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(Un)Learning sustainability practices in a multi-tiered supply chain: an interpretive study

Karina A. Santos (FGV EAESP, São Paulo, Brazil)
Minelle E. Silva (Excelia Business School, La Rochelle, France)
Susana Carla Farias Pereira (FGV EAESP, São Paulo, Brazil)

International Journal of Operations & Production Management

ISSN: 0144-3577

Article publication date: 4 April 2023

Issue publication date: 8 August 2023




Although the number of studies that investigate supply chain sustainability learning has increased, little is known about the way sub-suppliers build knowledge and learn sustainability practices. Thus, moving beyond merely investigating the accumulation of knowledge, this research explores sub-suppliers’ knowing that supports the learning of sustainability practices in a multi-tiered food supply chain.


In the conduct of this interpretive research in South Brazil, two ethnographies were completed during 74 days of observations to understand similarities and differences between certified and non-certified sub-suppliers with respect to sustainability practices. As part of our research conducted in the context of poultry production, secondary data and data gathered through semi-structured interviews with representatives of the buyer and first-tier supplier firms were used to provide a better comprehension of the multi-tiered supply chain context. Then, we executed an interpretive textual analysis.


Our investigation explored six vignettes to reveal ways of learning sustainability practices in terms of waste management, biosecurity and animal welfare. Although the buyer firm requested these practices, we noted that the first-tier supplier was responsible for translating the practices to sub-suppliers. Moreover, we found that sustainability learning was shaped by the sub-supplier context embodied in knowledge through knowing. The ways of learning were related to sharing knowledge between experts and novices with the support of material practices; however, knowledge was also gained by unlearning some knowledge shared by the supplier. Sustainability practice learning, thus, was performed in a space of learning via knowledge creation among practitioners.

Practical implications

Recognising how sustainability learning happens in a multi-tiered supply chain context can help managers to develop plans to implement sustainability practices that will broaden their sustainability knowledge.


Unlike previous studies on supply chain sustainability learning, we reveal ways that sustainability practices emerge from knowledge that results from sub-suppliers’ knowing. We also explain how unlearning can consciously occur in several situations of sustainability learning.



The authors would like to thanks CAPES (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior) and FGV EAESP for supporting this research.


Santos, K.A., Silva, M.E. and Pereira, S.C.F. (2023), "(Un)Learning sustainability practices in a multi-tiered supply chain: an interpretive study", International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 43 No. 8, pp. 1226-1249.



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