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The fallacy of “trickle-down” product sustainability: Translating strategic sustainability targets into product development efforts

Sebastian Brockhaus (Boler School of Business, John Carroll University, University Heights, Ohio, USA)
Moritz Petersen (Department of Logistics, Kühne Logistics University, Hamburg, Germany)
A. Michael Knemeyer (Department of Marketing and Logistics, Fisher College of Business, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA)

International Journal of Operations & Production Management

ISSN: 0144-3577

Article publication date: 25 September 2019

Issue publication date: 22 November 2019




The purpose of this paper is to explore how big-picture sustainability strategies are translated into tangible product development efforts. The authors assert that most sustainable products currently remain confined to niche markets and do not permeate the mainstream. The authors propose that there is a missing link between strategic sustainability goals and operational product development initiatives. The authors establish a path to bridging this gap.


The manuscript is based on a qualitative research design with a sample of 32 companies. Data were collected from semi-structured interviews with product developers as well as secondary data analysis.


The authors delineate three empirically derived approaches firms from the sample pursue to develop sustainable products. The authors identify a phenomenon that the authors’ call the fallacy of trickle-down product sustainability. The authors find that only one of the three approaches – codification – is equipped to successfully turn strategic sustainability targets into authentic sustainable products.

Practical implications

This study provides an actionable guide to executives and product developers with respect to bridging the gap between often elusive sustainability aspirations and tangible product improvements via the process of rigorous codification.


This study provides a novel and unique perspective into strategy, sustainability and product development. The authors synthesize the extant literature on sustainable product development, juxtapose the emergent structure with primary interview data, and elaborate the resource-based view (RBV) to provide theoretical and practical implications. The authors establish scalability as the missing RBV capability of many attempts toward mass–market compatibility of more sustainable products.



Brockhaus, S., Petersen, M. and Knemeyer, A.M. (2019), "The fallacy of “trickle-down” product sustainability: Translating strategic sustainability targets into product development efforts", International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 39 No. 9/10, pp. 1166-1190.



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Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

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