The Management of Global Multi-Tier Sustainable Supply Chains: A Complexity Theory Perspective

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Global supply chains feature multi-tier systems encompassing many geographically dispersed and sequential partners operating across diversified product chains. This research attempts to examine the different mechanisms that reinforce the management of sustainability throughout complex multi-tier supply chain. Using a multi-case study of a sample of eight firms and relying on the foundations of complexity theory, this research recognises the complex operating environment of global multi-tier supply chains and reveals various mechanisms to effectively manage and facilitate the relationships with first- and lower-tier suppliers. Although institutional controls are important to manage the sustainability of first-tier suppliers, the findings posit that due to the inherent complexities of global multi-tier supply chains, duplicating institutional controls to lower-tier suppliers might not be effective. Therefore, firms should attempt to foster modest mechanisms that reinforce adaptation and self-organisation, for example, collaboration and guiding mechanisms, to effectively manage the sustainability of lower-tier suppliers. The research contributes to multi-tier sustainable supply chain management literature by exploring the different mechanisms to manage multi-tier supply chains and the inherent complexities that may impact on firms’ endeavours in achieving their sustainability goals. Managers can utilise different contingent mechanisms to effectively manage the relationships with suppliers that are beyond their immediate visibility.