Purpose – The aim of this paper is to provide a snapshot of the existing research and suggest potential opportunities for academic inquiry related to the concept of sustainable supply chain management.
Design/methodology/approach – The researchers review the extant literature at the intersection of “sustainability” and “supply chain management”. This literature is subsequently categorized with the aid of a classification matrix derived from the literature in order to review the current state of thought development across three distinct disciplines (logistics/supply chain management, operations/production management and social/environmental management). The analysis suggests future research opportunities in this area.
Findings – The findings indicate that the existing literature is primarily focused on individual sustainability and supply chain dimensions rather than taking a more integrated approach. In addition, the findings suggest both the emergence of a group of themes within an individual dimension, such as green logistics within the environmental dimension as well as a set of themes that are consistent across dimensions. The analysis establishes several areas of opportunity for future inquiry.
Originality/value – The paper contributes to our knowledge on sustainability as it relates to supply chain management by using the triple bottom line approach and supply chain management elements that had been previously established in literature as a means to classify extant literature in this space and identify specific research opportunities in a systematic manner.
There is an increasing realization by managers that their company’s social and environmental accountabilities do not fall solely under the control of any individual organization; multiple entities across supply chains must be involved to efficiently and effectively fulfill these societal responsibilities. As a result, managers are looking to identify ways to successfully meet these responsibilities, develop relevant tools that they can use to assist their efforts, and establish mechanisms for pursuing their sustainability goals in coordination with other members of their supply chain in an economically viable manner. While academic research related to sustainable supply chain management (SCM) has emerged over the past two decades, academic inquiry must continue to evolve in ways that help supply chain managers meet these critical challenges.
The field of SCM has an inherent connection to sustainability, and it has been recognized that the concept of sustainability extends to both the operational drivers of profitability and their relationship to people and the environment we all live in. This natural relationship gives supply chain researchers exciting opportunities to make a profound societal difference through their work. As management principles and theories associated with sustainable supply chains continue to develop, there is a need to examine where we have been and consider where we should be going as we move forward.
The extant literature on sustainable SCM contains studies on a diverse set of topics such as green purchasing, purchasing ethics, remanufacturing, safety management, supplier certification, carbon footprint and reverse logistics. However, to date, much of this research has been focused on individual aspects of sustainability; studies that examine multiple dimensions are the exception. For example, it has been established that the research community has placed much more emphasis on the environmental as compared to other aspects of sustainability (Lehtonen, 2004). In addition, the extant literature has been characterized by a large percentage of papers that are theoretical/conceptual in nature as well as having a large percentage of studies-based on case analysis (Seuring, 2004). This is not to be unexpected given the stage of development of this research stream. Thus, a primary goal of this manuscript is to systematically review the development of research focused on the integration of sustainability and SCM in order to propose future research opportunities.
The manuscript is organized as follows. First, a conceptualization of SCM-based on the work of the global supply chain forum (GSCF) is presented and elements of the framework are established. Second, the area of sustainability is examined with a particular focus on using the triple bottom line (3BL) approach to evaluate sustainability efforts in a supply chain context. Third, the methods and results of a systematic classification of the existing literature within leading journals across three disciplines (logistics/SCM, operations/production management, and social/environmental management) during four distinct time periods (1995-1998, 1999-2002, 2003-2006, and 2007-2010) are described. Next, research opportunities are proposed based on an analysis of the classification matrix. Finally, conclusions are drawn based on the results of the study.
Elements of SCM
The term “supply chain” has been a focus of organizations ever since its inception in the early 1980’s (Harland, 1997). The objective of a supply chain is to produce value in the form of products and services that are delivered to a customer. Supply chains are not linear chains, but rather complex relationship networks. According to this network-oriented view, a supply chain is:
[...] a network of organizations that are linked through upstream and downstream relationships in the different processes and activities that produce value in the form of products and services in the hands of the ultimate customer (Christopher, 1998).
Figure 1 shows the supply chain network structure of a manufacturer with two tiers of suppliers and two tiers of customers.The related term SCM was introduced in the early 1980’s (Oliver and Webber, 1992). However, since its introduction researchers have proposed a variety of competing definitions for “SCM” (Mentzer et al., 2001). For the purposes of this article, SCM is defined as:
[...] the integration of key business processes from end-user through original suppliers that provides products, services, and information that add value for customers and other stakeholders (Lambert, 2008).
This definition is very useful for the current study because it emphasizes SCM activities in a cross-functional and cross-firm manner. This is essential because an examination of the integration of sustainability concepts into SCM concerns not only diverse business processes and activities across functional silos within a single company, but also cooperation between parties across the network of relationships that form a supply chain.
Similar to the diversity of definitions for SCM, competing managerial frameworks have been developed to create a structure for organizing and standardizing processes used to manage the supply chain (Moberg et al., 2008). While multiple perspectives exist in the literature, the GSCF framework for SCM serves as the basis of analysis for the current study. This framework has been implemented within major corporations, thus providing face validity for its applicability across both academics and practitioner groups (Lambert et al., 2005).
The GSCF framework consists of three closely inter-related elements: network structure, business processes and management components (Lambert, 2008). The network structure is comprised of the member firms and the links between these firms. Business processes are the activities that produce a specific output of value to the customer. The management components are the managerial methods by which the business processes are integrated and managed across the supply chain. In this framework, the business processes cut across the different functions within the firm and also across other firms within the supply chain (Ellram et al., 2004; Mortensen and Lemoine, 2008; Lambert, 2008). The establishment of these elements serves as a basis for a proposed classification matrix that can be used to provide direction as to future research opportunities focused on the integration of sustainability and SCM (Figure 2).