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Ethics and responsibilisation in agri-food governance: the single-use plastics debate and strategies to introduce reusable coffee cups in UK retail chains

A Correction to this article was published on 02 April 2019

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This paper extends arguments about the potential for reflexive governance in agri-food sustainability by linking food ethics to the notion of ‘unintended consequences’ and ‘responsibilisation’. Analysis of sustainable consumption governance shows the way authorities and intermediaries use food waste reduction projects to ‘responsibilise’ the consumer, including recent examples of shared responsibility. This paper takes this argument further by developing a ‘strategies of responsibilisation’ framework that connects relations between food system outcomes, problematisation in public discourse and strategies of responsibilisation in agri-food governance. A food and drink waste case study of strategies to introduce reusable coffee cups in UK coffee shops and food retail chains is examined to exemplify relations between problematisation and responsibilisation. We examine problematisation and responsibilisation discourses that have emerged in relation to the issue, particularly in relation to single-use plastics, together with emerging governance arrangements and their underlying rationalities. The case study shows two key things: firstly, how ethical questions about food in public discourses connect to wider environmental planetary concerns (in this case packaging in relation to the environment); and secondly, how responsibility has emergent and dynamic properties, which we term ‘cycles of responsibilisation’. The paper concludes by assessing the wider value of applying a responsibility framework to examine governance responses to increasingly complex agri-food system sustainability challenges.

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Fig. 1
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Source: Google Trends, 06.02.2018

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Source: Google Trends, 06.02.2018

Change history

  • 02 April 2019

    The original version of this article has been corrected due to typesetting mistakes regarding Fig. 1.


  1. 1.

    GLAMUR—Global and local food chain assessment: a multidimensional performance-based approach. The project involved a systematic analysis of how the performance of food chains is perceived, defined and communicated in 12 countries (Brunori et al. 2016; Kirwan et al. 2017a, b).



Corporate Social Responsibility


Environmental Audit Committee


Producer Responsibility Scheme


Waste and Resources Action Programme


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The research on which this paper is based was funded by the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme, as part of Theme [KBBE.2012.2.5-03] [A comparative analysis of global versus local food supply systems], Grant Agreement No.: 311778.

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Correspondence to Damian Maye.

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The original version of this article was revised due to typesetting Mistakes regarding Figure 1.

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Maye, D., Kirwan, J. & Brunori, G. Ethics and responsibilisation in agri-food governance: the single-use plastics debate and strategies to introduce reusable coffee cups in UK retail chains. Agric Hum Values 36, 301–312 (2019).

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  • Ethics and agri-food governance
  • Food and drink waste
  • Single-use packaging
  • Reusable coffee cups
  • Problematisation
  • Responsibilisation