Sustainability entrepreneurship to address large distances in international food supply

I am very happy to finally be sharing on this Blog the first publication of my PhD, co-authored with my supervisors Daniel Lang and Arnim Wiek.  Our research has resulted in us identifying five entrepreneurial solution approaches to address current challenges of international food supply, as I explain below. But before that, some insights about the writing process, and what I learnt from it.

Working on this first article has been a long process of numerous iterations. It took us various meetings and many multi-colored moderation cards to find the best way to link the different elements and make sense of them for an external reader: relational and geographical distance, sustainability-oriented design principles, as well as some entrepreneurial cases for international food supply I was aware of at that time. In addition to this collaborative process, I was also working in parallel with my dear colleague Karoline Poeggel on another paper, which was to serve as my “literature review”.

A big aha moment for bringing together all the elements of this research was when we decided to turn it from being merely the “conceptual paper” into a conceptual paper with an empirical part. In doing so, we were able to use entrepreneurial cases to illustrate the theoretical parts. Indeed, when talking to my peers about the first ideas of the article, in particular, the design principles for international food supply, I often found myself using a practical example to better illustrate the respective principle. For instance, when referring to “using renewable energies for long-distance transport” I would mention Teikei Coffee as an example. Teikei Coffee is a community supported coffee project that uses a cargo sailboat to bring green coffee beans from Mexico to Germany. So by including this practical concrete case into our study, it became much easier for us to convey the theoretical aspects of the paper in a tangible way. As it happens, Teikei Coffee, has later ended up becoming one of the main studies of my PhD.

In fact, conducting interviews with entrepreneurs has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of this process, reminding me of what drives me to want to engage with this type of research in the first place.

Here is briefly what you can find in the article:

First, through a literature review we identified several sustainability challenges of international food supply and relate them to large distances, specifically, large geographical (between places) and relational distances (between people) that can be a relevant driver for these challenges.

Second, we reviewed literature on and empirical cases of innovative practices in sustainability entrepreneurship that address these either by mitigating negative effects of or directly overcoming large distances. We clustered these practices into five entrepreneurial solution approaches and specified each of them through a set of sustainability-oriented design principles for international food supply (Figure 1, List of Principles).

Figure 1. Entrepreneurial approaches to overcome large distances in international food supply with corresponding sustainability principles (Weber et al. 2020).

List of design principles:

  • P1 – Use renewable energy sources for long-distance transport (e.g. sailboats or electric trucks; instead of fossil fuel)
  • P2 – Offset GHG emissions (caused by transportation and energy imports through different measures, for example, supporting reforestation)
  • P3 – Display information about geographically distal regions (e.g. about environmental, cultural, and socioeconomic conditions of the region of production and/or processing site)
  • P4 – Substitute internationally sourced/ exported food products (e.g. by producing a food product with similar nutrition properties locally)
  • P5 – Select food providers located closer (i.e. produce in countries that are as close as possible to each other or produce internationally imported food products locally)
  • P6 – Pay standard “fair” prices (a minimum price plus a premium according to standards of the Fairtrade Labelling Organization)
  • P7 – Add value in the country of origin (e.g. producing chocolate bars in local factories and exporting the bars instead of the cocoa beans)
  • P8 – Shorten supply chain (i.e. reducing the number of intermediaries, for example, additional importers, exporters, or trade associations)
  • P9 – Pay fair prices based on needs (i.e. pay a price to that recognizes contributions and socio-economic needs to every person working in the supply chain)
  • P10 – Support socio-ecological projects in the region of origin (e.g. invest a ratio of profits in social and/or ecological projects in the region of origin or of consumption)
  • P11 – Create community-supported economy schemes (i.e. share benefits and risks among producers and consumers, through pre-financing the next year of production)
  • P12 – Create participatory governance schemes (i.e. take decisions collaboratively with involvement from all actors along the supply chain)

Third, we present nine empirical case studies that fulfill the majority of principles associated with the respective approach to illustrate our approaches. If you would like to learn more about Bohlsener Mühle, Fairafric, Grenada Chocolate Company, Slokoffie, Considerate Coffee Company & Catando Ando Coffee Roasters, Projektwerkstatt Teekampagne, Teikei Coffee, Original Beans, or Platanenblatt, you should read our article 😉

If you are aware of similar examples that you think would fit to one or more of the presented approaches, please let us know. We are happy to learn more about it.

We hope that our study can provide food scholars, entrepreneurs, and businesses with evidence and insights on how they could foster sustainable food supply and that the presented practices will be adopted and further developed.

Enjoy reading!


Weber H, Wiek A, Lang DJ. Sustainability entrepreneurship to address large distances in international food supply. Business Strategy and Development. 2020; 3:318–331,

Hanna Weber

Hanna studied her Master in Sustainability Science (M.Sc.) at Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany, and PUCP in Lima, Peru. During her working experiences at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome, Italy, she developed a great interest in sustainable agricultural and food systems. In the POST project she focuses on the nexus between local food systems and international food supply using a transdisciplinary approach, e.g. conducting real-world-experiments in Lüneburg, Germany and Tempe, USA. Learn more about Hanna's PhD project!

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