The Sustainable Food Economy Lab was founded in 2017. It utilizes fifteen years of its directors’ and members’ involvement and contributions to the field of sustainability science. Unlike most research centers that work on the food system, the Sustainable Food Economy Lab focuses on the sustainable food economy as the main factor for the transformation of the food system towards economic viability, environmental integrity, and social justice.
Our research, education, and outreach activities concentrate on sustainable solutions for small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the local/municipal/regional level, and the sectors between agriculture/food production and consumption, i.e., food processing, distribution, and outlets. Of particular interest to us are SMEs in these sectors that pursue sustainable/social agendas and provide meaningful work through craft, artisan, solidarity- and community-based practices. Accordingly, we focus on empowering and enabling these SMEs to adopt sustainable business practices and models. Particularly, we support start-up efforts and conversions to sustainability-oriented and innovative cooperative businesses, benefit corporations, and social enterprises.
We also work closely with business associations, governmental agencies and non-profit organizations that fulfil critical support functions in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, including passing policies and regulations, adopting governance and democracy schemes, offering social financing and impact investment options, and delivering innovative training programs.
These important links in the food economy are often considered small/weak/marginal. However, we see the potential beyond their niches to provide healthy, environmentally friendly, and fairly priced foods, as well as important avenues for actively engaging all food economy actors in processes of transformation.
The Sustainable Food Economy Lab offers the following research, education, and outreach services, from the micro (enterprise/organization) through the meso (interactions, supply chains) to the macro level (sectors, networks):
- Analyzing and assessing sustainability performance of food SMEs (incl. certification support)
- Supporting adoption, transfer, and scaling of sustainable business practices and technologies (e.g., local sourcing, renewable energy, water efficiency, social finance, employee ownership program, diversity-oriented hiring, workforce training) for food SMEs
- Co-developing new sustainable food business practices and technologies tailored to the specific needs of innovative food SMEs
- Supporting food entrepreneurs and SMEs in start-up of and conversion to sustainable business models, including cooperative businesses, benefit corporations, purpose and social enterprises
- Supporting business associations, governmental agencies and non-profit organizations to develop support services for sustainable food enterprises (SMEs), including favorable policies and regulations; governance and democracy schemes; social financing and impact investment options; and various training programs; among others
- Assisting in planning, testing, and developing sustainable food supply and value chains that are economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially/culturally just across the entire chain, within foodshed regions (incl. across national borders)
- Supporting the sustainable development or transformation of food sectors (e.g. grain economy; public canteens/catering), or entire regional food economies (cooperative economy, alternative food networks)
- Offering training opportunities for food entrepreneurs, SMEs, and all types of support organizations on all topics above
- Offering outreach activities with stakeholder/public engagement on all topics above
We conduct research on sustainable solutions for the food economy. That means we identify, study, and provide evidence on existing solutions as well as co-create, evaluate, and produce actionable knowledge on new solutions to the pressing sustainability problems in the food economy. This covers a range of topics, including adoption of sustainable business practices, conversion to sustainable business models, as well as sustainable transformations of food supply chains, entrepreneurial ecosystems, food economy sectors, and entire regional food economies.
Our research is solution-oriented, case-based, and transdisciplinary. That means we focus on solutions that are economically viable (vs. profit maximizing), environmentally sound, and socially/culturally just; utilize evidence from sustainable business practices, businesses models, supply chains, entrepreneurial ecosystems, and economies worldwide; and conduct research in close collaboration with entrepreneurs, businesses, associations, policy makers, government agencies, non-profit organizations, community groups, and the public.
Our research relies on and contributes to a transdisciplinary methodology for transformational solution-oriented sustainability research. Complementary to descriptive-analytical sustainability science (understanding problems) on the one hand, and applied sustainability efforts (solving problems) on the other, transformational solution-oriented sustainability research constitutes a ‘third way’ – generating knowledge for and evidence of achieving sustainability (SDGs). It offers a science-based bridge for the often-described knowledge-action gap in addressing sustainability issues. Our methodological contributions to date include: a methodological framework that functionally differentiates and integrates distinct ‘families’ of qualitative and quantitative sustainability research methods, namely, for system analysis, sustainability assessment, future visioning and scenario construction, intervention research and transition experiments, as well as evaluation; methodological foundation of specific sustainability research methods, e.g., scientific sustainability visioning; typology of solution-oriented sustainability research approaches; framework for capturing scientific and societal outputs, outcomes, and impacts of sustainability research; structured compilation of transdisciplinary research principles, practices, challenges, and coping strategies; concept on how to transfer and generalize insights from real-world experimental sustainability research; structured comparison of prominent sustainability research approaches, e.g., backcasting and transition management; and structured, comparative evaluation of methods applied in prominent sustainability research programs. Additional contributions include insights on suitable institutional structures, including for international coordination of sustainability research.
We have developed a multi-level functional research framework for studying sustainable governance of the food economy, and have begun to empirically demonstrate how to systematically explore the various facets of sustainable food economy governance through inter- and transdisciplinary studies. This framework allows structuring and coordinating empirical research on sustainable food economy according to food economy level, solution type, temporal relation, research approach, among other attributes.
Our empirical research contributions to date include: on the macro (system/economy) level, a synthesis of evidence on unsustainable features of current global food systems, sustainable food systems’ principles, and a research framework for supporting sustainable governance of food systems (published in Nature Sustainability); a complementary systematic review of elements constituting sustainable food systems; exemplary evidence for sustainable transitions of food economy sectors (here grain economy) through a systematic reconstructive study; on the meso (network/ interactions) level, an empirical account of the potential of food policy councils to facilitate food system sustainability and food democracy; empirical evidence for the effectiveness of advancing corporate sustainability in food businesses through comprehensive training programs; insights on how certifications (such as B Corp certification) can anchor sustainable practices in food businesses; evidence for the opportunities and challenges of sustainable food supply (here coffee) through an experimental study; and on the micro (organizational) level, an empirically informed typology of existing business practices to overcome physical and emotional distance in food supply chains; and an empirical account of obstacles and coping strategies in starting sustainable food businesses in marginalized communities.
For our empirical sustainable food economy research, we have developed and used a Mobile Solution Studio, in collaboration with Prof. Daniel Lang (Leuphana University) and Prof. Lauren Withycombe Keeler (ASU) since 2017. A Mobile Solution Studio is a data-intensive, visually-enhanced, and mobile research infrastructure that can be flexibly used to conduct transdisciplinary real-world lab experiments on sustainable food economy solutions (e.g., socially-accepted agri-photovoltaic) at locations most pertinent to validation and implementation. For the design and implementation of the Mobile Solution Studio, Prof. Wiek has used and adapted immersive and hybrid decision research infrastructures co-developed at the University of British Columbia (2007-2008) and Arizona State University (Decision Center for a Desert City, 2009-2018).
Facets of our research approach are discussed in our Publications (last section).
We would like to thank Dr. Nigel Forrest, now at Imperial College London, for his lab management between 2017 and 2022. He has been instrumental in co-developing the transformational sustainability research methodology, the innovative project work, and the transdisciplinary partnerships, which are foundational for our current lab.
The Sustainable Food Economy Lab acknowledges that we work on the unceded traditional and contemporary homelands of the twenty-three Indigenous Nations that have inhabited this land for centuries, including the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Pee Posh (Maricopa) peoples. We also acknowledge and pay respect to Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers, whose stewardship and love of these lands and all its beings allow us to be here today. While acknowledgement means little unless coupled with meaningful action, we must all recognize our full history before we can move forward and must educate ourselves on our responsibilities to one another and the land.