Sustainable Consumption, the Middle Classes and Agri-food Ethics in the Global South

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Sch of Geog, Politics and Sociology


Sustainable food consumption spaces and practices in the global South are of critical importance yet remain under-researched and poorly understood because most studies assume that ethical consumers are situated in the global North. Expanding middle class consumption in global South countries is seen simultaneously as providing a potential stimulus to global economic growth and a threat to environmental sustainability. The UN's Sustainable Development Goal 12 (Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production) recognises the need to support developing countries in strengthening their technological capacity to enable more sustainable patterns of consumption, to promote sustainable public procurement practices, and to ensure that consumers have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable lifestyles. In response, this research evaluates the mobilisation and practice of sustainable consumption in the global South through an examination of systems of food provision and regulation, everyday consumer habits, and trends and fashions in food consumption. It draws on case study research in Brazil, China, and South Africa, where there is robust evidence of large and growing middle classes.

The research is essential to understand how sustainable food consumption is mobilised and practised in distinct global South contexts, how this might be affected during times of increasing political instability and social precarity, and how this relates to the wider context of global population growth and globalising consumerism. Pilot research in the case study countries suggests that digital technologies are increasingly interwoven into societies and food systems as follows: consumers share, receive information about, purchase and review food online; food retail companies optimise their distribution with the help of IT technology; and state procurement systems increasingly move online. Recognising these realities, the research provides an innovative investigation of the interconnectedness of online and offline spaces of sustainable food consumption in the global South.

The research is organised into four phases. The first focuses on institutional and cultural drivers of sustainable food consumption. It analyses policy and media reports, business strategies, codes, campaigns and initiatives in the policy and popular domain. Key informant interviews are conducted with government departments responsible for food procurement and standards, campaigners, and leading food retailers, wholesalers and restaurateurs. The second phase, focusing on consumer habits and everyday trends, comprises ethnographic research in middle-class residential areas of Guangzhou, Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg. Interviews address household food consumption practices, judgments about 'good' food, and popular influences on food ethics and environmental values. Digital ethnographies examine the online practices of consumers, including how they collect information, shop or review online, and the influence of social media on ethical judgment and creating markets for sustainable foods. Accompanied shopping interviews and co-cooking sessions capture the nuances of food choices, moral judgments, engagement with government and corporate ethical initiatives, and the ordinary ethics of food purchase and use. The third phase, focusing on fashion and trends, uses text mining of social media to trace lines of influence in sustainable food consumption. To widen the reach of the research, and provide material with traction with policy and commercial actors, the final phase gathers quantitative data through a web-based survey of the drivers of sustainable food consumption and the behavioural intentions arising from these. The research is an innovative analysis of different global South contexts in which shifts towards sustainable food consumption are likely to have global impact. The three case studies offer comparisons of the potential of different drivers of food sustainability.

Planned Impact

Our impact objectives will ensure that new institutional and cultural levers and practices for change are identified for sustainable food consumption among the urban middle-classes of Brazil, China and South Africa. We will create qualitative and quantitative data-sets that will allow for analysis of the presence and prevalence of consumer values and choices influencing ethical/sustainable consumption behaviour. This will generate for research beneficiaries a deep understanding of the values and choices shaping middle class consumers' everyday purchase and use of food. Non-academic research users will also gain knowledge of how consumers relate and respond to specific campaigns, initiatives and standards for sustainable food production and provision, including the digital dimensions of this engagement. Targeting recommendations to organisations responsible for regulating, managing and promoting food sustainability, the project aims to influence future policy and strategy that is so reliant on consumer engagement for its success. A key benefit to users will be knowledge of sustainable food consumption across three countries and therefore extending learning and knowledge exchange significantly beyond a single country case study and impact. The Pathways to Impact document details our outputs and communication and engagement plans that will demonstrate how a diverse set of food actors, including those using social media and on-line platforms, can stimulate and support sustainable food consumption. Collaboration and co-production throughout the project to engage end-users and 'impact carriers' will deepen and extend the impact. The latter have already been identified in pilot research projects, with five project beneficiaries (across policy, public, private and third sectors) identified in each case study country.

Beneficiaries include (but will not be limited to) the following groups with whom we have existing contact via previous funded projects and who also comprise some of the Phase 1 key informants: Policy makers: at international level (e.g. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), at national level (e.g. Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, Brazil Work and Pensions Department regarding Solidarity Economy, Department of Environmental Affairs and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in South Africa and government procurement departments) and at regional level (e.g. Bureau of Agriculture of Guangzhou Municipality and Guangzhou Urban-Rural Convergence; certification bodies: Fairtrade International, Fairtrade Label South Africa, China Organic Food Certification Center under the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, the Organic Food Development Center of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, China (OFDC-MEP) and China Green Food Development Center (CGFDC); Producers / Farmers: All three Universities have strong links with alternative farmer networks, particularly in Brazil and South Africa, e.g. CLAC in Brazil and Via Campesina groups; suppliers and retailers: e.g. Pick n Pay and Woolworths in South Africa; social media and on-line grocery producers: Nogogo Online Groceries in Guangdong and Organic Farms Delivery Service in China; consumer groups: Globescan, Instituto Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor (leading Brazilian Consumer Rights Campaign Group); non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities: iPES (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems), World Wildlife Fund South Africa, Instituto Alana (NGO campaigning for sustainable futures for young people in Brazil); industry associations: e.g. Sustainable Seafood Initiative (South Africa); and media: including Jornol O Globo, Globo News, TV Globo and Canal Online G1 in Brazil.
Description Key Findings:
Defining Sustainable and Ethical Food:
We found no single understanding of sustainable and ethical food within or between our three food contexts, though healthy, safe food was felt by most to be the basis of any kind of sustainable food system.
To be sustainable and ethical, food must at a minimum be nutritious, safe, desirable, and accessible, and produced in ways that do not make it harder to feed people in the future.
Sustainability and ethics are not only about organics or addressing climate crisis but involve everything from food safety to working conditions for farm workers, to healthy soils, zero carbon, strong local economies, reducing waste, robust local food cultures, and animal welfare and its role in preventing disease transmission. Sustainable and ethical food systems also need to be resilient to economic downturns or weather events and responsive to social, economic, and cultural issues.

Accessing and Consuming Sustainable and Ethical Food:
Middle class consumers in Brazil, South Africa and China display a current tendency to engage in sustainable consumption and curtailment behaviours. The intent to engage in the next 12 months in such behaviours is even more pronounced. These findings are consistent across all three countries.
Consuming home cooked and fresh foods seems to be a priority in all three countries. Interestingly, reducing food waste by, for example, using leftovers, are prevalent curtailment behaviours in all three countries.
Food practices and customs are local but are connected to increasingly globalised food systems.
Food consumption choices involving considerations of ethics and sustainability interplay in different ways with fear, altruism, convenience, memory, belonging, and aspiration.

Barriers to, and Opportunities for, Change:
More consumers reported wanting to eat ethical and sustainable foods than did so in practice. These foods were often perceived to be more expensive and only on sale in more affluent areas. Many participants felt high costs of these products to be prohibitive, seeing eating ethical and sustainable food as a lifestyle choice of those rich in time and money.

Participants reported struggling to balance and evaluate the conflicting and overlapping messages concerning how food is produced and processed and the implications of that for health and society. There are three main responses to this across all three case studies: resignation (whether expressed through indifference, powerlessness, or clinging to habitual practices); guilt about not being able to act correctly, and effort to try and eat well across all the different messages.

Many consumers mistrusted labels indicating 'ethical' and 'sustainable' products and struggled to juggle and prioritise the different demands on their pocket, time, and knowledges.

Knowing about a topic is not the same as being able to act on that knowledge. Diets are personal and are entangled with a consistent sense of self and of belonging. Participants reported difficulties in making positive changes to their food practices where notions of sustainable food conflicted with other considerations.

There is an opportunity to prompt desire for sustainable and ethical foods by building on nascent awareness that personal health is entangled with the health of the environments in which food is produced. For example, in Guangzhou this opportunity is entangled with the concept of tian-ren-he-yi (the unity of people and nature).

Whether for pleasure, family health, traditional cultures, climate crisis, labour rights, food in all its guises is in some way about care. There is an opportunity to harness people's desire to care by supporting the availability of environmentally sustainable products such as organics to all communities, for example through buying co-operatives or public procurement.

There is an opportunity for food system actors (companies, government, civil society) to co-create transparent messaging enabling consumer/citizens to make dietary choices that align with their desire to care for themselves and others.

There is a need for joined up policy and renewed transparency on the operation and regulation of food systems from farm to post-consumer 'waste'. This is essential to overcome the feelings of powerlessness and distrust. Across all three cities some participants felt it was the responsibility of government to use 'choice editing' to make sure that only healthy, safe, and sustainable food was on sale.

There is an opportunity to harness the best of local food traditions and practices as part of community pride and desirable lifestyle choices, including promoting traditional crops suited to local growing conditions and validating and facilitating mundane practices of re-use, frugality, and care.
Exploitation Route Recommendations communicated to government, corporate and third sector stakeholders in Brazil, South Africa and China to inform pathways for sustainable food markets in those economies.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Government, Democracy and Justice

Title Sustainable Consumption, the Middle Classes and Agri-food Ethics in the Global South 
Description Sustainable Consumption, the Middle Classes and Agri-food Ethics in the Global South dataset in UK Data Archive 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2021 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact N/A 
Description Keynote: Reading for Difference: Social Innovation in Cross-Cultural Perspective 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Prof Rita Afonso and Prof Dorothea Kleine delivered a joint keynote to the 12th International Social Innovation Research Conference (ISIRC 2020), hosted virually from the 1-3 September 2020 at the Centre for Regional Economic and Enterprise Development (CREED). There were 300 attendees from more than 30 countries, from business, academia, third sector, policy and media.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Online Dissemination Workshop Brazil 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Online workshop organized by the Brazil team in Rio to disseminate the project findings and engage with policy and third sector organizations on sustainable food consumption - trends, practices, and challenges.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Participation in the Digitainable Workshop of the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Digitainable Project (DFG-funded) at the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research - Innovation Campus Bonn (University of Bonn) held an online Digitainable Forum (Feb 23-24) with experts from academia, business and civil society mapping Digitalisation on to the SDGs. Dorothea Kleine spoke as a participant, which sparked interdisciplinary dialogue.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Sustentavel pra quem - Olhar Brasileiro para o consumo de alimentos 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact From the SCARFE project, PI Prof Alex Hughes, Co-I Prof Dorothea Kleine and Co-I Prof Roberto Bartholo spoke at a workshop in Brasil presenting our findings from the project to relevant practitioner audiences, the media and an interested public. The workshop was in Portuguese with English translation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021