The multifaceted term 'proximity' (from Latin proximus = closest) is usually used to indicate a nearness in either space, time, or relationship in a wide range of sectors and with a broad spectrum of interpretations. The broader framework of the impact of proximity on the construction and dynamics of human relationships has been applied, for example, to the study of spatial organization (human geographies, urban studies, mobility trends), of innovation (economic and knowledge spill-overs, hubs) and of consumer theories (development of taste, affinities, consumption choices, local and regional products; Boschma, 2005, Torre and Rallet, 2005). Proximity also features prominently in economic theories that deal with elements such as the economic impact of networks, of relationships and of trust (Granovetter1985). 

Proximity is a particularly tricky concept to articulate at a time such as the one we are facing when exponential technological development often leads us to have a distorted perception of both remoteness and vicinity as well as of physical and perceived presence (Urry, 2002), but despite its constant redefinition it remains crucial to investigate forms of sociability. This has been made even more evident by the Covid-19 pandemic experience leading to a forced re-signification of mobility and togetherness. Moreover, the pandemic has been an accelerating factor regarding an already present sensitivity concerning lifestyle and consumption choices: proximity has gained newfound interest as an alternative to less committed forms of consumption, i.e., those offered by large-scale organised distribution. 

For more than a decade now, proximity has figured within the academic literature as an element to consider when analysing sustainability transitions. The first interpretation of interest for our purposes relates to purchasing options, thus the occurrences in which consumers choose to rely on proximity commerce. This means small and medium-sized specialised and sectoral shops located close to the places the consumers regularly visit, typically their homes and workplaces. (>> Proximity shops - ‘bottega’). 

The practice of shopping locally can be considered as a sustainable consumption choice from several points of view. From an environmental perspective, it reduces both the distance travelled by the consumer to shop and the distance travelled by the goods during purchase, delivery and (potential) return. In this particular case, technology in no way hinders the effectiveness of proximity shopping; on the contrary, recent studies (again encouraged by the pandemic experience) have shown how proximity e-commerce is implemented by the 'click and collect' strategy, i.e., the possibility of choosing available products online or via an app and then picking them up at the shop. Even home delivery and return collection procedures are much quicker and easier given that the distance covered by the products is typically that of the neighbourhood. It also makes it possible to make purchases in a more targeted and timely manner, often due also to the trust and loyalty relationship that is established between the consumer and the seller/shop-keeper (pleasure in going to the shop and chat with the people there, of being recognized, of ordering ‘the usual’, possibility of getting proper advice, etc.), reducing the risk of waste, especially in the case of food. 

A further point can be added to the metaphorical road of proximity consumption by going backwards along the supply chain from the consumer to the retailer and to the producer. In fact, the term proximity can also be used to indicate precisely a short supply chain, in terms of steps if not necessarily always in terms of geographical distance. A short supply chain implies a direct relationship not only between the final consumer and the intermediary, but also between the intermediary and the original producer, thus becoming essential for those seeking a product that offers greater guarantees in terms of transparency and traceability.  

Lastly, this meaning of proximity acquires particular relevance in contexts in which production districts characterised by high availability of highly specialised workforce emerge. These districts present a peculiar concentration, in a well-defined territory, of medium-small companies that are independent from each other but historically and traditionally linked to the same productive purpose. The level of specialisation of each one is such that it reduces or eliminates competition but, on the contrary, encourages networks of collaboration and exchange that favour both a high level of professional preparation of the workers and the quality of the product. 

Italy, for example, has a rich number of districts throughout the national territory both in the textile-fashion and food sectors. Although they do not necessarily interact actively with each other, they are certainly based on the same principle and contribute to the construction of the imagery linked to Made in Italy. 

In the food sector, proximity is a key factor in the development of the varied and articulated networks that comes under the label of alternative food networks, a set of consumption practices that aims to encourage the consumption of genuine, good, local, and seasonal products in opposition to the consumption trend promoted by globalisation and large-scale organised distribution.   

In the fashion sector, where a strictly local supply chain is obviously less applicable, proximity remains in the link between the actors involved. In this sense, we can label as proximity practices all those activities aimed at reuse, exchange or sale and purchase of second-hand items. Moreover, small artisans and designers who work on commission also fall under this logic. In these cases, whether the choice is dictated by reasons of convenience, trust, style and taste, or by the adherence to minimalism, for example by choosing to adopt capsule wardrobes, the proximity between customer, producer and supplier is fundamental. This type of practice is more usually found outside the middle class, accustomed to mass and standardized consumption, appearing more frequently in the higher or lower strata of the population (Sassen, 1993). 

  • As experiences of short supply chains and community purchasing in the food sector: AFN (e.g.  Solidarity Purchasing Groups, urban agriculture, etc.)  
  • 15 minutes city project:  
  • Fair trade proximity shops (See BOTTEGA PROXIMITY SHOP) 

a) Academic articles  

Boschma, R. (2005). “Proximity and Innovation: A Critical Assessment.” Regional Studies 39: 61–74 

Godart, F. C. (2015). Trend networks: Multidimensional proximity and the formation of aesthetic choices in the creative economy. Regional Studies, 49(6), 973-984. 

Granovetter, M. (1985). Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology, 91(3), 481–510. 

Sassen, S. (1993). The informal economy: Between new developments and old regulations. Yale LJ, 103, 2289. 

Torre, A., and A. Rallet (2005). “Proximity and Localization.” Regional Studies 39: 47–59. 

Urry, J. (2002). Mobility and proximity. Sociology, 36(2), 255-274. 

b) Institution Report  

Confcommercio, (2020). “Le attività economiche nella città post-covid. Riflessioni sulla rigenerazione urbana”