Sustainable grocery retailing: Myth or reality?—A content analysis

AuthorAnja Weber,Marcus Saber
Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
Bus Soc Rev. 2019;124:479–496.
DOI: 10.1111/basr.12187
Sustainable grocery retailing: Myth or reality?—A
content analysis
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction
in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
© 2019 The Authors. Business and Society Review published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of W. Michael Hoffman. Published by Wiley
Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.
Deutsche Post Chair of Marketing, HHL
Leipzig Graduate School of Management,
Leipzig, Germany
Marcus Saber, Deutsche Post Chair of
Marketing, HHLLeipzig Graduate School
of Management, Jahnalle 59, Leipzig,
04109, Germany.
Sustainability reports are a crucial instrument to inform
outside stakeholders not only about a company's sustainabil-
ity performance but also to manage impressions. However,
they are often prone to greenwashing and the reporting
of negative topics can jeopardize corporate legitimacy.
Therefore, this paper aims to analyze reporting quality and
how grocery retailing companies deal with this challenge of
reporting the true picture. The empirical material is taken
from the latest sustainability reports and information avail-
able on the Internet for two major German supermarkets, six
grocery discount retailers, and two organic supermarkets.
The Global Reporting Initiative standards are used to assess
and compare the extent of information disclosure. A qualita-
tive content analysis is applied to identify negative disclo-
sure aspects and their legitimation. While the main focus
areas (supply chain, employees, environment/climate, and
society) are similar for the companies, different levels of
reporting quality appeared. Negative information is rarely
reported and “abstraction” and “indicating facts” are the
dominant legitimation strategies.
Global Reporting Initiative, grocery retailing, legitimation strategies,
sustainability reporting, sustainable retailing
The concept of sustainability is constantly moving up the agendas of companies, politics, and the
media, and is in addition highly discussed by a critical public. Thus, companies are facing in-
creased pressure from various stakeholders (Lehner, 2015). On a global level, the United Nations
set up 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030 (United Nations, 2015). Within
Europe, the European Commission has required Europe-based companies to release a sustain-
ability report in addition to their annual reports starting from the fiscal year 2017 (European
Commission, 2014).
Due to their significant position between producers and suppliers (Dobson & Waterson, 1999;
Harris & Ogbonna, 2001), retail companies can be seen as gatekeepers to both ensure a more sus-
tainable way of production within their supply chain (Durieu, 2003; Erol, Cakar, Erel, & Sari, 2009)
and to educate their customers toward more sustainable behavior (Bonini & Oppenheim, 2008; Jones,
Comfort, & Hiller, 2011; Ytterhus, Arnestad, & Lothe, 1999). Thus, sustainability research on retail
companies is of considerable interest to both researchers and practitioners.
Within grocery retailing, discounters and supermarkets play a significant role due to market share
and sales. In Germany, supermarkets and discounters account for a market share of about 52 percent
(Retailytics, 2017). However, over the last years, organic supermarkets are constantly increasing sales
in Germany from €517m in 2010 to €1,122m in 2017 (EHI, 2018). Although their market share at 0.5
percent in 2016 remains rather small (Retailytics, 2017), they are nevertheless an interesting research
object when analyzing and comparing different retail formats.
By building on the research done by Jones et al. (2011), the goal of this study is to close the re-
search gap concerning sustainability reporting in German grocery retailing. Until recently, German
discounters' and supermarkets' sustainability agendas remained a “blind spot” as they provided no
sustainability information (Jones et al., 2011). Now that supermarkets, discounters, and organic super-
markets have started to release sustainability reports, the first aim of the paper is to analyze the current
status quo regarding the quality and approach of reporting, and to identify industry benchmarks to get
a fuller picture.
The second aim of the paper is to analyze how German grocery retailers report negative aspects
and which communicative legitimation strategies they apply. Hahn and Lülfs (2014) analyzed
how German DAX and US Dow Jones companies reported negative aspects in their sustainability
reports but did not put a special focus on grocery retailers. Thus, research in this field is highly
relevant because reporting about negative aspects can be a risk to corporate legitimacy when it
contradicts societal accepted norms and values of the stakeholders (Hahn & Lülfs, 2014). Through
content analysis of sustainability reports, this study aims to answer the following three research
RQ 1: What level of sustainability reporting quality is achieved by German grocery
RQ 2: How do German grocery retailers report negative aspects in their sustainability
reports and which legitimation strategies do they apply?
RQ 3: What, if any, differences can be identified between the retail formats of supermar-
ket, discount, and organic supermarket?

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