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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

26 October 2022 - Supermarkets’ status as a lynchpin in communities was highlighted in the emergency response to the global Coronavirus pandemic. Can we to look towards supermarkets as ‘anchor organisations’ becoming more strategic contributors to the wellbeing of their surrounding communities?

With a focus both on ‘places’ and systems approaches, this paper reflects on opportunities and challenges to these businesses engaging in such actions in a context of enduring austerity in public services.

The working paper introduces a framework for understanding and valuing ‘community-oriented’ actions undertaken by food retailers in terms of their potential contribution to wellbeing and reducing inequalities.

Supermarkets and community well-being

Read the working paper

Key findings

It can be hypothesised how individuals with a key role in communities – such as Community Champions – might make a difference to settings over time eg “If supermarket staff have time to find out about and network with community organisations, then the voluntary sector infrastructure can be better supported, because Community Champions will understand local needs better, and voluntary and community groups will be more aware of what support is available”.

The emergency context caused by the global pandemic may have created the conditions for new or expanded actions by retailers in communities. Could these be developed into more preventive, resilience-focused actions, and become more embedded into the wider local system supporting communities’ wellbeing?

This working paper argues that there is a strong rationale for looking at supermarkets as contributors to community assets. It presents a framework for identifying potential pathways to wellbeing outcomes, guiding investments, and evidencing value in a complex system. In addition, it provides indications of where opportunities may lie to build on actions, test theory, and monitor change, some of which may call for greater collaboration and broader systems thinking.

Potential impact

Possible examples could include developing stores as community hubs in areas with few community spaces - using private space for public good - providing human resource and infrastructural support to local volunteering, and in-reach by support services such as debt advice, welfare rights, mental health and social prescribing. Retailers rely on local residents as their customers and as their employees, yet with power and control, a key driver of wellbeing, could more be made of opportunities to involve and empower customers as citizens? This could augment seldom heard voices, and enable greater civic participation. Contributing to ‘grass roots’ insights from local populations could also be an area of collaboration, working cross-sectorally towards a solid understanding of intervention points in ‘catchment’ communities.

Find out more about The Prince of Wales Global Sustainability Fellowship in Retail Organisations Engagement Activities and Community Wellbeing, supported by ASDA

Published: October 2022

Authors and acknowledgements

Caroline Lee

The author thanks CISL colleagues for their support and assistance in the preparation of this paper, in particular Jake Reynolds, Gianna Huhn, Rebecca Doggwiler, and Catherine Hammant.



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The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL or The University of Cambridge.