Sustainability-oriented Supplier Development in Multi-tier Supply Chains : The Role of Boundary-spanners and Boundary Objects

Jia, Meng and Hendry, Linda and Stevenson, Mark (2022) Sustainability-oriented Supplier Development in Multi-tier Supply Chains : The Role of Boundary-spanners and Boundary Objects. PhD thesis, Lancaster University.

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Focal firms in supply chains regularly outsource to distant suppliers based in emerging economies to reduce labour and material costs. Given the increasing public attention on the sustainability issues that are associated with global supply chains, focal firms are now facing substantial pressure to manage their supply chains in a more socially and environmentally responsible manner. To help suppliers improve their awareness and capability in addressing sustainability challenges, many focal firms are implementing sustainability-oriented supplier development (SSD) initiatives. Yet, cascading sustainability-related practices smoothly throughout the entire supply chain using SSD initiatives is challenging. Moreover, the extant literature on SSD suffers from a significant dearth of studies that specifically focus on how suppliers engage in and benefit from SSD. Thus, this thesis contributes to filling this particular gap by investigating the implementation of SSD initiatives in multi-tier supply chains from the supplier’s perspective. The overarching research question asked is: “How do suppliers of multi-tier supply chains participate in and learn from sustainability-oriented supplier development initiatives deployed by the focal firm?”. This question has been answered through three inter-related papers, including a systematic literature review (SLR) and two exploratory empirical studies. The SLR paper (Paper I) provides the state-of-the-art in the field of SSD and proposes future research directions by drawing on contingency theory. Findings from this paper provide a holistic perspective to investigate the SSD process by taking all key aspects of SSD, i.e. the contingencies, the response actions, and the performance outcomes, into consideration. It thus provides a framework for future SSD research to build on. The two empirical papers (Paper II and Paper III) look into suppliers’ engagement in either extending SSD initiatives further up the supply chain or internalising the knowledge within their own organisations. More specifically, Paper II investigates the boundary-spanning role of first-tier suppliers in extending SSD initiatives to second-tier suppliers. In this paper, a distinction is made between compliance- and improvement-oriented boundary-spanning actions taken by first-tier suppliers. Findings from this paper also show that the social capital between the focal firm and the first-tier supplier affects whether compliance- or improvement- oriented boundary-spanning actions are taken. Paper III investigates the internalisation of the knowledge delivered by SSD initiatives within supplier organisations. By drawing on the concept of absorptive capacity and boundary objects, the paper shows how suppliers use their absorptive capacity differently in transforming and exploiting the knowledge delivered by SSD initiatives to develop the boundary objects conveyed to them by the focal firm into organisational structures and procedures that reflect their own needs. In addition to their own individual contributions, the three papers collectively contribute by advancing the field of SSD research a significant step forward. More specifically, findings from this PhD thesis reveal both the challenges and good practices adopted when developing suppliers from multiple tiers in terms of their sustainability. The research theoretically and empirically draws out the importance of an appropriate degree of social capital between supply chain members, of well-designed boundary objects if knowledge is to be effectively transferred across the supply chain, and of understanding the supplier’s perspective.

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Thesis (PhD)
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01 Jun 2022 16:35
Last Modified:
06 Jun 2024 23:51