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Relational approach to the implementation of sustainability in supply chains

  • School: Nottingham Business School


SME suppliers are generally deficient in resources, skills and bargaining power, which affect their relationships with large buyers (Talay et al., 2018a ; Hingley, M., Angell, R., & Lindgreen, A. 2015). However, unique characteristics of the SME suppliers subsequently attract large firms and governments, which give more importance to increasing SME firms’ commitment in sustainability programmes (Jenkins, 2009). On the other hand, how the SME suppliers approach sustainability is different from the large-scale organisations as well as other SMEs in the other sectors due to the differences in their policies, practices and approaches (Meqdadi, et al., 2012). Pedersen, (2009) has presented a clear argument in this context as he states that without considering the heterogeneous characteristics of SME suppliers, it is inappropriate to implement or transfer sustainability programmes from the larger buyers to them (Pedersen, 2009). Investigating the heterogeneous characteristics is necessary because of the range of problems faced by the SMEs in implementing their sustainability practices. These problems include finance, technology, and lack of knowledge, organisational culture, and internal motive (Natarajan & Wyrick, 2011).

Additionally, business relationships are recognised as highly important in the sustainability implementation in supply networks. These relationships also vary for suppliers relative to the large-scale organisations (Chicksand, 2015). The supplier-buyer relationship is vital among different types of relationships. Small suppliers are generally pressurised to follow the requirements of large buyers. Some studies support the use of power source in developing and maintaining supplier-buyer relationships i.e. large buyers exercise coercion to enforce its requirements on the suppliers (Talay et al., 2018b). However, such power-based relationships are always viewed as negative by the other supply chain members (Touboulic, et al., 2014).
In contrary, some studies have supported relational approach as an alternative to this power- based approach in fact relationships help both supplier and buyer in strengthening their bond, regardless of the size of their business (Chiara, 2016). Such relational approach is effective in the situations where environmental performances are the central objective for both suppliers and buyers (Simpson & Power, 2005). Moreover, other studies have emphasised on the trust and co-operation-based approach as vital for sustainability implementation (Geffen & Rothenberg, 2000). However, asymmetric power between the large buyers and small suppliers determine the sustainability of the relationships and sustainable practices in the supply chains (Lee, et al., 2016). These asymmetries require investigation through relational approaches for the implementation of sustainability in the small suppliers’ large buyers’ relationships (Lee, et al., 2016).

Most of the past sustainability studies have focused on the investigation of partial relational approach such as collaborative relationships in influencing sustainability in the supply chain. The complete relational view has been applied to a limited extent in sustainable supply chain research. Nevertheless, there is sufficient evidence in the academic literature confirming the efficacy of the collaboration in helping the suppliers to achieve the sustainable development goals (Touboulic & Walker, 2015). However, the collaborative paradigm cannot be deemed as the best approach for fostering the sustainable supply chain among the small suppliers and larger buyers. Similarly, it is not a sole approach to managing buyer-supplier relationships in sustainable supply chain management (Talay et al., 2018b; Touboulic, et al., 2014). Additionally, there is a dearth in dyadic relationships from the perceptive of the SME suppliers as well as large buyers in the area of sustainability (Brindley & Oxborrow, 2014). The current investigation is designed to bridge this research gap by exploring the dyadic relationships between SME suppliers and large buyers with an underlying aim to enhance sustainability in the overall supply chain system.


Chiara, A. D., 2016. Implementing Sustainability Strategies in Networks and Clusters: Principles, Tools, and New Research Outcomes. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Chicksand, D. (2015). Partnerships: The role that power plays in shaping collaborative buyer–supplier exchanges. Industrial Marketing Management, 48(1), 121–139.

Geffen, C. & Rothenberg, S., 2000. Suppliers and environmental innovation: the automotive paint process. International Journal of Operations and Production Management, 20(2), pp. 166-186.

Hingley, M., Angell, R., & Lindgreen, A. (2015). The current situation and future conceptualization of power in industrial markets. Industrial Marketing Management, 48(1),


Lee, J. S., Kim, S. K. & Le, S.-Y., 2016. Sustainable Supply Chain Capabilities:Accumulation, Strategic Types and Performance. Sustainability 2016, 8(503), pp. 1-16.

Meqdadi, O., Johnsen, T. & Johnsen, R., 2012. The Role of SME Suppliers in Implementing Sustainability. Napoli, Italy: IPSERA 2012 Conference.

Natarajan, G. S. & Wyrick, D. A., 2011. Framework for Implementing Sustainable Practices in SMEs in the United States. London, U.K, Proceedings of the World Congress on Engineering WCE 2011, July 6 - 8.

Oxborrow, L., & Brindley, C. (2014). Disintermediation in the apparel supply chain. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, 18(30), 252–268.

Pedersen, E., 2009. The many and the few: rounding up the SMEs that manage CSR in the supply chain. Supply Chain Management: An International Journal, Vol 14, No 2, pp. 109 -116., 14(12), pp. 109-116.

Simpson, D. & Power, D., 2005. Use the supply relationship to develop lean and green suppliers. International Journal of Supply Chain Management, 10(1), pp. 60-68.

Talay, C., Oxborrow, L., & Brindley, C. (2018a). An exploration of power asymmetry in the apparel industry in the UK and Turkey. Industrial Marketing Management, 1–13. science/article/abs/pii/S0019850117304236.

Talay, C., Oxborrow, L., & Brindley, C. (2018b). How small suppliers deal with the buyer power in asymmetric relationships within the sustainable fashion supply chain, Journal of Business Research

Toubolic, A., Chicksand, D., & Walker, H. (2014). Managing imbalanced supply chain relationships for sustainability: A power perspective. Journal of the Decision Science Institute, 45(4).

Toubolic, A., & Walker, H. (2015). Theories in sustainable supply chain management: A structured literature review. International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics, 45, 16–42.


Dr Cagri Talay

Entry qualifications

To be eligible to apply you must hold, or expect to obtain, a UK Masters degree (or UK equivalent according to NARIC) with a minimum of a merit, and / or a UK first class or 2.1 BSc (or UK equivalent according to NARIC) in a relevant subject.

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