Supply chain structures for distributing surplus food

Author:Caroline Sundgren
Publication Date:03 Nov 2020
Supply chain structures for
distributing surplus food
Caroline Sundgren
Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland
Purpose New actors have emerged in the food supply chain in response to the increased awareness of food
waste and the need to distribute surplus food. The purpose of this study is to analyse the different supply chain
structures that have emerged to make surplus food available to consumers.
Design/methodology/approach This study adopts a qualitative multiple-case study of three new surplus
food actors: a surplus food platform, an online retailer and a surplus food terminal. Data sources included
interviews, documentary evidence and participatory observations.
Findings Three different types of actor constellations in surplus food distribution have been identified: a
triad, a tetrad and a chain. Both centralised (for ambient products) and decentralised supply chain structures
(for chilled products) have emerged. The analysis identified weak links amongst new actors and surplus food
suppliers. The new actors have adopted the roles of connector, service provider and logistics service provider
and the sub-roles of mediator, auditor and consultant.
Originality/value This paper contributes to research on closed-loop or circular supply chains for the reuse
of products in the context of surplus food distribution.
Keywords Sustainability, Reverse logistics, Case study
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
It is estimated that 88 million tonnes of food are wasted each year in the European Union at a
cost of 143 billion Euros (Stenmarck et al., 2016). Food losses and waste occur at all levels of
the supply chain (SC) (Parfitt et al., 2010). Food waste is costly, has a significant negative
impact on the environment and is unethical, considering that 118 million people in the EU live
at the risk of poverty or social exclusion (Eurostat, 2018;Matopoulos et al., 2015).
A lot of food waste could be avoided. According to a recent Canadian study, the
potential for food waste recovery is highest at the processing and manufacturing
stage, while 11.2 million tonnes, valued at $49.46 billion, is recoverable in the SC (Nikkel
et al., 2019). Furthermore, data from Italy show that 181,400 tonnes (0.4% of sales) is
recoverable surplus food (SF) in the manufacturing and retail sectors (Garrone et al.,
2014a). In recent years, scholars and practitioners have made significant efforts to identify
the underlying causes of food waste and address the problem. There is now a growing
recognition that food waste is more manageable than has previously been assumed
(Muriana, 2017).
Since the early 1990s, environmental issues in SCs have been increasingly examined
(Ansari and Kant, 2017), with related streams of research on closed-loop SCs and reverse
logistics (Guide and van Wassenhove, 2009) and, more recently, circular economy (CE)
principles in SCs (Genovese et al., 2017;Ripanti and Tjahjono, 2019). The closed-loop and
circular SC literatures are concerned with finding recovery options (such as repair, reuse,
remanufacture or recycling) to slow down and close resource flows. However, previous
SC structures
for distributing
surplus food
The author wishes to thank Professor
Arni Halld
orsson and Professor David B. Grant for their helpful
comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this manuscript, and the two anonymous reviewers for
their constructive comments. The research was conducted with the financial support of the Marcus
Wallenberg Foundation, the Finnish Foundation for Economic Education, Otto A. Malm Foundation
and the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland. This support is gratefully acknowledged.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 14 October 2019
Revised 25 February 2020
15 June 2020
1 October 2020
Accepted 1 October 2020
The International Journal of
Logistics Management
Vol. 31 No. 4, 2020
pp. 865-883
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/IJLM-10-2019-0267
literature on closed-loop flows has tended to focus on technical products (Islam and Huda,
2018;Mishra et al., 2018), while the perishable nature of food products and the need to comply
with food safety standards pose different requirements for the duration and conditions of
storage, processing and transport (Liljestrand, 2017).
With regard to food waste in particular, SC actors tend to focus on internal waste
reduction and local optimisation, which leads to sub-optimal results for the entire SC (Mena
et al., 2014). The main reason for SF in the manufacturing and retail sector is that the internal
sell-by date has been reached (Garrone et al., 2014b), although this does not necessarily mean
that the food has reached its end-of-life.
Given that strategies and structures have been developed to optimise forward food SCs
(based on a linear thinking), the food SC produces waste and SF as by-products that cannot be
dealt with in a sustainable manner (Parfitt et al., 2010). However, food that risks becoming
waste can be made available to consumers through new SC structures that can provide
efficient and effective SF distribution. According to the literature, structures tend to change,
particularly when a new actor enters the network or an actor disappears and takes its
connections with it (Halinen et al., 1999).
At the sametime, actor constellationsthat facilitate closingthe loop tend to vary depending
on the recoveryoption (repair, reuse, remanufacturing, etc.) (Gobbi,2011;L
udeke-Freund et al.,
2019). Thismeans that an effective actorconstellation for the repairrecovery option would not
immediatelyfit food recovery for humanconsumption, and actorconstellations that are ableto
provide effective SF distribution have emerged only recently. Furthermore, even though
recovery options are dependent to some degree on cooperation with other actors (such as
customers, business actors, other actorsin society), details about the roles of thesekey actors
tend to be missing in earlier literature (L
udeke-Freund et al., 2019). Also, establishing a
cooperation thatcan enable recovery requires interactions among several actors.
Against this background, a SC approach is useful for studying the SF phenomenon. The
purpose of this paper is to analyse the different SC structures that have emerged to make SF
available for consumers. The purpose is operationalised into two research questions: Which
actor constellations and interactions have emerged in SF distribution? What are the roles of
new actors in SF distribution?
This study makes four main contributions. First, it contributes to an enhanced
understanding of food-reuse options by simplifying complex actor constellations into triadic,
tetradic and dyadic microstructures andthus adds to the closed-loop SC literature. Second, it
provides insightsinto the centralisation and decentralisation aspects of products with a high
recoveryvalue and adds to the reverseSC design literature. Third,it adds to the sustainableSC
and CE literatureby identifying the rolesof more rarely studied actorsin for-profit and not-for-
profit SCs in developing more circular SCs. Fourth, it evaluates the environmental impact of
new SC structures and thus contributes to the relatedfood waste literature.
The remainder of the paper is structured as follows. Section 2 provides an overview of the
relevant literature and presents the research framework. This is followed in Section 3 with an
overview of the applied research method. Section 4 describes and analyses the findings, while
Section 5 discusses the results in relation to the existing literature. Finally, Section 6
concludes the paper and suggests managerial implications, offers recommendations for
future research and outlines the studys limitations.
2. Theoretical background
This section begins with an overview of the causes of food waste in the SC and presents the
main recovery solutions. After this, the SC structure concept is discussed in relation to reuse.
Subsequently, the conceptual framework is presented together with social network theory,
thereby providing a lens for explaining actor roles and interactions.

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