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The hidden side of sustainable operations and supply chain management: Unanticipated outcomes, trade-offs and tensions

Special issue call for papers from International Journal of Operations & Production Management

Guest editors:

Stefan Gold (University of Kassel, Germany),
Jeremy Hall (University of Surrey, UK),
Stelvia Matos (University of Surrey, UK),
Martin C. Schleper (University of Sussex, UK)


In recent years social and environmental impacts have received widespread attention within the Operations and Supply Chain Management (OSCM) literature, illustrated by many special topic forums in scholarly outlets (e.g., Busse and Mollenkopf, 2017; Jayaraman et al., 2007; Krause et al., 2009; Linton et al., 2007; Markman and Krause, 2016; Walker et al., 2012; 2014). Although the recognition that operations and supply chain managers need to address sustainability is a common theme within all of these studies, some authors emphasize that real-world progress toward sustainability in OSCM has been modest (Gold and Schleper, 2017; Matthews et al., 2016; Pagell and Shevchenko, 2014).  Here we argue that unintended consequences, unplanned or unforeseen effects (henceforth unanticipated outcomes) are underexplored in the OSCM literature. Part of this gap is perhaps due to OSCM scholars’ implicit assumptions that transitioning from mostly economic criteria in decision making to include the environmental and social dimension will necessarily reduce environmental impacts and improve social conditions.  However, such good intentions do not always result in positive outcomes.

Although concerns over unintended consequences by OSCM scholarship is only emerging, a rich discourse has become manifest in other areas. For example, Merton’s (1936) seminal paper on unanticipated outcomes of purposive action, emphasizes the need for scientific analysis and a more structured treatment of such outcomes. Stigler’s (1975) theory of economic regulation specifically focuses on who gains and who loses (often unintentionally) from regulatory policy. Williamson (1993) notes that demand for control can have both intended effects and unintended dysfunctional consequences. More recently, studies have examined the paradoxical implications of agriculture innovation such as ‘Green Revolution’ technologies originally pioneered by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug (Evenson and Gollin, 2003; Pingali, 2012). They show that innovations vastly increased productivity but unintentionally increased environmental degradation and widened interregional social disparities in developing countries where, for example, farmers migrated to urban areas with low employment opportunities. In agricultural biotechnology, advocacy pressures targeting large agricultural biotechnology firms such as Monsanto resulted in high regulatory barriers, creating monopolistic tendencies that favored the large multinationals at the expense of smaller firms and public institutes attempting to develop more sustainable crops (Hall et al., 2018). Similarly, in healthcare operations, the implementation of patient care information systems increased medical errors rather than to reduce their likelihood (Ash et al., 2004). In international and regional policy, unintended consequences of voluntary labeling included higher food prices, worsening the position of women and displaced local production (Oosterveer et al., 2014).

The field of OSCM has only recently witnessed a handful of publications focused on unanticipated outcomes. For example, Arya and Mittendorf (2015) examined the wider consequences for supply chains when CSR subsidies are offered. They found that while encouraging socially beneficial CSR behavior, subsidies can also harm consumers in primary markets by inflating prices. Ugarte et al. (2016) found that some lean logistics practices have improved operational performance while unintentionally increased environmental impacts. From an accounting and accountability angle, Gold and Heikkurinen (2018) found that the call for corporate transparency alone works against attempts to increase corporate responsibility due to the denial of opacity in organisations and the blindness to complexity, distance, and resistance within international supply chains. Other studies alluded to unintended consequences as a potential unwanted outcome of poorly specified KPIs and incentives in performance measurement and management (Glas et al., 2018). Taking this scant body of OSCM literature into account, we argue that there is a need for research on unintended consequences as the focal point of study and a deeper analysis of what consequences are, how they emerge and what actors are affected.

Sustainability is inherently complex and we know that efforts to improve specific economic, environmental or social issues impact others (Matos and Hall, 2007). It is thus expected to involve unintended consequence, trade-offs and tensions. This of course is opposed to the business case view predicated upon a win-win paradigm between sustainability and financial goals that is still prevalent among management and OSCM researchers (Hahn et al., 2014). Besides the ongoing pleas that trade-offs and tensions within sustainability (almost always conceptualized as the triple-bottom-line) are theoretically dissolvable, sustainability management research has started to acknowledging conceptual trade-offs in recent years on a more fundamental level (Hahn et al., 2014). According to this ‘paradox view’ on sustainability (Hahn et al., 2018; Hall et al., 2018), tensions have to be resolved, accommodated or at least accepted on various dimensions (between social, environmental and economic aspects; between long and short term perspectives and generations, between micro, meso and macro agendas, etc.) on order to pave the way towards sustainability. It is thus even more remarkable, that a discipline such as OSCM that has a long and strong tradition of debating and investigating trade-offs between core performance dimensions such as flexibility, costs, quality, delivery time, dependability, etc. (cf. for example Ferdows and De Meyer, 1990), seems to still overlook these tensions and trade-offs when it comes to sustainable OSCM.

As per their nature, trade-offs have to remain below optimal solutions, leaving a wide spectrum for tensions and unanticipated/unintended consequences and effects of managerial decision-making and policy implementation. More specifically, it means that both theory and practice should acknowledge that the a priori postulated link between addressing sustainable OSCM concerns and an overall positive societal and environmental (let alone economic) contribution might be decoupled, or at least severely delayed. Consequently, much more attention in OSCM research needs to focus on the unintended consequences of good intentions towards sustainable OSCM.

Topic areas of interest

The proposed special issue will bring together research on the underlying process by which unanticipated outcomes, either positive or negative, may result from attempts at developing more sustainable OSCM. The overall aim of the special issue will thus be to further illuminate how good intentions result in unanticipated outcomes. The following list is for guidance, outlining our areas of interest for this special issue:

  •     Theoretical perspectives on unanticipated outcomes, trade-offs and tensions in sustainable OSCM
  •     Empirical investigations of activities that ultimately cause more harm than good with regard to sustainable OSCM
  •     Research on OSCM issues related to unanticipated outcomes and/or potential ripple effects of technological innovation
  •     Research on the displacement of harmful activities from one organization only to be adopted by another, which may have lower sustainability capabilities or operate under governance structures with weaker institutions
  •     Analyses of tradeoffs between greater production efficiency and wider social and environmental impacts
  •     Approaches to improve various sustainability goals, perhaps in other sectors, industrial applications and/or markets, that exceed what was originally intended
  •     Findings on intangible by-products, such as knowledge accumulation from learning and experience, that can have a positive impact towards sustainable OSCM
  •     Studies on the dark side of collaboration (between companies and with NGOs and governmental bodies) in OSCM, for example collusion and other forms of corruption
  •     Effects of stakeholder pressure that pushes companies towards sub-optimal sustainability decisions in OSCM (e.g., procurement, production, disposal)
  •      Investigation of the side effects on sustainability of popular OSCM concepts, such as reverse logistics, just-in-time, lean manufacturing etc.

Review Process

To ensure that the special issue obtains the best mix of theory and practice, a multistage review process will be implemented. Potential manuscript are to be submitted through IJOPM’s central ScholarOne system ( by the official submission deadline below (31 May 2019). All papers submitted will be subject to an initial screening by the guest editorial team. Submissions deemed suitable will then be send out to IJOPM’s regular review base for double-blind reviews. 

Submission due date:            31 May 2019
Reviewer first report:              31 July 2019
Revised paper submission:     31 October 2019
Reviewer second reports:       30 November 2019
Publication expected by:       Mid 2020


Dr. Stefan Gold is Professor of Sustainability Management at the University of Kassel, Germany. Previously, he worked at the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (ICCSR) of the University of Nottingham, UK and at the Chair of Production and Logistics Management of the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. He received his doctoral degree from the Faculty of Economics and Management of the University of Kassel in 2011. His research interests comprise sustainability management, sustainable supply chain and operations management, and corporate accountability. He has published more than 30 articles in a wide range of scholarly journals. In addition, Stefan has been serving on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Cleaner Production since 2011, and has guest edited special issues in prominent journals in the fields of sustainability and operations management, including International Journal of Operations and Production Management.

Dr. Jeremy Hall is a Chaired Professor and Director of the Centre for Social Innovation Management at the University of Surrey, UK.  He is also Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Engineering and Technology Management (JET-M), an Elsevier publication with 2016 impact factor of 2.419. He has been conducting research concerned with sustainable development in the context of innovation, entrepreneurship and supply chains for over 20 years. His work has been published in a wide range of journals, including Business Strategy and the Environment, California Management Review, Energy Policy, Entrepreneurship: Theory & Practice, International Journal of Production Research, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Business Venturing, Journal of Cleaner Production, Journal of Operations Management, Greener Management International, MIT Sloan Management Review, Research Policy and Small Business Economics. In addition to being Editor-in-Chief for JET-M, Jeremy has extensive experience as a reviewer and as a guest editor for special issues on sustainable development-related topics for Environmental Economics, Journal of Business Venturing, Journal of Cleaner Production and Technovation.

Dr. Stelvia V. Matos is Reader in Social Innovation and Sustainability Management at Surrey Business School, University of Surrey, UK. Her research concerns the difficult process of how industry can change their practices in response to social and environmental pressures. Her research interests include sustainable supply chain management, sustainable technological innovation and entrepreneurship for social inclusion. She has published in several journals including Journal of Operations Management, Technovation, California Management Review, Small Business Economics, Small Business Economics, Journal of Cleaner Production and Journal of Management Studies. Stelvia is currently area editor on Sustainable Development Innovation for Technovation.

Dr. Martin C. Schleper is Lecturer in Operations Management at University of Sussex Business School, UK. Since 2018, he is also Editorial Assistant at the International Journal of Operations and Production Management. His main research topics lie at the intersection of global supply chain management and sustainability/CSR. His work has been published in international journals, such as International Journal of Operations and Production Management, International Journal of Production Research, Journal of Business Ethics, International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management, Journal of Cleaner Production and European Management Journal. He has extensive reviewer experience and is part of the editorial reviewer board of the Journal of Supply Chain Management and the Journal of Purchasing and Supply Chain Management. In 2017 he has also been guest editor for a special issues in the Journal of Purchasing and Supply Chain Management.


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