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The dynamics of alternative food consumption: contexts, opportunities and transformations

Les dynamiques de la consommation alimentaire alternative: contextes, opportunités et transformations
Laura Terragni, Hanne Torjusen and Gunnar Vittersø


Can consumers contribute to a more sustainable world? In this article we describe alternative consumption in Norway, exemplified by organic food, and discuss the role of consumers in promoting change. The paper is based on studies undertaken at the Norwegian National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO) during the last 15 years. The analysis starts by considering the origin of the organic movement in Norway and follows its development, showing that over the years consumption of organic products has reached a noteworthy position in the conventional market. While organic products seem to face conventionalisation, other alternative initiatives are emerging, such as fair trade, farmers’ market, farm food outlets, box schemes and community supported agriculture (CSA). Agreeing with the critique of a ‘generic active consumer model’, the article makes the case that the consumer’s role must be understood contextually and within its limitations. At the same time, the data presented in this article show that within shifting contextual frameworks, consumers utilise consumption with the goal of producing change. The paper suggests that forms of consumption defined as alternative are socially contested and the products that consumers identify as alternative are those that, in a given time and space, best reflect alternative values.

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1Can consumers contribute to a sustainable world? This question is asked repeatedly in the media, by politicians, consumers’ organisations and by academics. As environmental problems grow and the unfair distribution of resources between rich and poor countries becomes deeper, consumers are increasingly asked to take responsibility for what they consume and how they consume. In recent years we have witnessed an academic debate about the emergence of so-called political consumerism in Western countries. One central position has emphasised the consumers' role as political actors and the market as an arena for consumer activism (Micheletti, 2003). Jacobsen and Dulsrud (2007) have criticized this literature for uncritically promoting a 'generic active consumer model': a universal consumer role that is independent of time and place. Along with other authors, they argue that the consumer role must be understood contextually (see for instance Trentmann, 2007). Studies have shown that there are great national differences with regard to how consumers view their role as political actors (Kjærnes et al., 2007; Terragni and Kjærnes, 2005), as well as the trust consumers have in different actors and food production in general (Berg, 2005). Taking the concept of 'framing of consumption' as their starting point, Jacobsen and Dulsrud (2007) discuss the limitations of markets and consumption as arenas of political or social change. Firstly, they argue, a large share of consumption occurs outside of what we normally associate with the market context. It takes place in the private sphere and in areas where the freedom of choice is limited, such as water supply, transportation and other infrastructure. These everyday consumer activities are to a limited extent subject to reflexive deliberations, but are based on routines, social norms and conventions (Gronow and Warde, 2001). Secondly, in many contexts we also find a conflict between what is perceived as morally right and what is perceived as ethical or 'politically correct' consumption. This phenomenon, which is described by Miller (1998, 2001), relates among other things to the fact that obligations towards the family, such as being an (economically) responsible and caring consumer, can come into conflict with choosing the ethically right products. For example: buying expensive organic vegetables may be morally wrong if it happens at the expense of other necessary purchases (Miller, 2001:133-137). Finally, Jacobsen and Dulsrud add that consumers in many cases lack sufficient and reliable information to make choices in the market place and therefore conclude that the potential for political consumer activism is very limited.

  • 1 Expression borrowed from the Slow food manifesto.

2Jacobsen and Dulsrud's critique of a ‘generic active consumer model’ is important as it contributes to moderating the idea of omnipotent consumers who can save the world with their wallet. In doing so, however, the authors tend to overlook the relevance of consumption practices in producing change. Alternative food consumption is a relevant example in this regard. Alternative food consumption refers to a rather heterogeneous group of initiatives such as the organic movement, fair trade initiatives, slow food or farmers' markets (Roos, Terragni & Torjusen, 2007). What these initiatives have in common is a critique of conventional models of production and consumption – claiming that they are neither sustainable, fair, healthy nor tasty. Referring to Melucci’s theory on new social movements (Melucci, 1996), Tovey suggests that the organic movement “seek change through cultural as well political innovation, reconstructing values, personal identities and cultural symbols, and contributing to the emerging of alternative lifestyles” (Tovey, 2002, p.3). Following Melucci’s definition of social movements as “messages rising around the problematic knots of our society” it is possible to argue that through practices of alternative consumption some food products become messages. Purchasing and eating food that is ‘good, clean and fair’1 may become a way of promoting a vision of a better, cleaner, and fairer world (Sassatelli, 2006).

3Although these initiatives have different outcomes and in many countries their market share remains marginal (Jacobsen, 2007), alternative consumption provides new perspectives, languages and symbols, which may challenge the mainstream consumption and production system (Murdoch and Miele, 2004).

4In this article we will use the example of 'alternative consumption in Norway' to show that consumption must be understood contextually, as Jacobsen and Dulsrud pointed out, and to explore how, this contextual framework interacts with the options for exerting forms of agency through concerned practices (Halkier and Holm, 2008; Halkier, 2009 in this volume).

5Alternative food consumption in Norway is a particularly interesting case to discuss. The characteristics of the Norwegian food system, with its high degree of government regulation, the predominant role of a few market actors and the high trust that consumers have in the food they buy and eat, have affected the patterns for supply and demand of alternative food products (Kjærnes et al., 2007; Terragni and Kjærnes, 2005). Initiatives aimed at promoting alternative food consumption have been marginal both in terms of practices and public discourses. Alternative consumption, in contrast to what has occurred in other European countries, has never become a political issue, and alternative consumers do not seem to be acknowledged as political actors. In fact, compared to other European countries, Norwegian consumers in general have little faith that their voice as consumers matters (Kjærnes et al., 2007).

6In spite of a situation that did not encourage forms of alternative food consumption, some consumers (individually or in groups) have grasped the opportunities they had for expressing alternative values in their consumption patterns (Torjusen, 2001; Vittersø, 2003; Bjune and Torjusen, 2005). This paper describes who they are, their motivations and their experiences, providing a portrait of alternative food consumption in the Norwegian context from the foundation of the first organic shop to the organisation of the first experience of community supported agriculture.

7In the following chapter we will briefly describe the data material and the literature on which the article is based. Then we will provide an account of how alternative consumption and alternative consumers have been framed by the political and market developments in the Norwegian historical context. This account will be followed by an analysis of data from a national representative survey that was conducted in 2006 and 2008. This survey sheds light on both who the alternative consumers are and how they behave in the conventional and in the alternative food system. In the conclusions we will discuss the Norwegian example in light of the theoretical discussion of the possibilities and limitations of the consumer role, i.e the consumer as a political or alternative actor in society.

Overview of sources and data material

8In order to describe the development of alternative food consumption in Norway we will draw upon the research that has been carried out on food consumption at our own research institute (SIFO, the Norwegian National Institute for Consumer Research) over the past 15 years. SIFO aims at doing research that is in the interest of the consumer, and there has been extensive research on the role of the consumer and the relation between consumer practices and sustainability. The studies considered here are mainly focused on organic food consumption and conditions for more sustainable consumption of food. In the discussion we will mostly rely on results formerly published in SIFO-reports with the exception of the data from the national survey (SIFO-survey) which have not been published previously.

9In the earliest research projects consumer knowledge and purchase of organic food was mapped; to what extent did consumers recognise organic products, who were these consumers and how often did they buy these products? Two of the earliest reports deal with the consumer role (Vittersø 2000) and the definitions and implications of sustainable food diets (Torjusen & Vittersø 1998). Several consumer surveys have been conducted. In this paper we draw upon a regional study carried out in 1997 in Hedmark county (Torjusen et al., 2001), as well as a national survey conducted in 2000 (Torjusen 2001).  In order to describe the early phase of alternative consumption, we also draw upon research that was carried out as part of a European project (TOOLSUST) which focused on political tools for sustainable consumption in European cities. This project included both quantitative survey data and qualitative interviews with consumers and stakeholders in the city of Fredrikstad (Methi et al., 2001; Vittersø, 2003). The European project TRUST IN FOOD (Kjærnes et al., 2005)–with a specific analysis of the Norwegian case (Berg, 2005) provides an insight into how organic products were regarded by consumers (Torjusen, 2004) and by other important actors of the Norwegian food system (Terragni, 2004). Similarly, the project Welfare Quality© gives us information about the everyday struggle of being an alternative consumer in Norway. The recent developments in the ‘alternative food market’ are discussed with reference to evaluations of the initial seasons (2006-2008) of the first CSA farm in Norway (Bjune and Torjusen, 2005; Bjune and Torjusen, unpublished results). This CSA-initiative promotes cooperation and interactions between consumers and producers in fundamentally new ways.

  • 2 The data was collected in February 2006.
  • 3  The data was collected in October 2008.

10We will also present data from a national survey, the SIFO-survey, carried out annually since 2005. This survey includes questions about the purchase of organic and fair trade labelled products. In addition, the 2006 survey edition also included questions about political consumerism and consumer involvement2 (i.e. boycott, buycott, evaluation of the consumer role). The 2008 edition of the SIFO survey added questions about purchase at farms and markets3. The material was collected by computer assisted telephone interviews (CATI) organized by Norstat Norway. One thousand randomly selected respondents, aged 18 to 80, have answered the questions. The material has been weighted according to gender and age and stratified according to geography in order to be nationally representative (More on the SIFO survey in Berg, 2006; Berg and Terragni, 2006).

Organic as a marginal critical voice

11Organic farming was established in the first half of the 20th century in Europe (Dominé, 1997), and in Norway the first bio-dynamic farm came into operation in the 1930s.

  • 4  Personal communication with Thor Risinggård 12.8.1998.

12There are few written memories of the early days of the organic movement in Norway; most of them are kept by the people who started these initiatives. The first organic (bio-dynamic) food shop was established in 1969. One of the founders of the first organic shop in Oslo4 told that in this early period organic food was mainly sold directly from the farm or sent by train to consumers in distant cities and places (Torjusen and Vittersø, 1998). The wish to enlarge this group, and particularly to reach people in the cities, led some consumers and producers to launch an initiative for the distribution of organic food (bio-dynamic) in 1969 that eventually led to the establishment of the Helios whole food chain in the 1970s. The first Helios shop stood out from ordinary grocery shops. Active participation of the interested consumers characterised those first years. Financial uncertainty was reduced by creating a fund consumers could contribute to. Every half-year there were meetings where the different parties (farmers, retailers and consumers) negotiated prices considered acceptable for all (Torjusen and Vittersø, 1998). In the Helios shops people did more than just buy groceries, they exchanged information and experiences, and were part of a network.

13In the mid 1980s a new phase began. Different organic producer organisations started to collaborate, and in 1986 a national certification scheme for organic food called Debio was established. This can be regarded as the start of the institutionalisation of organic farming, both commercially and politically. With an increasing focus on environmental problems in the agricultural sector, support grants for organic production were introduced in the 1990s. The authorities regarded organic farming as an important spearhead in the environmental efforts within the agricultural sector (Vittersø, 1994, 2001; Vittersø, et al., 2005). After this, production increased fairly rapidly. The availability of products in stores, however, did not follow accordingly. There were several reasons for the scarcity of organic products, mostly related to the particular structure of the Norwegian food system. The Norwegian food system was in fact at that time (and still is) characterized by a high degree of government regulation, protectionism, and a predominant role of a few market actors both in the processing industry and in the retail business (Kjærnes et al., 2007). Public authorities supported the agricultural organisations campaign for the promotion of Norwegian food through the label ‘Good Norwegian’ (Terragni, 2006), suggesting that the Norwegian conventional food could be regarded as ‘natural’ and environmentally friendly (Amilien et al., 2005; Storstad & Bjørkhaug, 2003). Retailers showed little interest in marketing organic foods and the larger producers were as well reluctant to invest in organic meat and diary products (Terragni, 2005). According to their opinion, the volume was too small, the organic products were too expensive and there was too little demand for organic produce (Vittersø 2000). Farmers organisations felt that organic agriculture represented a criticism of their (conventional) members’ production methods (Brendehaug and Groven, 2000; Flø, 2001). As these producers’ co-operatives held a monopolistic position regarding the distribution of milk and meat, the organic producers had paradoxically to rely on the conventional producers’ distribution system in order to reach the market with their products. Not surprisingly, the marketing of organic products had a low pace (Brendehaug and Groven, 2000; Flø, 2001; Vittersø, 2000). Consumers were forced to buy organic products outside of the normal sales channels. This was as well difficult. As previously mentioned, the alternative distribution system was poorly developed. The Helios chain, which was the most important all-organic distributor, only had a few outlets, mainly located in the cities. Thus, organic products remained largely unavailable in the stores (Methi et al., 2001). A regional consumer survey from that period (1997) confirmed that unfamiliarity and structural difficulties were the main barriers perceived by consumers: insufficient information, poor availability in food stores, unpractical to get hold of and unpractical to buy large quantities at a time, as well as high price were the main reasons for not buying organic food (Torjusen, Nyberg and Wandel 1999, 152). The situation did not seem to have changed much in 2000 when a national survey showed that 71% of the respondents agreed that “I seldom see organic alternatives where I shop”, while 63% found organic food too expensive (Torjusen 2001, 56). The fact that only 28% could agree to a statement claiming that “I see no advantages in organic food” further supports the picture that the challenges were structural rather than related to consumer attitudes.

14Just getting the most common food products required considerable efforts, because the organic products were few, often placed in shelves not immediately visible and consumers who wanted to buy these products had to look especially for them (Vittersø, 2001, 2003): Some consumers regarded this as a challenge and kept on demanding organic food.

  • 5  Quotation from a focus group with vegetarian and political consumers (Terragni and Torjusen, 2007)

I spend a lot of time in the shops. That’s all because I can’t find the organic products, so I walk around asking; “Have you got organic eggs?” And then I don’t find the swan labelled washing powder, so I ask; “Have you got that washing powder?”5

15Surveys conducted in this period showed that the number of consumers who bought organic products was small. The analyses showed that they were neither younger, more urban nor wealthier than others. However, they differ from the average when considering their attitudes and actions towards ethical, social and environmental issues, (Methi et al., 2001; Storstad & Bjørkhaug, 2003; Torjusen, 2001; Torjusen et al., 2001). More than others, they had reflected on the relations between their own food choices and environmental, ethical and health consequences and integrated these reflections into their everyday lives (Torjusen, Nyberg and Wandel, 1999; Torjusen et al. 2001; Torjusen 2001). In a regional survey from 1997 (Torjusen and Vittersø, 1998), respondents who had bought organic food had a stronger local orientation in the food market as they put priority on buying local food and supporting local businesses/initiatives as well as looking for information about ownership/organisation of the food enterprise. They also applied a different and broader perspective on food quality: While appreciating traditional food quality aspects such as taste, freshness and appearance just as much as the others, they also emphasised other aspects related to an ‘abstract quality orientation’. These aspects included nutritional value and the absence of GMOs and harmful substances, as well as food system issues such as ethical and environmental consequences of production. Also regarding eating practices, differences emerged between those who bought organic food and those who did not. These differences were in line with a more ‘sustainable diet’ (Torjusen and Vittersø, 1998) as well as dietary recommendations related to better health: More fruit, vegetables (particularly root and raw vegetables) and fish, and less meat and processed foods (Torjusen, Nyberg and Wandel 1997; Torjusen et al. 2001). A distinct orientation among organic food consumers with regard to higher awareness of food system issues was confirmed in the national survey in 2000: They put higher emphasis on environmentally sound and sustainable food production as well as transport, local food sourcing and animal welfare compared to those who seldom or never bought organic food. They were also more concerned with health implications as well as food as a source of pleasure and new experiences (Torjusen, 2001).

Organic becomes mainstream

16From being an outsider in the 1990s, during the past ten years organic food has been increasingly included in the conventional food system. These changes are connected to a change in agricultural policy and a new orientation in the market from the main actors in production, processing and distribution. Ambitious governmental goals have been set for organic production and consumption. The White paper no. 19, 1999-2000, set a target that 10 percent of all farmlands should be organically farmed by 2010 (Norwegian Agricultural Authority, 2003). In the government's political platform from October 2005 (the ‘Soria Moria’ declaration) this target was raised to 15 percent by 2015 and comprising now both the production and consumption of organic food6. Observing that “Norway lies behind other countries when it comes to the accessibility of organic goods to consumers”, the ‘Soria Moria’ declaration urge public authorities to take the lead as responsible consumers by public procurement of environmentally friendly products as well as other products that are manufactured according to high ethical and social standards’7. According to the 'Action plan for organic production and sales', the government's primary goal is to ‘offer favourable conditions for agricultural production that is a spearhead in the development of a sustainable and viable Norwegian agricultural production where consumer demands, wishes and needs are central’ (Norwegian Agricultural Authority, 2003: 15).

17Since the beginning of 2000, the alternative food market has changed in Norway, providing to the consumers a wider selection of food with different qualities. Speciality foods from local or small scale producers have entered the market, and new sales channels for direct sales of local food have been established. More organic products have become available in the food stores, and from 2007 to 2008 the sales of organic food increased by 25 percent8. The food processing industry has developed new organic products and brands (Jacobsen, 2007), and there is a significant increase in the number of food items certified as organic: from 4041 in 2007 to 5667 in 2008 (Norwegian Agricultural Authority, 2009). Several retail chains now include their organic assortment in their profiling strategies and run regular marketing campaigns for organic products (Jacobsen, 2007)9.

18The indication of an increased consumption of organic products finds support in the data collected in the various editions of the SIFO survey (Table 1). In the first edition of the survey (2005), 37 percent reported that they have purchased organic products in the last month, while in the latest edition (2008) almost 60 percent said that they have bought these products. An increase in the purchase of fairtrade products is also noticeable, particularly in the last year. It is furthermore worth noticing the number of respondents answering that they have bought food at an open air market or on a farm. As this question was not asked in the previous years, it is not possible to evaluate trends over time. However, a previous survey conducted in 2002, where Norwegians were asked where they purchased their food items, indicated that only three percent answered that they bought food at a market or in other places (Kjærnes, Poppe and Lavik, 2005: 83 & 106). The increase in consumers’ interests towards environmentally friendly, fairtrade and local products is also shown by the fact that, while in 2005, 55 percent had at least bought one of those products, the figure in 2008 was 81 percent (Table 1).

Table 1:

Table 1:

Number of respondents having purchased eco-labelled, organic, fairtrade products or food from farms or open air markets in the last month. Percent values on positive answers.

Source: SIFO survey 2005-2008.

  • 10  People were for instance asked if they have boycotted products or companies, or if they have delib (...)

19Observing these data one may ask if these trends reflect an increase in participation in forms of alternative food consumption and in the politicization of the consumer role. Referring to the definition of alternative food consumption previously presented and to the discussion of Boström and Klintman in this volume, we argue that alternative consumption is something more than buying organic products. It implies an understanding of these products as alternative and as a way of expressing a critical view toward conventional food production and consumption. In order to do that we need to know more about the consumers of these products: Which kind of consumers are the ones that have bought organic products? For the purpose of this analysis, we focused on the data from the SIFO survey 2006, which, as mentioned, includes also some specific questions on consumer activism and involvement10. In our analysis we have divided our sample into three groups: the ones that during the month prior to the interview have not purchased any organic products; the ones that have bought organic products and, finally, the ones that have bought organic products and other ‘alternative products’ such as fairtrade labelled ones.

Table 2:

Table 2:

Differences in consumer activism purchase of products at farms and market and satisfaction about the supply of organic products according to purchase or non purchase of organic products (% on positive answers). In bold: significant differences between the subgroups (p<0.0001-tested with chi 2 test)

Source: SIFO survey 2006 &2008= N=1000

  • 11  50 % say that that they are not satisfied. Among the people not usually buying organic products th (...)

20Compared with the ones that do not buy organic products at all, people buying organic products tend to a larger degree to think that their voice as consumers counts, and to have participated in forms of political consumerism (i.e. boycotts or buycotts). However, our data show as well that it is among those that have bought organic and fair tradeproducts that we find a higher incidence of people that have boycotted, buycotted, or have participated in protest actions via internet. Furthermore, these are the ones that are most likely to have bought products in newly established initiatives like Farmers’ Markets. Finally, it is interesting to notice that there are significant differences in how satisfied people are with the provision of organic products (as it was in October 2008). About 50 percent of the respondents say that they are satisfied with the assortment of organic products. This is undoubtedly an increase from the result of a survey conducted in 2004, where the rate of people satisfied with the offer of organic food was 35 percent (Berg, 2005, 70). According to the data of the SIFO survey 2008 the ones that are most satisfied with the offer of organic products are the ones that buy organic products – but not the ones that buy both organic and fair trade products. They are, on the contrary, the least satisfied11. In agreement with Boström’s and Klintman’s discussion in this volume, these data may also suggest a form of dissatisfaction towards the current trend of organic products in the mainstream market: as it is becoming more standardized and normalized.

21As the market for organic grows and becomes part of the conventional market, we may also expect that it will become part of ordinary consumption practices based on convenience, price and time. But by becoming more ordinary and progressively integrated in the conventional food system, organic products may lose part of their original meaning of ‘alternative products’. Organic products placed on supermarket shelves and distributed by well-known brands may be more easy to buy, but may not necessarily satisfy the need for expressing alternative values through consumption. How, then, can people committed to using consumption as a way for expressing alternative values deal with the issue of conventionalisation?

Searching for something genuinely alternative: the first Norwegian experience of community shared agriculture (CSA)

  • 12  N=537
  • 13  N=128

22As shown in the previous section, organic food is increasingly becoming part of the general food system, a development that is in line with the international tendency in this area described as 'the quality turn' (Feagan, 2007). In Norway this has, as shown, resulted in the main retailers choosing to go for organic food as an important niche, and the authorities setting ambitious political goals for the production and consumption of organic food. In cooperation with the authorities and the important agricultural cooperatives, organisations and sales channels have been established for small scale production of agricultural goods. The Norwegian Farmers' Market, which has been established in more than 20 Norwegian cities, is a result of these efforts. For many producers, the main aim of this initiative is targeted at the customer with spending power who is willing to pay extra for products that are fresh and come directly from the farm. However, through selling local products and often having a large share of organic products they have an image as environmentally friendly and seem to attract more and more customers, including those who seek ethical (organic) alternatives (Jervell and Vramo, 2007). A survey conducted at Norwegian Farmers markets in 2006 showed that the customers buy organic food to a considerable extent. 60%12 of the interviewed stated that they buy organic food often or from time to time. In Oslo this figure was as high as 80 percent13 (Jervell & Vramo, 2007). Figures from the Farmers market study also show that the customers prefer to buy these products directly from the producer (to a higher price) instead of the regular food store. In this respect it may seem that purchase directly from the producer is a way to avoid the mainstreamed products in the supermarkets and that the customers that are regular buyers of organic and fair trade products also have a different orientation in the direct markets than other customers.

23The case of Community Shared Agriculture represents a further step away from the mainstream food market and closer to something genuinely alternative. CSA is based on a mutual agreement between a group of people (often called ‘members’ or ‘shareholers’) and a farmer where they ideally share both the risks and the rewards of farming. By buying a share of the harvest early in the season, the members provide economic security for the farmer, while members are offered close insight into, and in some cases influence over, the food production (see for example Henderson and Van En, 1999; Cone and Myhre, 2000).

  • 14  For information about CSA in Norway, see
  • 15 In cooperation with National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO), Oikos (the national movement o (...)
  • 16  The cost of a full share is 3000 Norwegian Crowns, approximately 290 Euros.

24The first Norwegian CSA farm was established in 2005 at Øverland Farm in Bærum, on the border between the living areas and the surrounding forest just outside of the capital Oslo14. The development of the first examples of CSA in Norway was facilitated in a project initiated by The Royal Norwegian Society for Development15, but both CSAs currently operating was formed on the basis of dialogue between interested consumer citizens and those responsible for food production (farmers/core group). The number of shareholders has increased steadily and counted 115 families in 200816. In 2009 many families had to be put in a waiting list. Besides buying into a share of the production, shareholders at Øverland Farm receive newsletters and are invited to take part in special working groups (on herbs, land use, bee hives, food and recipes, etc.) and social events such as harvest celebration, film evenings and get-togethers with practical work in the field.

  • 17  Unpublished results of evaluations of the seasons 2006, 2007 and 2008 at ‘ØverlAndel CSA’ in Bærum (...)

25When asked about what made participation worth while in relation to the time and money invested, participants reported that not only product quality and quantity, but also ideological, ethical and social aspects mattered17.

  • 18  Comments to a open-ended question about “other aspects which have been important to you”.

26Evaluations from the Øverland Farm CSA in Norway indicate that experiences of the place, the people, the vegetables and the cooking constitute a meaningful aspect of participation18. Some describe that “self-grown gives a special feeling and taste” and ‘the experience is more important than the amount of vegetables”. Others emphasize “the joy of being part of something that is important for our beautiful and abused planet”. The harvesting of (one’s own) vegetables was also described as ‘joyful’. Some reported that it was important for them to “take part in creating something so positive”.

27Since members pay for a share of the production costs rather than a given amount of food, CSA represents a step away from the market context. This key feature of by-passing the market was experienced as meaningful by participants at Øverland CSA: 38 of 44 respondents considered it to be important or partly important ”to participate in an arrangement in which the provisioning of food takes place outside of the ordinary food market” in the evaluation of the 2008 season.

28CSA has been discussed as an instrument for generating social and ecological responsibility by enhancing relationships that “extend beyond the marketplace and transform consumers into citizens and community activists” (DeLind and Ferguson, 1999).Thompson and Coskuner-Balli (2007) view CSA as a form of ethical consumerism and propose that it may be seen as a “cooperative, market-mediated effort among consumers and producers to contest the de-territorializing trajectories of globalization” (Thompson and Coskuner-Balli, 2007: 277).

29Among the top five issues rated as important by CSA members at Øverland in the 2008 season were “supporting organic agriculture”, “securing land use for food production” and “securing public accessibility of the land”, while only one was related to a more traditional consumer role: “accessing organic produce”. This urge to do something about global food system issues was also articulated as comments to open questions: “I still believe that what each and every one of us does in practice is crucial”. Others wanted to “show that we want to and must take care of the fertile soil in the best possible way – not golf and parking”. Opinions such as these indicate the importance of CSA as an arena for “voting” and “voicing” through consumption practices.


30We started the paper by raising the question if consumers can save the world. We have discussed this question by looking at the development of organic food consumption and other, more recent, alternative forms of food distribution and consumption.

31Our investigation shows that there is a range of structural factors, such as the availability of products, distribution channels and public policies, which influence opportunities for alternative or political consumption. Like Jacobsen and Dulsrud (2007) and Boström and Klintman in this volume (2009) we warn against a ’generic active consumer model’. In this article we have described how the conditions for alternative food consumption in Norway have changed and been framed during different stages. We have seen that for several years organic food only had a marginal position outside of the conventional market. Alternative food networks, such as Helios, were established with the aim of satisfying the demand of organic products expressed by concerned consumers. In the 1990s this situation gradually changed. Organic producers sought cooperation with conventional actors in order to get organic products into the conventional sales channels. The organic farmers were however met with reluctance both by conventional producers and retailers. In this phase alternative consumers exerted pressure in order to increase the offer of organic food in supermarkets. In many ways this became part of a larger consumers’ political issue about increasing quality and diversity in the food market. Things are rather different today. Organic products, despite a modest share of the total turnover, have become conventionalised in the Norwegian food market. Most Norwegian consumers know that organic products are on offer, and as the data from the SIFO survey show, in 2008 nearly 60 % bought these products.

32At the same time we have shown that there is a group of consumers who look for new products (such as fair trade), new, localized sales venues for food (Farmers' Market) and new forms of relations between consumers and producers (as in CSA).

33The empirical material presented and discussed in this study suggests that as some forms of alternative consumption tend to become mainstream there is a group that ‘moves on’ and keeps searching for new products and new forms of involvement with a symbolic capital representing their identities and aspirations (Brunori, 2007). This imply that what can be defined as alternative consumption changes with time and place and reflects the consumers’ capability to act within a context that is both given but also changeable.

34Alternative food consumption can hence be defined as a form of social action which by mean of utilising products which have a symbolic meaning, challenges the mainstream food system, its values and its structure, indicating, at the same time, that other options are possible. By participating in forms of alternative food consumption people may contribute to defining the agenda of the relevant problems that our society faces and have to cope with, as well as expressing their values and aspirations.

35We suggest that more research is needed in order to understand the changing symbolic meaning of products, the process that leads to the identification of some specific products as alternative and how these products are politically used by consumers.

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1 Expression borrowed from the Slow food manifesto.

2 The data was collected in February 2006.

3  The data was collected in October 2008.

4  Personal communication with Thor Risinggård 12.8.1998.

5  Quotation from a focus group with vegetarian and political consumers (Terragni and Torjusen, 2007)

6  The ‘Soria Moria’ declaration: Retrieved: 06-04-2009.

7  (The ‘Soria Moria’ declaration "Environmental protection in everyday life" p. 55)

8  It has however to be reminded that organic foods still have only a market share of 1,3 percent of total food sales in the Norwegian retail market (Jacobsen, 2007).

9  See for instance: ; (retrieved 06.04.2009)

10  People were for instance asked if they have boycotted products or companies, or if they have deliberately bought specific products for political or ethical reasons. They were also asked on how much they though that their voice as consumers mattered.

11  50 % say that that they are not satisfied. Among the people not usually buying organic products there, understandably, is a high rate of “I do not know”.

12  N=537

13  N=128

14  For information about CSA in Norway, see

15 In cooperation with National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO), Oikos (the national movement of organic producers and consumers in Norway) and ‘Grønn Hverdag’ (a network of private persons, groups and NGOs with the aim of facilitating green choices in everyday life).

16  The cost of a full share is 3000 Norwegian Crowns, approximately 290 Euros.

17  Unpublished results of evaluations of the seasons 2006, 2007 and 2008 at ‘ØverlAndel CSA’ in Bærum, Norway.

18  Comments to a open-ended question about “other aspects which have been important to you”.

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List of illustrations

Title Table 1:
Caption Number of respondents having purchased eco-labelled, organic, fairtrade products or food from farms or open air markets in the last month. Percent values on positive answers.
Credits Source: SIFO survey 2005-2008.
File image/jpeg, 32k
Title Table 2:
Caption Differences in consumer activism purchase of products at farms and market and satisfaction about the supply of organic products according to purchase or non purchase of organic products (% on positive answers). In bold: significant differences between the subgroups (p<0.0001-tested with chi 2 test)
Credits Source: SIFO survey 2006 &2008= N=1000
File image/jpeg, 80k
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Electronic reference

Laura Terragni, Hanne Torjusen and Gunnar Vittersø, “The dynamics of alternative food consumption: contexts, opportunities and transformations”Anthropology of food [Online], S5 | September 2009, Online since 10 September 2009, connection on 19 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Laura Terragni

Akershus University College, Norway,

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Hanne Torjusen

National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO), Norway, and The Norwegian Institute of Public Health:

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Gunnar Vittersø

National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO), Norway,

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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