May 12, 2015, by ICCSR

ESRC Research Seminar Social Responsibility and SMEs within supply chains

On 30th March 2015, the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (ICCSR) hosted the fourth ESRC Research Seminar in the Series titled “Corporate social responsibility (CSR) among small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from emerging and developing economies”. The ICCSR seminar focused on “SMEs and social responsibility in supply chains”. The seminar brought together over 60 participants from countries in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa to discuss the role of SMEs in sustainable supply chains in emerging and developing nations around three themes: supply chain governance; inclusive business models, and, opportunities and challenges of embracing multi-dimensional sustainability.

This ESRC seminar successfully contributed to filling the relative void of research on SMEs, supply/value chains and sustainability in a developing country context. Although SMEs and micro-entrepreneurs constitute the backbone of economies in emerging and developing countries, both SMEs and developing countries have been largely neglected in supply chain and business research.

More research on SMEs, supply/value chains and sustainability in developing and emerging countries is pertinent because sustainability issues are most prevalent and urgent in these countries; think about pollution, drinking water, human and labour rights, freedom of association, livelihood, or poverty. The social and environmental dimension of sustainability may be regarded as tightly interlinked in developing countries since people in a resource-poor context are particularly vulnerable to degraded environments. Still the vast part of data collection and research is situated in the industrialized world. This mismatch is striking and calls for more high quality scholarship. The ESRC seminar has taken us an important step forward in this regard.

The presentations dealt with a wide range of countries with focus on Asia (India, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Cambodia) and Africa (Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Sierra Leone). Next to socially responsible investment and extractives (oil and gas), the presentations addressed a wide range of mostly low-technology industries such as agri-business (cotton, palm oil, dairy, cocoa), textile, apparel and footwear. Besides a few purely conceptual approaches, most presentations reported empirical research, predominately informed by qualitative methods such as qualitative case studies and action research. This indicates a rather early stage of theorizing and hence the need of theory building regarding the phenomenon of SMEs, supply/value chains and sustainability in a developing country context. The explorative stance of most of the research is also reflected by a wide variety of theories used, such as social exchange theory, dynamic capabilities and resource theories, stakeholder theory, legitimacy theory, agency theory, or feminist and gender theories.

Similarly, the keynote speech by Peter Lund-Thomsen highlighted an insufficient delimitation of the concepts of supply chains, global value chains and global production networks. While these three concepts look at the same empirical phenomenon, their research questions and units of analysis are distinctly different. In fact, these concepts are fed by different disciplinary backgrounds and research following these paradigms is only loosely connected.

In terms of a future research agenda, the clear delimitation and integration of the concepts of supply chains, global value chains and global production networks could be a promising way forward, providing complementary views on the subject under investigation. Regarding theories, social power theory and a focus on risk management may facilitate further insights into the subject. It was debated in how far existing theories are sufficient or whether new theoretical adaptations would be necessary for accounting for the specificities of both SMEs and developing country environments.

The seminar participants suggested that further attention should be directed to people management on a supplier level, distinctly considering the cultural embeddedness of the various economic and non-economic supply chain and value chain actors. While issues of supply chain governance have been strongly researched, less attention was given to questions of supply chain diversity and inclusive business/supply chain models. Although several presentations adopted a distinct critical style towards the prospects of implementing sustainability throughout global supply and production systems, explicit theorizing around trade-offs between various sustainability dimensions still took a back seat. We hope that some of these topics will be further explored in our Handbook of Small Business Social Responsibility or the forthcoming Special Issue of Business Ethics: A European Review.

The programme for the day can be found here.

ICCSR – ESRC Seminar Coordinators:

Dr. Judy N. Muthuri, Assistant Professor in Corporate Social Responsibility

Dr. Stefan Gold, Assistant Professor in Sustainability Management, Systems and Reporting

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