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Translating sustainability: the role of the retail store

Matthias Lehner (International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics, : Lund University, Lund, Sweden)

International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management

ISSN: 0959-0552

Article publication date: 11 May 2015




Retailers are facing pressure to promote sustainable consumption. Building on literature about the role of retailers as “translators” of the sustainability discourse, this paper studies how retailers cope with this pressure. The paper aims to discuss these issues.


This study focuses on the Swedish retail sector. In 22 interviews with retail representatives and 13 store observations it explores the way food retailers approach sustainable consumption, particularly focusing on the role retail stores receive in operationalising sustainable consumption.


The retail store is identified as important organisational layer within retailers to operationalise sustainable consumption. However, retailers do not acknowledge this potential sufficiently. An idealised model of multi-layered sensemaking to successfully promote sustainable consumption is presented.

Research limitations/implications

The study results only cover a small part of the entire retail organisation and only provide a snapshot in time of their working. Future research should study how the internal process of translating sustainability to the market develops over time and how it is connected to different parts of the retail organisation (e.g. marketing, HR). More research is also necessary to specify the division of responsibilities between headquarters (HQs) and stores.

Practical implications

This paper proposes a divide of responsibilities between HQs and the individual store to better deal with societal pressures and market demand.


The results of this study add depth to the theoretical notions of “translation” and “sensemaking” in retailers’ efforts to promote sustainable consumption. A model for how this process works is provided.



This study was funded by the Swedish Retail and Wholesale Development Council. Special thanks also to Dr Sally Randles (Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester), Eva Heiskanen (National Consumer Research Centre in Helsinki, Finland) and Professor Oksana Mont (International Institute for industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University) for their valuable input and support!


Lehner, M. (2015), "Translating sustainability: the role of the retail store", International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 43 No. 4/5, pp. 386-402.



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