The concept of an agri-food system (AFS) is much more complex than is commonly believed. In the past, it was mainly associated with the agricultural sector, but in recent times, the physiognomy of the sector has changed radically. Technological and organizational changes have affected the production, distribution, and consumption of agricultural and food products. The agricultural sector has therefore switched to a marginal position and the agri-food market has gradually moved away from a competitive structure.
It is important to note how the agri-food sector has undergone a major industrialization process, moving from a predominantly agricultural system to an industrial one. The evolutionary process highlights some very important aspects. Initially, when the food function was carried out exclusively by the agricultural sector, no particular problems arose in terms of safety for the consumer because the latter consumed locally produced goods. In practice, during the original phase, the consumer was often also a producer and therefore had sufficient information regarding production and processing methods.
Product quality can impact directly or indirectly the health and safety of consumers. Therefore, it is important for food companies to produce clear signs of good quality. Among the most common ones are guarantees, trademarks, labels, legal responsibility, different forms of certification, etc. In fact, these are the instruments belonging to a company’s strategy for social responsibility (Hartmann, 2011). Years ago, a focus on maximizing profits brought about mass production—that is, the standardization of products. Although this production model was suitable for the past, today, a consumer segment with a medium-to-high income is also attentive to the intangible attributes that food products transmit (Luhmann and Theuvsen, 2016; Mohr and Webb, 2005; Romani et al., 2016). CSR responds to these needs (Belu and Manescu, 2013; Jean et al., 2018). CSR is defined here in relation to the value and quality of products, their relationship with the land, the production processes underlying them, governance structures, the definition of business strategies, and, last, businesses’ ability to convey an image compatible with consumers’ values and principles.
Few studies have focused on the role of CSR practices in the economics and finances of agri-food firms. There has been a concomitant failure to define the multidimensional concepts of CSR, AFS, and performance, because these have only been measured through indicators connected to business without considering other important dimensions, such as the environment, workplace, and local community. Becchetti et al. (2014) emphasize that companies traditionally oriented to profit maximization, can also attenuate the social and environmental externalities of their action today. This study aims to analyze the influence of CSR practices on the economic performance (measured by value added and income variables) of agri-food companies in Italy. It aims to contribute to entrepreneurial practice. Empirical evidence suggests that for companies to maximize profits, they should increase, of their own volition, attention to the social and environmental externalities of their actions, while recognizing the need to demonstrate that greater social responsibility will not put them out of business.
The remainder of this article is organized as follows: First, there is a brief literature review of agri-food systems and CSR practices and their contribution to firms’ performance. This discussion is followed by a presentation of the methodology and research method of our study (sample selection, and data collection and analysis). The results with subsequent discussion are then presented. Last, the conclusions of the studies are summarized, together with their implications and future lines of research.
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