Exploring Themes and Challenges in Developing Sustainable Supply Chains - A Complexity Theory Perspective
Abstract: To develop sustainable supply chains in a way that their negative environmental and social effects are minimized, shortand long-term targets should be set. The transformation of supply chains towards these targets calls for the development of innovative strategies and the need to continuously identify, classify, and tackle the challenges that can hinder the
execution of such strategies. To develop innovative strategies, the patterns of current trends and themes need to be learned
and the missing ones need to be identified.
The purpose of this research was to explore themes and challenges in developing sustainable supply chain activities from
theoretical and empirical perspectives. Six research studies (RS) were designed and carried out. Two explored the patterns
of the themes and challenges in making supply chains environmentally and socially sustainable in general (RS1, RS2).
One explored freight transport (RS3), one, urban freight distribution (RS4), and one, logistical services (RS5) in
particular. RS6 explored a complexity theory perspective (CTP) on managing, governing, and developing sustainable
supply chains activities. A CTP was chosen because of its applicability and ability to provide an understanding of the
complex phenomena that sustainable development and supply chains represent.
During and after the design of each research study, data were collected from a variety of sources and then analyzed by
different researchers on some occasions and by different methods. Thus, the research design, data collection, and data
analysis were mixed and overlapping, because they were not completely sequentially carried out. The aim of the analysis
was to generate knowledge by (re)organizing and categorizing the data collected, by exploring the meaning of the data
(i.e., generating information), and identifying their patterns of associations. After assessing the quality of the synthesized
knowledge, the results were communicated to several target groups through several communication channels.
In RS1, five major themes and challenges were identified in making supply chains environmentally sustainable. RS5 led
to a deeper understanding of the insights of logistics service providers (LSPs) about the challenges identified in RS1. RS2
led to the identification of five major themes and eight major challenges in making supply chains socially sustainable. In
the context of freight transport in RS3, fifteen major themes and five major challenges emerged. In the context of urban
freight distribution in RS4, these numbers were eight major themes and seven major challenges. However, the results (i.e.,
the generated knowledge) about the themes and challenges were subjective: They were influenced by my interpretation of
what had been said, observed, or scientifically written. The results were also relative (related to what had been said,
observed, or scientifically written), and influenced by the different methods for collection and analysis of data.
By combining the thirty-three identified themes in the research studies and classifying them based on their similarities and
overlap, four central themes in making supply chains sustainable emerged out: sustainability in goods and services,
sustainability in resources, sustainability in corporation, and sustainability in management and/or governance. Similarly,
by combining the twenty-four identified challenges in the research studies and classifying them based on their similarities
and overlap, five central challenges in making supply chains sustainable emerged out: shifting the values, difficulties of
operationalization, dealing with complexity, difficulties of corporate governance, and SMEs difficulties. Taking a CTP
was beneficial in understanding the complexity involved in the central themes of making supply chains sustainable. It also
led to further propositions for tackling the challenges.
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