Supplier Development for Sustainability: Contextual Barriers in Global Supply Chains



Purpose – This article explores contextual barriers to supplier development for sustainability (SDS) in global supply chains, as well as managerial remedies to mitigate them.

Design/methodology/approach – A dyadic case study design was adopted with a Western European buying firm and six of its Chinese suppliers. The data base consists of 44 interviews, as well as 81 documents.

Findings – Contextual barriers to SDS in global supply chains arise from spatial, language, cultural, and socio-economic difference between buyer and supplier, as well as complexity of the sustainability concept. Partial remedies comprise effective joint communications, an open organizational culture, and the fostering of cross-context understanding.

Research implications – The findings contribute to theory development at the intersection of sustainable and global supply chain management research. They help to explain why sustainability-related progress in global supply chains was only modest in recent years.

Practical implications – The identified barriers facilitate managerial decision making with respect to SDS in global contexts.

Social implications – By diffusing the knowledge on the available remedies, the study may contribute to improving SDS effectiveness, thereby fostering suppliers’ sustainability capabilities and performance.

Originality/value – This research highlights the criticality of contextual barriers to SDS. Moreover, it points to sustainability-related dilemmas for buyers and suggests the notion of sustainability paternalism as a valuable amendment to understanding buyer behavior surrounding SDS in global supply chains. Finally, it explores different real-world conceptions of sustainability.

Keywords Conceptions of sustainability, Barrier, Dilemma, Dyadic case study, Global supply chain, Supplier development, Sustainable supply chain management, Sustainability paternalism