SUS-CHAIN: Case Studies

UK: COOP local sourcing initiative – procurement of local food by supermarkets in South East England

This case study is built around a local sourcing initiative of one particular UK retailer — the Co-operative Group. It is centred on an area in South-East England where the development of local food initiatives has lagged behind many other regions in the UK, despite the area’s reputation as the ‘Garden of England’. The key question that the case study seeks to address is ‘how important are UK supermarket initiatives in the procurement of local food for the sustainable development of rural economies?’

The objective of the Co-op’ local sourcing initiative was to find an efficient and effective process for sourcing an initial target of thirty local or regional products. Whilst the objective is devoid of any reference to sustainable rural development or benefits to any stakeholders other than the Co-op and its shoppers, it is important to note that the Co-op’s overall retail strategy has a strong emphasis on ethical retailing, responsible sourcing, and corporate social responsibility in general.

For national procurement and distribution networks, the new challenge of local sourcing reveals the contradictions and strains inherent in creating local embeddedness. In the case of the Co-op supermarket, there was a predisposition to interpret ‘local sourcing’ as the stocking of a limited range of retail-ready local products – mostly highly processed niche ‘craft’ products such as preserves – rather than localise the infrastructure of bulk procurement of mainstream meat, fruit and vegetable categories. Cooperative Retail in the UK (in common with all multiple retailers) has a centralised buying policy. The tensions of localising a national procurement structure were obvious.

The result of the strong limits and the centralised buying policy were, that Co-op failed to find the aimed 30 local products. Comparing this initiative with other national initiatives but also international examples from Italy, it has to be stated the following.

To develop a local and regional food offer which goes beyond a low-level ‘catch up’ exercise, and which re-establishes Co-operative Retail as a locally embedded national retailer, it could be necessary to regionalise parts of procurement, and empower store managers, through devolving some responsibility to them at regional and store level. It should be taken into mind, that supermarkets should complement rather than replace Farmers Markets and other existing channels for local food.

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