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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Retail Organisations

In the context of austerity and growing inequalities between areas of relative wealth and those of increasing poverty and poor life chances, the need to better understand potential for change and sustainable change, derived from investments in community-engaged action, has never been more pressing. 

Applications in practice

  • Future risk and opportunity
  • Business strategies and models
  • Culture, capacity and leadership
  • Social and political change

Contribution to CISL’s core research themes

Inclusive and resilient societiesInclusive and resilient societies



About the project

This project focuses on the breadth of activity by UK-based retail organisations in support of community wellbeing, with particular focus on tackling disadvantage and/or building resilience in disadvantaged communities. Identifying ‘promising’ initiatives in supermarkets, it considers which activities are working for whom, under what circumstances, and why, developing proposals that are being tested through case studies and system-mapping with key stakeholders. Working with retailers, beneficiaries including local charities, local stakeholders and members of the public, ‘grass-roots’ consultation will produce an understanding of what resources are available in the local area, what concerns, challenges and priorities people have, and what action they would like to happen as a result.

The study combines scoping review, theory development, primary data collection through case studies and participatory, co-design of community-engaged actions. The main areas of attention are:

  1. Outlining the different types of community initiatives by food retail in the UK. 
  2. Investigating how the initiatives impact on community wellbeing.  
  3. Developing a theoretical frameworks to help understand the actions by food retailers and the route to impact. 
  4. Understanding the potential for activities to make a difference to wellbeing and inequality through grounding these actions within the local support systems for wellbeing.

Impact and relevance

In the context of austerity and growing inequalities between areas of relative wealth and those of increasing poverty and poor life chances, there is a pressing need to better understand the potential for sustainable impact, derived from investments in community-engaged action. The research seeks to identify how food retailers make a difference to people and places experiencing disadvantage.

Research findings will inform decision-making for future investments by businesses in community-focused social responsibility actions. The findings will indicate where corporate strategy could make a greater difference by being more responsive to local social, economic and environmental drivers of inequality. There is potential to make an enduring difference to communities, supporting–for example–the voluntary and community sector to build capacity through increased partnerships. 

The research contributes to an evidence base which supports decisions about engagement and investment in community activities. It further promotes a systems-thinking approach which considers the current and potential role of business in supporting population health and wellbeing. The work highlights methods for identifying what is important locally by drawing on local knowledge, assets, and networks.  

Work packages

1. Literature review and mapping of UK retail interventions 

The focus is on identifying the breadth of activity by food retail organisations in support of community wellbeing. With a focus on disadvantaged communities, an analysis of different corporate social responsibility reports and webpages will serve as a starting point. A typology of these initiatives focusing on local community wellbeing will be created. 

2. Development of conceptual/theoretical underpinnings  

Through analysis of a subset of ‘promising’ initiatives, theoretical propositions will be developed from what is working for whom, under what circumstances, and why. 

3. Case study research  

The applicability of the initial theories will be tested through case studies in three separate areas of the country. These will identify where interventions might be making a difference, the potential barriers and unintended consequences to their implementation, and where there may be opportunities for future action. In addition, the conceptual underpinnings will also be informed by interviews with a large number of UK community champions and member pioneers.  

4. Co-produced research  

This participatory and peer research phase will take place in two of the case study areas. The action research will combine insights from a retailer, the public and other local stakeholders–including charitable organisations and local authority leaders–with a goal of co-producing local action to support wellbeing and foster resilience tailored to community priorities. 

5. Older adults research 

This thematic study will seek to focus on current and potential future support by supermarkets to older adults in their community 


The findings of this research will be disseminated through academic (e.g. reports, journal articles, conference presentations, blogs) and non-academic outlets (e.g. articles for mainstream-media or The Conversation, industry-focused policy briefs). To increase public outreach and raise awareness in the business sector, the findings will also be shared in the case study localities through targeted dissemination, such as attending local business fora, Integrated Care System events, community events and social media platforms. We will aim to hold cross sectoral ‘roundtable’ discussions to discuss how the research findings support decision-making for future investment in community-focused social responsibility actions, while also considering where corporate strategy could make a greater difference by being more responsive to local social, economic, and environmental drivers of inequality.


Lee, C., Bassam, E.R.W. and Kuhn, I. (2021) Community-oriented actions by food retailers to support community well-being: a systematic scoping review Public Health, Volume 201, 2021, Pages 115-124, ISSN 0033-3506

Lee, C. and Hammant, C. Corporate social and community-oriented support by UK food retailers: a documentary review and typology of actions towards community wellbeing. Perspectives in Public Health. 2023;143(4):211-219. doi:10.1177/17579139221095326.

CISL (2022). Supermarkets and communities: Developing a framework to guide investment, implementation, and impact of community actions. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Lee, C. and Hammant, C. (forthcoming). How do and could businesses with anchor positioning contribute to community wellbeing? A study of supermarket community support actions in the UK. Wellbeing, Space and Society


Our response to the pandemic has been to absorb, and adapt – but might there now be an opportunity to transform?

Could supermarkets become the new superheroes by helping to build community resilience?

Why we’re researching the impact of supermarkets on community wellbeing 

Collaborators and funding

This work is supported by a philanthropic gift from ASDA.

Additional sources of funding:

Complementary research activities, connected with the Fellowship but funded through different research projects, include: 

Cambridge Humanities Research Grant 2021. What is the nature and effect of community interventions for wellbeing by food retailers: Enhancing community voice through co-production and peer research (enhancement to Work package 4) 

Cambridge School of Technology Seed Fund 2021. Branching out: A seed for supermarket solutions - food retailer community-focused actions in support of older adults’ wellbeing (Work package 5) 

Research team

Catherine HammantCatherine Hammant

Catherine is a Research Associate investigating the nature of community interventions by retail organisations and their effectiveness in enhancing wellbeing. Trained initially as a chartered surveyor she has extensive experience of community-led regeneration focusing primarily on market towns. More recently her PhD considered the implementation of public realm schemes and the influence of policy and practice on the quality of outcome.


Caroline Lee

The Prince of Wales Global Sustainability Fellow in Retail Organisations Engagement Activities and Community Wellbeing, supported by ASDA


Twitter: @cazzerlee

“The Prince of Wales Global Sustainability Fellowship provides the opportunity to robustly research, and understand the potential impact of retail organisations in supporting community wellbeing, and addressing enduring inequalities between areas of the country.”

Caroline Lee

“At Asda, supporting our local communities is a key priority for us. Working in partnership with CISL we are keen to understand the effectiveness of our community programme designed to address deprivation, wellbeing and community resilience. At a point in time where we are focused on continuing to support local communities to navigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, this is more important than ever to ensure we remain focussed on the most effective ways to improve the lives of our customers and colleagues.”