Local food is a growing trend for various reasons. The globalization of food supply chains and the will to support the local economy, as well as several food scandals, can account for the increasing number of concerned consumers who prefer to obtain their food from a local source [1
]. Additionally, local food products are associated with freshness, higher quality, and healthiness [3
]. As a consequence, more sustainable and alternative food networks such as the Slow Food movement (a movement to support traditional and regional cuisine, which encourages farming in local ecosystems), community-supported agriculture (CSA; a network to connect producers and consumers of food more closely to share risks and food), and farmers’ markets (where farmers sell directly to consumers) have become increasingly popular in many Western countries [4
One way that scientific research, including the present study, can contribute to a more sustainable food supply chain is to provide insights into consumer attitudes and preferences. Consumer attitudes toward consuming and buying locally produced food are fairly well researched [4
]. However, the topic of consumer preferences for local food, with a special emphasis on the role of norms, still lacks empirical evidence, e.g., for different product categories [6
]. Many studies have provided evidence that morals and norms account for variations in environmentally responsible consumer behavior. Along this line, internalized personal or moral norms can contribute significantly to our understanding of human behavior [7
]. Similarly, social norms have received growing attention from researchers trying to explain impulses in favor of collective outcomes [8
]. Norm research can form the basis for policies to protect the environment, help marketers and decision makers in the industry to understand their customers, and support campaigners from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in persuading the society of their goals [10
]. Hence, the present study intends to contribute to the understanding of consumer preferences for local food by extending the scope of the investigation to norms and empirically investigating their importance.
To study norms and morals regarding local food, a quantitative study focusing on external social norms and more internalized moral norms was conducted. Social norms are based on social expectations and constitute a standard construct in the theory of planned behavior (TPB) [11
]. A small number of studies have focused on personal norms in different pro-environmental behaviors. For example, studies have focused on choosing eco-friendly mobility alternatives [12
], buying electric vehicles [13
], recycling [14
], and buying fresh and processed organic food [16
]. Just recently, Kumar and Smith [17
] examine the antecedents and consequences of consumer attitudes toward local food taking a TPB theoretical lens. Therefore, the TPB is a solid theory with which to study the influence of norms and to build upon. By doing so, this quantitative study yielded robust results, which can be tested for their significance and relevance in relation to some of the basic measures provided in the TPB.
The structure of the study is as follows: Section 2
provides an overview of the most important scientific contributions concerning consumer preferences for local food. Section 3
presents the theoretical lens of the TPB [18
] and the extended norm taxonomy by Thøgersen [19
]. Section 4
discusses the sampling strategy of this quantitative study and the measures used. Section 5
presents the results of the exploratory factor analysis, regression analysis, and mediation analysis. It examines the role of felt obligation, guilt appeals, the implications of expectations, and the actions of significant others in the domain of local food. Section 6
discusses the implications of the empirical study, while Section 7
identifies the study limitations and future research directions.
6. Discussion and Conclusions
The present study aimed at extending the scope of the investigation to the importance of norms in local food buying behavior. Therefore, an overview of the most relevant contributions on consumer preferences for local food was provided. To examine the role of social and personal norms, an empirical quantitative study was conducted.
The TPB [18
], one of the dominant theories in social psychology, and an extended norm taxonomy [19
], including various social and personal norms, were chosen as the theoretical framework. The combination of these two theories is reasonable because social norms are a standard construct of the TPB and including personal norms is one of the most common extensions of the theory [53
]. However, Thøgersen [19
] classified social norms further into descriptive (i.e., what people normally do) and injunctive norms (i.e., what is expected from others). Personal norms were categorized into introjected (i.e., having a guilty conscience when [not] performing a certain action) and integrated norms (i.e., feeling a moral obligation). Additionally, PCE was added based on Roberts [38
The theoretical norm framework was only partly supported by the exploratory factor analysis. Descriptive and injunctive social norms could be distinguished, but for introjected and integrated norms, only one factor (i.e., personal or moral norms) was extracted. This finding is partly in line with that of Klöckner et al. [13
], who extracted only two factors—one for social norms and one for personal norms. Doran and Larsen [12
], who did not distinguish between introjected and integrated norms, were also able to extract three factors.
The findings from the correlation analysis showed that all four norm constructs in addition to the TPB constructs and PCE were positively related to behavioral intentions and past behavior. The participants were more likely to intend to buy and actually buy local food when they also believed that others act in a similar way (i.e., descriptive norms), when others important to them expect them to (i.e., injunctive social norms), and when they have a guilty conscience or feel a moral obligation to do so (i.e., personal norms). These findings are also consistent with those of Doran and Larsen [12
] as well as Klöckner et al. [13
To gain further insights, a stepwise regression analysis with the dependent variable of intentions was conducted. Results showed that attitudes, PBC, and injunctive norms explained 33 percent of the variance in intentions. However, PBC was not significant. When personal and descriptive norms were added in the second step, injunctive norms also turned out to be not significant. Moral norms, followed by attitudes, had the largest influence on intentions. Together, the variables explained 45 percent of the variance. The finding that social norms are not significant when analyzed together with personal norms is consistent with that of many other studies [15
]. When PCE was added in the third step, the total explained variance rose by 3.5 percent to a total of 50 percent. The exact same amount of explained variance was obtained by another study that analyzed local dairy products in Belgium with the TPB measures combined with perceived availability [45
]. Similarly, a meta-review on pro-environmental behavior found that similar variables explained an average of 52 percent of the variance in intentions [69
To test the relationships between the norm constructs, a mediation analysis was conducted. It showed that injunctive norms were strongly mediated by moral norms. They were non-significant and had weak influence when entered together with moral norms in a regression analysis. This means that, in this sample, personal moral norms are internalized injunctive norms. Injunctive norms only affect intentions with personal norms as the mediator. This finding is in line with mediation analyses in other studies [10
]. In another mediation analysis, the effect of descriptive norms was significantly mediated by personal norms but much less strongly than injunctive norms. This means that even though consumers have a strong personal moral obligation to buy local food, the actions of significant others are still relevant to their purchasing behavior, while social expectations play a minor role. In an experimental setting, Smith et al. [70
] examined the relationship between descriptive and injunctive norms. They found that these constructs need to be aligned (i.e., people buying local food and expecting it of others) to affect intentions the most.
To test the basic notion of the TPB, a stepwise regression to predict past behavior was also conducted. Intentions were entered first and proved highly significant, with a strong positive effect resulting in 22.5 percent of the explained variance. When the traditional measures of the TPB were entered in the regression, only injunctive norms and PBC turned out to be significant and positive. Attitudes did not play a role in predicting past behavior while controlling for intentions. This finding is consistent with that of Jackson et al. [71
], who found that attitudes have a significant positive effect on intentions but not on behavior when controlling for intentions. When moral and descriptive norms were entered, only the latter had a significant positive effect on past behavior. By contrast, Harland et al. [51
] found that moral norms had a positive effect on past behavior, although they did not control for intentions in the regression analysis. In the last step in the current study, PCE was added and had a significant positive contribution to predicting behavior. The total amount of explained variance reached 29.4 percent, including intentions, the TPB measures, the remaining norm constructs, and PCE. In sum, intentions explained 22.5 percent of the variance while all other constructs explained only an additional 7.1 percent. In a meta-review on pro-environmental behavior, an average coefficient of determination for behavior of 27 percent was found using the TPB measures, social (i.e., injunctive) and moral norms, feelings of guilt (i.e., introjected norms), problem awareness, and internal attribution [69
]. Thus, the results of this thesis are in line with other findings.
In another analysis, the mediating effect of intentions in the relationship between the other constructs and past behavior was measured. The study showed that all constructs were mediated significantly by intentions, but a substantially decreased effect size was proven only for several constructs. Attitudes were strongly mediated by intentions. Additionally, moral norms and, less so, PCE were mediated by intentions. This result explains why attitudes have one of the greatest effects on intentions but are entirely non-significant and negative when entered together with intentions as independent variables in a regression analysis on past behavior. The same holds, to a lesser extent, for moral norms and PCE, which seem to be strongly mediated by intentions. The mediating effect of intentions on the relationship between moral norms and behavior is also consistent with a meta-review that found that moral norms are important predictors of intentions but do not seem to directly predict behavior [53
Descriptive norms did not prove to be strongly mediated by moral norms. According to Thøgersen’s [19
] norm theory, it is also possible that descriptive norms are mediated by injunctive norms (which is the next step in the internalization process). However, descriptive norms, at their core, are different from injunctive norms because they are, by definition, distinct concepts. Injunctive norms are mediated by moral norms, which in turn are mediated by intentions. Descriptive norms have a considerable share in explaining past behavior directly (but not in explaining intentions) and are only weakly mediated by moral norms. The reasonable conclusion is that injunctive norms have a different influence on descriptive norms, the latter of which had a moderate effect (B = 0.37) after controlling for the former.
PBC was significantly, but to a much lesser extent, mediated by intentions. This is particularly interesting because in the regression analysis, PBC had no significant effect on intentions but a strong, significant, positive effect on past behavior. This is only partly in line with Ajzen’s [18
] TPB, in which PBC is supposed to affect both intentions and behavior. Researchers have argued that individuals are unlikely to form a strong intention to do something when they lack the resources or opportunities to perform the behavior (for instance, a low PBC) [43
]. In a meta-review, PBC accounted on average for 6 percent of the variance in intentions while controlling for attitudes and social norms [53
]. In the literature, PBC has been significantly related to PCE [46
]. In this sample, however, the overall relationships with PBC, including the one with PCE, was moderate to low. Hence, this finding could not be replicated.
In an earlier version of the TPB [41
], the construct of personal norm was also incorporated into the model. However, personal norm was removed because the measure correlated highly with intention and the authors thought that it served as an alternative measure for behavioral intention [51
]. In the present study, the correlation between moral norms and intentions was the highest among all constructs but not excessively enough to extract it from the analysis [62
]. Personal norms added significantly to the explained variance in intentions when controlling for PBC, social injunctive norms, and attitudes. The study also revealed that intentions serve as a mediator between moral norms and past behavior and therefore showed no significant and positive effect on past behavior in the regression analysis. In a meta-review, including moral norms in the TPB increased the explained variance in intentions only by an average of 3 percent [53
]. Since the explained variance in the present study was much higher, one can deduce that moral norms play an important role in the intention to buy local food.
In total, norms have proven to be important constructs to consider in local food buying behavior. The inference of Feldmann and Hamm [4
] that local food is common across all social classes and subject to individual definitions and could therefore be less socially desirable was not true for this sample. Even though descriptive data showed the mediocre importance of norms, the regression and mediation analysis showed their significant share in explaining intentions and past behavior. Moral norms had the greatest effect on intentions among all constructs and affected past behavior through the mediator of intentions. Injunctive norms, in turn, contributed largely to explaining intentions, when not controlling for the mediator of personal norms. Descriptive norms have proven to have a different function from injunctive norms. They were only weakly moderated by personal norms and not by injunctive norms, and they mostly affected past behavior rather than intentions. In future research, structural equation modeling should be used to test whether the stated relations are indeed the way they were presented in the present thesis. Moreover, the proposed norm taxonomy by Thøgersen [19
] and its underlying structure of internalization was only partly confirmed. If the results of this thesis are repeated in other studies, a revised norm theory should be developed.
Finally, the managerial implications of the results of the present thesis shall be discussed. Norm research can help marketers and decision makers in the industry understand their customers, form the basis for policies to protect the environment, and support campaigners from NGOs in persuading society of their goals [10
]. As moral norms seem to play an important role in shaping the local food buying process, it will be especially interesting for decision makers to use the NAM [50
]. Being aware of the potential outcomes of not buying local food (i.e., awareness of consequences) and feeling a sense of personal responsibility (i.e., ascription of responsibility) are the main drivers to activate norms and could be targeted in information campaigns. However, if moral norms are the core of beliefs and value systems, it will be difficult to address them directly. After all, communicating that people should feel personally obligated to buy local food does not appeal to personal but rather to external (i.e., social) norms. Nevertheless, the results showed that moral norms are internalized injunctive norms. Thus, such interventions might stimulate internalization rather than address personal norms directly. Descriptive norms have also been shown to have a considerable direct impact on behavior. Therefore, appealing to social norms may influence behavior through internalization as well as directly.
7. Limitations and Future Research Directions
This study has methodological limitations that can be addressed in future research. In addition to the attitude-behavior gap, there is a gap between self-reported behavior and real behavior [69
]. Even though 29 percent of the self-reported past behavior could be explained, the gap between the present findings and actual behavior could be somewhat greater (or smaller). Future research could include real market data or use an experimental research design to assess the influence of norms and the other constructs used. Communicating injunctive or descriptive norms, for instance, and testing if the results differ could be another area for future studies. Since norms are difficult to measure by observation, experimental designs mixed with questionnaires would be particularly useful.
Additionally, because cross-sectional data were used in the study, no tests for causality were conducted. The empirical analyses were based on the assumptions of the models from Ajzen [18
], Thøgersen [19
], and Roberts [38
]. Thus, if the theoretical framework of the TPB or the norm taxonomy is somehow flawed, the relations expressed could be somewhat different than stated here. Again, there is a need for experimental studies that test whether making normative beliefs salient influences actual behavior (e.g., buying local food).
Another limitation that is shared by most studies on local food is that no common understanding of local food was established. Although there is no clear definition available, in future studies, a brief statement on what local food is should be included to establish a shared understanding.
As the literature section revealed that demographics are rarely solid predictors of local food buying behavior, they were excluded from the empirical study. Other studies have found that among younger samples, norms tend to be less strongly activated because younger people are less likely to accept personal responsibility and acknowledge the consequences of their negative actions [53
]. In the present study, the questionnaire was mostly sent out to students or graduates, but since demographics were not asked for, no certainty toward age can be assured. Therefore, including demographics would have helped in describing the participants and drawing conclusions. Nonetheless, assuming the younger age of the participants, norms did seem to play a major role. It would be interesting to replicate the study among an older sample to see if norms play a bigger role than in the present sample.
Furthermore, most participants were gathered from the personal network of one of the authors. As most of them were assumed to be young and well educated, this study addressed a very specific group of people. Even though the regression analysis confirmed generalizability to a wider population based on the residuals, extrapolation remains speculative. This risk was taken because participants from a higher educational background should have some knowledge of the food system and concepts of sustainability and may thus have rather activated personal norms. Without some prior awareness of sustainability, responses on issues such as product availability, PCE, and attitudes and norms toward buying local food would be highly speculative and hypothetical. As the importance of norms in local food buying behavior has been shown in the present thesis, a wider audience should be addressed in further studies. Future studies could include other sociodemographic groups or representative samples to replicate and validate the findings of this study. Further research could also test the findings in different cultures and countries.
There are also some limitations regarding the measures used in the present study. In other studies, PBC was shown to have a relatively large effect on intentions. In the present study, PBC was not significant in the regression analysis on intentions. It is possible that if a PBC measure that better reflected the notions of local food had been used, its influence would have been bigger. Vermeir and Verbeke [45
], for instance, used a measure of the perceived availability of local food to examine its impact on local food buying behavior. Items that reflect difficulties in identifying local food could also be included in the constructs of future studies.