Working on the following PhD thesis:


Pulling Off the Label:

How Supermarkets Navigate Inter-organizational Dynamics of Voluntary Sustainability Standards


Food labeling based on voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs) is widely regarded as an important pathway to much-needed change in the food system, but has been criticized for leading to stagnation rather than change. Although supermarkets bear the brunt of this criticism, there is a lack of in-depth analysis of what drives these organizations in the food labeling process. This thesis offers such an analysis, mobilizing theory on institutional work to examine the role of supermarkets in governance arrangements underlying food labeling. Food labels are institutionalized through non-legally binding regulations that together form a standard. The maintenance of such a standard depends on the inter-organizational dynamics playing out between different actors - government, business and civil society - who in varying combinations govern the standard and determine its regulatory power. Of crucial importance is how much regulatory power supermarkets are willing to grant to standards, as this can be seen as a proxy for their willingness to contribute to a more sustainable product range. To explore this theme in depth, I consider VSSs to be institutional structures that can be created, maintained, and disrupted by the purposive action of actors. Conducting four case studies that relate to the Dutch supermarket sector, I examine how individual actors working in the supermarket sector navigate the inter-organizational dynamics of VSS governance and how that impacts the regulatory power of the standard. Each case study covers a different VSS and a different organizational level, in order to obtain the most comprehensive analysis possible.