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Tackling the sustainability iceberg: A transaction cost economics approach to lower tier sustainability management

Jan Meinlschmidt (RFID Competence Center, Volkswagen AG, Wolfsburg, Germany)
Martin C. Schleper (International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility, Nottingham University Business School, Nottingham, UK)
Kai Foerstl (Supply Chain Management & Logistics, German Graduate School of Management & Law (GGS), Heilbronn, Germany)

International Journal of Operations & Production Management

ISSN: 0144-3577

Article publication date: 22 February 2018

Issue publication date: 18 October 2018




The purpose of this paper is to investigate how buying firms manage their lower tier sustainability management (LTSM) in their supply networks and what contextual factors influence the choice of approaches. As most of the environmental and social burden is caused in lower tiers, the authors use the iceberg analogy.


Findings from 12 case studies and 53 interviews, publicly available and internal firm data are presented. In an abductive research approach, transaction cost economics (TCE) conceptually guides the analytical iteration processes between theory and data.


This study provides eight LTSM approaches grouped into three categories: direct (holistic, product-, region-, and event-specific) indirect (multiplier-, alliance- and compliance-based) and neglect (tier-1-based). Focal firms choose between these approaches depending on the strength of observed contextual factors (stakeholder salience, structural supply network complexity, product and industry salience, past supply network incidents, socio-economic and cultural distance and lower tier supplier dependency), leading to perceived sustainability risk (PSR).

Research limitations/implications

By depicting TCE’s theoretical boundaries in predicting LTSM governance modes, the theory is elevated to the supply network level of analysis. Future research should investigate LTSM at the purchasing category level of analysis to compare and contrast PSR profiles for different purchase tasks and to validate and extend the framework.

Practical implications

This study serves as a blueprint for the development of firms’ LTSM capabilities that suit their unique PSR profiles. It offers knowledge regarding what factors influence these profiles and presents a model that links the effectiveness of different LTSM approaches to resource intensity.


This study extends the application of TCE and adds empirically to the literature on multi-tier and sustainable supply chain management.



The authors would like to thank the guest editors Andreas Größler, José A.D. Machuca and Michiya Morita as well as the two anonymous reviewers for their valuable continuous support and feedback which has significantly improved our manuscript. As authors we would further like to express our sincere gratitude for the priceless engagement of our colleague and dear friend Betty Bea Cage.


Meinlschmidt, J., Schleper, M.C. and Foerstl, K. (2018), "Tackling the sustainability iceberg: A transaction cost economics approach to lower tier sustainability management", International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 38 No. 10, pp. 1888-1914.



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Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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