforded more detailed comment as contrasting ways of running a buying group and different trajectories that can be taken in efforts to ‘scale up’ their operations. This will highlight some of the barriers and enabling factors which influence this kind of ‘experimental innovation’ and the practicalities that ultimately influence the extent to which their ideological aspirations can be achieved. reviewing the reasons why they became established. some of their money to buy food. The analysis then considers. The analysis of groups here suggests that the specifics depend on who starts the group. the relationship between collective purchase and food ethics. Interview transcripts and secondary data sources were accumulated into fact sheets which were designed to provide insight into the motivations and pre-requisites for growth and continued sustainability of the groups. Ronco (1974: 35) notes that: “The only ingredients necessary to start a food co-op are: a group of people. in the main.

through to Seikatsu Club in 11 . encompassing both corporate and not-for-profit. Once ordered. Through making use of volunteer labour and community or household buildings. the food is delivered to a convenient location and members of the group come together to divide it into individual orders. The collective distribution of goods to a central location also encourages a social function by bringing together people from within a certain community or neighbourhood. Figure 1 reflects the diversity of groups which function under the ‘collective purchase’ banner. The social ethic of creating positive communitarian capitals is also a distinctive outcome that ranks as highly as attempts to overcome the issues of access and affordability. The flexibility of this form of purchasing and distribution is such that schemes may be set up by a producer looking to sell in bulk as a further outlet for their produce. a store-owner as an adjunct to their existing business or (more frequently in this case) by groups of consumers wishing to gain greater access to local and/or organic goods. Buying groups can thus be viewed as a microcosm of the ‘diverse economy’ outlined by Graham et al (2002) and Gibson-Graham (2005). waged labour and payment-in-kind. and personal and communitarian gain. the initial low capital outlay allows small groups to form in order to begin collectively buying food in bulk quantities.distribution and the amount of volunteer labour within the group (particularly important in the initial stages) to fulfil the practical needs of the group. with only ten members. The embedding of food within this directly socialised mode of purchasing is fundamental to both the function and increasing appeal of this kind of alternative distribution. ranging from ‘Whole Foods of Panama City’ in the US. Examples surveyed in this paper indicate that the buying group is a potential mechanism for addressing issues of both access and affordability through providing an alternative source of distribution that is both low cost and more convenient for members. The use of such spaces and labour practices helps to reduce the overall cost of the products and to increase access to goods because delivery locations can be selected by the groups themselves.

The positional ethics of these groups (new and old) thus agree with the precedent of “we can do it better”. in the case of some of the smaller groups in the US. mainstream food supply systems. Proceeding from these diverse positions. which has over 250. Using their own labour and community/household buildings. each of these groups was founded upon different principles.000 members. has tackled some of the key financial and locational barriers encountered by the respondents.Japan. the buying group has been used by a small number of parents (in this case mothers) to gain access to fresh. NGOs such as FoodShare in Canada have also used a derivation of the buying group model (the “Good Food Box” programme) as a means of tackling food poverty by setting up an infrastructure which sources from producers in the Ontario area. The mechanism of collective and bulk purchasing. affordable organic food for their children. they have created their own access to these goods based upon pragmatic and creative interventions. For instance. Working on the premise of ‘food sovereignty’ as opposed to food access. Receiving a delivery at a convenient location (usually a member’s home or nearby community building). The survey also indicates that this form of purchasing has been charged with fulfilling different objectives. The inclusion of such a wide range of groups reflects the flexibility of collective purchase in adapting to different circumstances and scales. This may have been a structural critique of the agri-food system. or the lack of access to affordable organic foods. as was the case for Seikatsu Club. along with the saving associated with bulk purchasing. efforts have been made to create a more localised response to food inequalities. as in the case of Whole Foods of Panama City. ----. but the guiding catalyst for their inception was the perceived failings associated with conventional. with the inclusion of volunteer 12 .Insert Figure 1 about here ----Motivated to make provisions for purchasing and distribution outside of conventional food networks indicates both a will to enact creative interventions and underlines the role of collective purchasing as a mechanism for proactively professing a level of dissatisfaction with the existing system.

regional and fair trade sourcing. in response to a growing membership base. owes much to the Housewives Movement during and after World War Two. miso. Biocoop (France) is a good example of the growth of collective purchasing over time. Seikatsu Club. From a similar ideological basis of wishing to gain access to goods outside of ‘mainstream foodways’. formalised cooperative. Operating through the Han system (a group of 8–10 households). for instance. where paid employees have replaced volunteer labour and direct interactions with producers are minimal. etc. Whilst retaining the availability of bulk purchasing for members and a commitment to local. 2007). The history of the “new wave” of food co-ops has been rooted in the practice of experimenting and innovating to meet specific needs. evolved into a larger. In contrast to the conventional. It began as a series of small buying groups in the 1970s and. Seikatsu Club has retained the active participation of members and the informal household and community drop-off locations. a point which is well exemplified by some of the longest running groups within this sample.labour. The Seikatsu Club. the two examples have evolved into very different organisations relying on different systems of provision. represents a national-scale network that has retained its smallscale status. on the other hand. storefront location of Biocoop. group members place bulk orders for both fresh and staple items (such as rice. and a longer tradition of 13 . It is now a national federation of independent stores. Members are still involved in purchasing and the distribution of produce and retain direct links with producers. not met by the mainstream (Belasco. cooking oil. has thus been used as a malleable form in trying to negotiate the barrier issues of access and affordability. This experimental basis has resulted in different growth trajectories. soy sauce. the consumer cooperative has grown to a scale where the increased level of membership and food distribution has necessitated a more permanent retailing environment. Historical context plays a significant part here.) and divide the goods between themselves at a pre-designated drop-off point.

The proactive nature of consumers is apparent across the sample. Arbore in Spain began when 20 14 . the evolving legal status of the groups. Each of these points is now elaborated below. and thirdly. the actions of consumers appear to be a particularly powerful driving force behind their development. The sample suggests consumers have the ability to make creative interventions by forming new mechanisms to access local and organic foods. Some of the buying groups studied are also producer initiated and led. Looking at the European examples. Figure 1 shows that there is diversity in the form. In the US. but there are also some prominent characteristics that help to exemplify the reasons for their formation and growth. the length of time they have been in operation. Responding creatively to inadequacies in the areas of access. the positioning of food within a wider societal context is fundamental. Figure 1 indicates that there are multiple drivers behind the initiation of buying groups. Nevertheless. 2004). and in Canada one of the two groups was consumer-led. the key drivers behind their formation. Key drivers behind buying groups There is a key dynamic that differentiates the buying groups in this sample from more traditional attempts to distribute organic and local foods. scale and function of buying groups. These characteristics are: firstly. regardless of scale. For example. secondly. The act of creating alternative distribution mechanisms that respond to perceived deficiencies within the current system is an intervention by schemes that contribute to the creation of a moral landscape of food. In each of the examples. 15 of the 18 groups surveyed were established by consumers.pressure on housewives to develop buying habits that favour collective purposes (Maclachlan and Trentmann. seven of the nine groups were established by active consumers. not just as the purchaser of the goods but also as an active catalyst in the creation and functioning of these groups. this is the role of the consumer. affordability and responsibility towards the sustainability of local and organic production is therefore an active critique in itself.

it is a mechanism that is attempting to address issues of access and affordability that preclude a proportion of the population from accessing these goods.A. 2003). However. This is not to suggest that the creation of these groups is entirely inclusive or devoid of the tendencies to exclude. with supplementary organic products from wholesalers at other times. we ended up having to go out and find it ourselves’. This group. Seikatsu Club. as has been associated with other community-led schemes (see DeLind. This is borne 15 . with over three quarters being initiated after 1990 and the greatest share having been created post2000. but there was a limited supply in the local area. During an interview with a member of the Green Seed Cooperative (USA). over time. the majority of these (mainly consumer-led) groups are relatively new. particularly during the telephone interviews. The motivations behind these groups are multiple. Whilst the majority of groups are clearly new. a network of consumer buying groups purchasing from producer co-operatives within their respective areas. Another example is the Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale (G. In the US. groups such as the Oklahoma Food Cooperative and the Nebraska Food Cooperative were also formed by active groups of consumers wishing to gain access to specific goods based upon their own locally-guided ethical sourcing policies. So. especially in the North American context. organic products at a lower cost. for example. is the ethic of ‘concerned consumerism’. A dominant ethic that is associated with the rise of buying groups in this sample. Length of time in operation As Figure 1 suggests. was one of taking back some control over their own food supply system. negotiated a sourcing policy which fits with their criteria of local where available and in season. Biocoop). others are well established (e.S) in Italy. it was explained.g. but the message.consumers came together to start purchasing from surrounding producers to overcome the prohibitive issues of expense and the lack of variety through the conventional retailing outlets in the local area. that ‘we wanted more of a variety of fresh.

Other frequently cited concerns included the ‘recycling’ of money back into the local economy and the support of farming methods that the groups deemed to be more ecologically acceptable. In order to circumvent the more mainstream spaces associated with food retailing. facilitating the expression of consumer choices based upon additional criteria. This may involve the use of collective buying by groups of mothers wishing to gain access to affordable organic foods for their children. For instance. the instigators of these groups frequently construct interim and makeshift infrastructures to facilitate their own access to local and organic foods. This latter situation has been the 16 . Excluding the Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale (G. when talking to scheme organisers reference was made to ‘supporting local farmers and promoting more sustainable farming methods’. Evolving legal structure The legal mechanisms used to allow the groups to exist and grow are also significant. consumers have sought out new mechanisms and ‘enablers’ (Clarke et al. each of the largest buying groups has a formal legal structure governing its activities.A. This aligns with Lang and Gabriel’s (2005: 50) estimation that ethical consumption really started to come into its own in the 2000s with a reaffirmation of ‘the moral dimension of consumer choice’. informal groups across Italy). or the scaling-up of an initially smallscale group in order to facilitate the inclusion of more members. 2008) for expressing their own feelings of moral obligation to the wider consequences of their consumptive choices. to triangulate the views expressed here by scheme organisers and drawn also from scheme literature and website sources. such as larger supermarkets.S) (a network of small. Efforts to formalise the structure go hand in glove with moves to increase the capacity of these groups to incorporate a greater number of members.out by the association that groups made between their own actions of purchasing and the consequences on the wider consumption context. This is an observation that requires more detailed analysis. The buying group may thus be seen as one manifestation of the drive to find alternative ways of accessing local and organic foods. In this manner.

managed on a collective basis through communal decision making. This resulted in the differential trajectories that led to groups which were ‘entrepreneurial’ and those which remained more ‘communitybased’ (Cox. The process of carving out access to goods using makeshift infrastructures and evolving legal arrangements could be construed as an act of negotiation in creating an alternative outside of the mainstream.case for one of the buying groups in Canada. the Neighbours Organic Weekly Club. Many groups at that time faced ‘dilemmas’ between achieving organisational stability on the one hand and emulating the businesses they were trying to reject on the other (Belasco 2007: 93). and profit and non-profit making elements. These issues are examined more fully in the next section of the paper. where decisions are made on behalf of the group by a central co-ordinator. The survey of groups for this paper suggests that efforts to construct workable systems of collective purchase and exchange continue to be faced with difficult ‘ethical dilemmas’. typically take two forms: a co-operative model. but they represent the majority of cases. 1994: 36). Not all of the buying groups fall neatly into this structure. These evolving structures. Whilst the buying group structure is flexible in its appeal to both small-scale and large-scale buying strategies. but there has also been a lack of attention paid to the ‘ethics of care’ associated with the 17 . the need for a formal level of organisational structure is clearly apparent. this can be a messy process. incorporating both formal and informal legal arrangements. or a co-ordinator model. Collective purchase and ethical food-scapes The ethics of collective purchase Not only has there been a neglect of collective purchase as a potential catalyst for new growth in AFNs. As the history of the new wave of co-ops showed. which started out as a small-scale venture but became a formal worker cooperative when the level of consumer participation reached a level whereby it became necessary to formalise the group.

For the most part. motivations and principles.food product and the process by which it is conveyed to. that buying groups produce and profit from a range of capitals which broadens the purchase beyond the simple exchange of goods. and between consumers. for instance. suggest they do this in two main ways. political and cultural capitals. the costs can be lowered to enable increased affordability. The analysis of groups surveyed here. these incentives are tempered and exceeded by the ideological weight attached to the ‘other’ capitals. The nature of buying groups means that produce is delivered in bulk to a group of friends or into a specific neighbourhood that may not have access to a farmers’ market or farm shop. they act as an enabler in the distribution of local and organic foods. they are also about the process of transferring food between producers and consumers. food co-operatives face a different consumer retail environment today as mass consumption has manifested itself in far cheaper consumer goods. social and communitarian capitals are derived and generated through the process of 18 . and amongst. there are stated aims and principles which guide the ideological and practical aspects of the buying groups. As Lang and Gabriel (2005) point out. as a form of cooperative. The buying group. In essence. The buying groups surveyed in this paper are not simply about the purchase of food. must therefore offer something additional and different. Secondly. the food is transformed into a vector which carries with it additional signals of beliefs. What is made and created outside of the monetary margins of the exchange is a multi-layered transaction of ideologies. Interviews with scheme organisers indicate. especially the interviews with scheme organisers. consumers. but the extent to which these factors are manifested differs between individual buying groups. The act of purchasing is a catalyst for the promotion and creation of social. Price is not a criterion upon which the cooperative can now depend as a source of comparative advantage. Through delivering it in bulk and using predominantly volunteer labour to split the goods. Whilst there is still a certain importance placed upon the financial incentives of joining a buying group. Firstly. motives and ethics that are conveyed through the purchase of the goods.

in the case of the Dublin Food Co-op. This is more marked amongst those groups which are aiming to source products as locally as possible. they also provide services which fulfil more than the individual and corporeal objectives of food purchasing and consumption. As many of the groups explained. The level of emphasis placed upon additional social and communitarian agendas does appear to alter between certain types of buying group. The social construction of the ethic of ‘good food’ is. The collective binary critique inherent in the ‘we can do it better’ attitude clearly belies the individual politics of the groups which are multiple. The act of consuming locally-sourced products is almost taken as a proxy for the advancement of rural sustainability. Groups thus appear to use the collective nature of this purchasing and distribution as a basis for other social activities. The act of purchasing food together is universally acknowledged amongst the surveyed groups as being a vehicle for both maintaining and cultivating a sense of community. The surveyed buying groups are. becomes an intrinsic part of the majority of the buying groups. evolving as relations within the buying group and wider food system develop and change. the retaining and recycling of capital within the community and. This translates into a trait of attaching social connotations to the purchase of food which. therefore. rooted in a complex and diverse micro-politics exemplified by the motivations of the groups within the sample. encompassing a wide range of positions moving from the overtly structural critiques of mass consumption (notably in the cases of Seikatsu Club in Japan and the Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale in Italy) through to the more benign access-based position of groups such as the Organic Buying Club of South Florida in the US and Quet’ethic in France. regardless of their geographical location. motivations are by no means static. enhancing social networks and turning shopping into a ‘community experience’. with ‘pot luck’ dinners being a particular favourite amongst the groups in the US. this includes increased notions of citizenship. and as a source of community 19 .collective action. therefore. not only a mechanism for providing goods.

the Neighbours Organic Weekly Club in Canada marries the objectives of supporting socially conscious and sustainable farmers with ‘work[ing] with our neighbours to strengthen our community’ whilst ‘support[ing] our local economy and community members’. is therefore recast as an active agent in the cohesion of wider society. was an attempt to overcome issues of access and affordability. reinvesting profit back into the group. Food. it is instructive to draw on the experiences of specific examples. therefore. These motivations of preserving local agriculture. with a reliance on a variety of modes of transactions and labour to enable them to function. but the emphasis was placed more firmly on the product. The Oklahoma Food Cooperative and the Purple Dragon Co-op are buying groups which exemplify the evolving infrastructural workings of the groups and the negotiated ethics upon which they rest. an element of ‘concerned consumerism’ that attends to the social and communitarian implications. this does not mean the social element was unimportant. and the second epitomising a more ‘entrepreneurial’ venture. As the interviewed scheme organizers stressed. These groups were disappointed with the availability. of the purchase for the producers and individual consumers involved. In order to reflect on these processes of negotiation and the implications they hold for the ethical foundations of these groups. The primary motivation behind these buying groups. with the first representing a ‘community-based’ approach. For instance. Getting ‘better’ food nearer to wholesale prices was. quality and costliness of buying organic food through conventional outlets such as supermarkets. including recent smallscale schemes such as High Country Organics and Whole Foods of Panama City. promoting rural sustainability and enhancing community networks seem to go hand in hand. they also highlight the diverse ‘economic’ practices inherent in collective purchase.building. as well as the material consequences. Schemes that were identified as ‘organic’ in the US were not automatically associated with localorganic agriculture. as the scheme organiser explained. 20 . They encapsulate the different trajectories of collective purchase. a primary motivation. Crucially.

as has the use of private homes. Currently. The goods arrive from producers once a month and are broken down into individual orders by volunteers who in turn receive $7 per hour in food credits which they can put towards their order. Bob Waldrop (now president and general manager of the coop) began by trying to source his own food from the surrounding local farms. An interesting outcome of this transparent consumption context is that members of the OFC have influenced 21 . Having grown up in rural Oklahoma. facilitating links between producers and consumers. The OFC has established a system whereby it acts as an agent for members of the cooperative.groups. the size of the farm and the motivation of the producer. economically viable and would recycle money back into the local economy. parking lots. Producers have their own piece of web space and consumers are able to access full biographies of the products that they intend to buy. and dairy products. incorporating information on the production process. including meat. The original idea was to open a cooperative store. 60 producers within the State of Oklahoma contribute to a list of over 1500 items. churches and other community spaces for delivery locations.Oklahoma Food Cooperative The Oklahoma Food Cooperative (OFC) was officially established as a consumer cooperative in November 2003. The idea of setting up a food coop was circulated on the internet through establishing a discussion group on yahoo. The running costs of the group are covered by a one-off membership fee of $50 (people on low-income are exempt from this charge) and a 5% levy on goods sold which is charged to both the producer and consumer members. seasonal fruit and vegetables.com and creating a small website. Volunteer labour has been the primary vehicle for reducing costs. he wanted to create an enterprise that was sustainable. The buying club could also establish a workable infrastructure for distributing local foods without the need for a costly initial outlay of capital. It was decided that a buying club would be preferable because there was more scope to ‘work from the ground up’. but conversations with other interested consumers indicated that there were not sufficient numbers to justify the start-up costs.

This complex mix is guided under the uniting philosophy of building what 22 . corporal and communitarian ethics. Collective purchase. for example. as being a political act. This moral landscape refers not only to the ethical propositions attached to the food itself. particularly by the board members. but are actively involved in the formulation of the ethical specifics of what they believe ‘local’ and/or ecologically sustainable agriculture should be. to buy predominantly grass-fed beef. Whilst the purchasing of local and organic food was deemed. fundamentalist Southern Baptists and secular environmentalists on the cooperative board and within the membership. The OFC has seen positive communitarian outcomes in terms of bringing together disparate sectors of the community. The consumers are. other producers within the cooperative have altered their production practices in line with the consumptive ethics and priorities of the consumer members of the group. The cooperative is an enabler for increasing access to local and organic foods. Seeing the shift in consumer demand in favour of these products. facilitates the expression of a complex mix of ecological. environmental. but it is also a means of encouraging connections between members of a community. therefore. the partisan politics and differences in religious opinion are marginalised in favour of expressing a binding and consensus-based food ethic. Further feedback is facilitated through the interaction of producers and consumers on the day of distribution and through tri-monthly social events. including the representation of Unitarian ministers. which are seen to be integral to the success and maintenance of the cooperative. Prioritising the social and communitarian aspects of the group. Consumers have thus made their purchasing priorities clear through choosing.some of the growing strategies of the producers. This is a potent example of how food and its mode of purchasing are linked to the social context and the creation of a moral landscape. not merely responding to an ethical proposition laid down by the producers. the OFC sets itself apart from the mainstream shopping experience. but extends to the cohesive connotations attached to the act of purchasing specific foods through a specific mode of distribution. therefore.

allowing. Whereas the Oklahoma Food Cooperative incorporates a broad level of choice. The pragmatic actions of a small number of consumers (in particular. seasonal and organic foods. profit-making operation providing over 900 households with organic and increasingly local/organic produce. affordable organic food. The ‘pod’ system works by sub-dividing the collective into smaller groups of 15 members. for ‘decisions to be made quickly and efficiently’. Purple Dragon Co-op Purple Dragon was founded on an informal basis by Janit London and a friend in New Jersey in 1987. London describes the present organisational structure of the group as a ‘benign autocracy’. They were motivated by what was perceived to be a dearth of good quality. There is also a requirement that members commit to one hour’s labour to the co-op every three months in order to reduce the overall price of the goods for the collective membership. Starting from 15 households purchasing food in bulk together. Purple Dragon sources between 12 and 20 items of fruit and vegetables for each delivery. These decisions are made according to overriding ethical principles (regarding the use of organic.is deemed to be a ‘better’ system in pragmatic opposition to the perceived inadequacies of the mainstream system. in her words. Janit London as the principal coordinator) has led to the creation of an infrastructure that allows the burgeoning group to tackle issues of access and affordability through purchasing large amounts of seasonal produce and distributing it using low-cost methods. mainly seasonal and preferably locally-sourced goods) and so there is a level of consensus decision-making. Seasonal ‘gluts’ of produce make up the basis of what is offered through the group. where the decisions are made by the coordinator. with one 23 . where paid parttime staff divide the produce into bulk orders which are delivered to 59 member ‘pods’. the buying group transformed into a large-scale. based upon members’ beliefs in the positive outcomes associated with local. The produce is picked up from farms or delivered into their warehouse.

Purple Dragon’s ethical stance thus changed over time to accommodate a more localised procurement agenda. Seikatsu Club). but increasing awareness of the environmental implications of airfreight has transferred the onus towards seeking out ‘local-organic’ sources. have not only rested upon the aims and motivations of the group members but also upon the ability to satisfy those ethical ambitions in practice. This cultivation of social space is integral to the analysis of collective purchasing across the sample. this again underlines the ‘more than’ ethical elements of collective purchasing. but it also means that a sense of the smaller-scale collective element is retained.‘host’ taking on the responsibility for the delivery and distribution of the produce. For instance. The ethics of the group. book and recipe swaps. but it also indicates the importance of facilitating links between the consumers themselves. Another key theme in this example and across the sample more widely is the process of negotiation as schemes learn and develop. This method of subdivision is a strategy that has been employed by the majority of the largest buying groups within the sample (e. Not only does it reflect attempts to ‘reconnect’ the food chain regarding producer-consumer relations. Akin to the observations made about the OFC. There are still dilemmas over practicalities such as price and consistency of quality. but efforts are made to be as transparent in their choices as possible. As the group developed a better working knowledge of how and where to source locally-produced organic food. These negotiated ethics of building a workable system to source local organic foods 24 .g. but recognition is given to the varying levels of capability and commitment of the individual members. in the beginning produce was picked up in bulk from the airport. The social interactions between members were cited as fundamental to the continued success and sustainability of the group and have led to additional activities such as battery recycling. Other members are encouraged to help with the distribution. therefore. the sourcing policy changed in response to this. The pod system cuts down the cost of labour within the system. They receive $40 of food credits towards their order in recompense for their time and organisation of the pod.

which range from the household through to ‘conventional’ storefront locations (echoing points made in earlier examinations of collect purchase – see Ronco. The creative premise upon which they are based leads ultimately to different trajectories encompassing both entrepreneurial and community-based interventions and scales of operation. 2007). 2007). as well as the barriers when attempting to work within and between mainstream food provisioning. as a latent form of grassroots innovation (Seyfang and Smith. they still serve only a small percentage of the population and remain within the niche market. Cox. The project of looking for other modes of purchasing local and organic foods points to the creativity involved in setting up alternative distribution methods such as buying groups and food cooperatives. Belasco. 1994.show the creative possibilities that exist within this type of food network. stemming from ideological motivations to create something new and something ‘better’. The collective belief that ‘we can do it better’ appears to be a guiding factor in these attempts to provide proactive and creative responses to a perceived need for alternative provisioning. One key area for growth is through collective purchase which. This paper has argued that there needs to be an attempt to widen the focus to recognise more inclusive and diverse food economies. Creating constructive dialogue and opening up new possibilities for AFNs The drive to re-establish a level of trust. The way that this wider ethic is expressed appears to be a highly pixelated mix of 25 . Part of this need is premised upon a sense of obligation to think about the consequences of food consumption. ultimately leads to a diversity of outcomes that have not been fully represented in the AFN literature. Whilst these alternative strategies are increasingly popular. 2007). transparency and traceability within the food industry has led to the valorisation of local and organic food systems as a ‘moral antidote’ to the negative constructions associated with conventional food supply (Maye et al. has so far been neglected as a focus in AFN studies. 1974. Innovation.

This picture of ethical purchasing is complicated further by taking into account the negotiated nature of both the ethical positions of these groups and the practicalities that guide their ability to express these ethics. revealing a complex and differentiated view of the motivations which coalesce to form a cumulative but by no means static picture of ‘ethical consumption’. this control can be hindered by constraints on practical action. with the first example. Purple Dragon Food Co-op. based upon what is practical. this process can take time and a group’s ethical position can change based upon the implementation of necessary enablers for growth. groups need physical infrastructures such as legal structures to grow and maintain their position. Crucially. predominantly a ‘local’ procurement strategy and the second. both groups appear to have depended upon an experimental approach to sourcing outside ‘mainstream foodways’ and underline the point that these efforts are still work in progress. Much 26 . influences how people take part in AFNs and what they can achieve. The ideology first. The empirical survey shows.different practices. It includes the locations of conventional storefronts through to household and community buildings (the latter examples of Gibson-Graham’s (2005) alternative spheres of productivity). As shown in the case studies. The continuum of positions demonstrated by the buying groups within this sample indicates that the situation is far more complex. This is a key consideration when analysing dualisms that divide consumption practices into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories. a more ‘organic’ orientated scheme. This is manifested most clearly in the two case studies. Buying groups are. This negotiation. therefore. the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. schemes which rely on ‘conventional’ waged labour through to volunteers and payment via food credits. for instance. a good example of how control can be regained and enacted within the food supply system. As the empirical evidence suggests. Indeed. They also need the ability to find suitable suppliers to satisfy their demand for certain ‘ethical’ goods. the politics of the groups have evolved over time. motivations and politics. However. practicalities later approach appears to be a powerful influence. symbolising the ‘becomingness’ of ethical purchasing in these contexts.

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North America and Japan 31 .Figure 1. Overview of 30 buying groups from mainland Europe.

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