Inter-firm relationships for sustainability : Incumbent firms and sustainability ventures
Abstract: The magnitude of global environmental and social challenges puts business firms under constant scrutiny. To address such challenges, incumbent firms initiate and manage partnerships with external organizations. Among various types of partnerships, incumbent firms have increasingly engaged with sustainability ventures – newly-created ventures dedicated to tackling sustainability issues. This thesis studies this type of partnership. Specifically, the thesis aims to unpack the antecedents of and determinants behind the formation, and development, of inter-firm relationships between incumbent firms and sustainability ventures – issues which have hitherto received scant scholarly attention in the management and entrepreneurship fields.With a particular emphasis on drivers and outcomes of such collaborative relations, the thesis builds on three empirical studies. These studies are set in the food and manual service sectors in Europe and combine qualitative and quantitative research approaches. The three studies are reported in four independent papers. Paper I provides a descriptive analysis of how incumbent firms leverage inter-organizational partnerships in their sustainability efforts. The paper identifies a shift where firms increasingly ally with sustainability ventures to bring about sustainability-oriented innovation while reducing their engagement in philanthropic partnerships. Paper II adopts the perspective of such ventures and investigates how they achieve sufficient legitimacy in the eyes of incumbent firms to enable the initiation of a partnership. In Paper III, the incumbent firms’ interest in such partnerships is investigated. Paper IV, finally, sheds light on the question as to if and when being profiled as actively prosocial helps suppliers win contracts with incumbents.The thesis offers two broad lines of contribution to our understanding of firms’ contemporary efforts to tackle sustainability challenges. First, the thesis contributes to the field of inter-organizational relationships for sustainability by delineating the role of sustainability ventures as a novel type of partner and a key partner for incumbent firms. In doing so, this thesis demonstrates that the combined elements that the incumbents can gain from their relationships with sustainability ventures may enable the transformation of the firm into more sustainable businesses. Second, the thesis complements extant literature on sustainable entrepreneurship that previously considered the role of such ventures in advancing sustainable development as that of competition for incumbent firms. By clarifying the two collaborator roles of sustainable ventures, i.e., as strategic partners and as prosocial suppliers, the thesis demonstrates how forming and developing ties with incumbents may lead to long-term success for sustainability.
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