Thesis Title: Access to 'alternative' food system qualities: A comparative study of internet and non-internet mediated systems of provision.
Ben Wills believes that the dominant systems by which food is produced, distributed and consumed in the developed world are plagued by problems. These problems have environmental, economic and social dimensions which necessitate an interdisciplinary and multi-method research effort to bring about novel solutions. As a PhD student and now research academic, Ben Wills is exploring how new business model forms, such as e-commerce dependent social enterprises, are contributing to more sustainable and just food systems.
Conducted between 2009 and 2014, with field research in Vancouver, Canada and Melbourne, Australia, Ben's PhD research investigated whether the emergence of internet dependent business models within the local/organic food sector are increasing access for resource constrained consumers. In addition, his research investigated the ability of these internet mediated food systems to transmit the same types of product quality attributes as are transmitted within environments such as farmers markets, which afford high levels of face-to-face producer/customer interaction.
According to Ben, these types of research questions are best answered using a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods. Within his PhD, case study methods, including the use of in-depth semi-structured interviews, were employed to gather data on three online businesses. Data on consumers was gathered via a structured survey of 375 individuals who either shopped for local organic food via an e-commerce dependent business or via conventional farmers markets. Ben was then able to analyse the resulting data using a range of techniques, including multivariate statistical methods such as principle component analysis and logistical regression.
The results of Ben's PhD research demonstrate that while e-commerce dependent social enterprises are not currently attracting significantly more resource constrained consumers, they are attracting more price and convenience focused consumers. Furthermore, while some product quality attributes appear to be altered in the online environment, many quality attributes related to environmental or social issues continue to be transmitted. These results suggest online e-commerce dependent business models do hold promise in broadening access to more socially and environmentally benign food systems, although such an outcome is far from certain and further research is required.