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Does the competitive environment influence the efficacy of investments in environmental management?

INTRODUCTION

Today's competitive environment presents significant challenges to managers on multiple fronts. Among these are technology, innovation, global pressures and responsible participation in ecologically oriented decisions. It is the latter challenge that offers considerable opportunity for supply chain management to take bold and substantive initiatives in a heretofore underrepresented arena. Specifically, supply chain managers must develop reasoned, practical approaches to assessing how investments in environmental/ecological management (EM) systems might influence economic/financial performance within the context of corporate supply mandates.

The current research examines the efficacy of investments in environmental/ecological management based on the nature of the competitive environment confronted by supply chain managers. This area of investment is examined because of the potential to differentiate supply chain processes and their distinctive contributions to overall organizational performance. Initially, investments in EM and the competitive environment are discussed, followed by hypotheses for the relationship between the investments and competitive environments, which are proposed based on the literature review. These hypotheses are tested using data collected from 103 U.S. and Taiwanese manufacturing firms. Finally, the implications of the results are discussed from the perspective of both research and practice.

REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

In order to address properly these issues, the literature is reviewed in three areas. First, the general competitive environment is discussed. This is followed by an examination of "green purchasing" and other efforts to address supply issues related to the ecological environment. Finally, the nascent literature on the linkages between ecological and economic performance is reviewed to build hypotheses on the potential value of investments in EM.

The Competitive Environment

There is considerable precedence for linking strategic decisions to the competitive environment. For instance, Burnes and Stalker (1961) suggested that companies confronting uncertain competitive environments needed to create organic structures, while firms faced with certain or predictable environments needed mechanistic structures. Key to their model, and many others, is the notion of contingency. In a given competitive environment, specific choices (such as structure) will lead to higher levels of performance than other choices.

Today's business environment makes such simple "either/or" propositions suspect. There is a significant increase in business hostility. Hostile competitive environments are those where an increasingly competitive marketplace puts tremendous pressure on firms to lower prices just to retain customers (Mintzberg 1979). Companies are facing increased globalization, which has led to more competitors and lower prices. In addition, customers have access to previously unavailable information, making it easier to get the "best" deal. Finally, varying economic conditions worldwide present unique sets of challenges. These factors collectively suggest intense pressures on firms to seek alternative routes to cost reduction.

However, this hostility is accompanied by a large amount of dynamism in the guise of technological change that is creating pressure to innovate in either products and or processes. Ward, Duray, Leong and Sum (1995) note that dynamic environments share many characteristics of high-velocity environments. In general, these types of competitive environments require a high level of innovation and risk taking. These actions are the antithesis of the behaviors upon which one would embark if attempting to cut costs in a hostile environment.

This combination of factors makes it difficult for supply chain managers to determine the appropriate responsive strategies to cues from the competitive environment. Additionally, firms confront varying levels of dynamism and hostility. Appropriate suggestions for firms facing large levels of dynamism and low levels of hostility may differ significantly from those for a firm encountering high levels of both.

These issues are addressed from a strategic choice perspective (Child 1972). This framework proposes that the efficacy of a specific choice is dependent on the competitive environment. Thus, the value of a specific investment varies from organization to organization based on various contingencies. But rather than controlling a single factor (i.e., Burnes and Stalker 1961), the current research examines multiple elements of the competitive environment simultaneously. The basic premise of the choice perspective in this setting is that a manager in one setting choosing to invest in EM may be making a profitable/sustainable choice, while a manager in another setting making the same investment may be making a poor choice.

"Green Purchasing" and Pressure to Reduce Impacts on the Ecological Environment

Managers have traditionally responded reactively to the ecological environment. Most managers, especially in operations, view this issue narrowly. Their focus is on the constraints that environmental regulation imposes on product and or process design (Angell and Klassen 1999). This reactive stance tends to lead to a mind-set of reacting to regulation and doing only the minimum required by law. Issues regarding the ecological environment are then viewed as a cost of doing business.

The nascent body of literature deemed "green purchasing" by some (e.g., Min and Galle 1997) reinforces this view. Min and Galle start by noting that "green purchasing may result in increased material costs and qualified suppliers may be limited because of the need for nontraditional materials and parts" and conclude:
 [M]any purchasing professionals do not fully recognize the potential
 economic benefits of green purchasing. Green purchasing programs can
 create economic value, such as reduced disposal and liability costs,
 while conserving resources and improving the company's public image.


Walton, Handfield and Melnyk (1998) noted supply chain managers generally perceived that "any actions that improved the environment were detrimental to interests of business." Equally important, the companies in their sample experienced limited success in getting suppliers to participate in environmental improvement programs.

Why then would a supplier pursue such investments, when even proponents such as Min and Galle suggest that these behaviors might lead to higher costs and lower returns? This question becomes especially critical when the supplier is simultaneously confronting pressures to innovate and to reduce costs. Fundamentally, green purchasing and related strategies used to create a sustainable supply chain require the commitment and cooperation of all supply chain members. These suppliers will be less than enthusiastic regarding these investments, if perceptions of the erosion of their competitive advantage surface.

There is, however, some evidence that organizational investments in reducing the impact on the ecological environment actually increase competitiveness. Additionally, numerous pressures exist from customers, government regulation and some nongovernmental organizations for businesses to reduce their impact on the ecological environment.

The Economic Implications of Investments in Environmental Management

Although many supply chain managers perceive investments in EM as detracting from performance, a small but growing body of literature suggests that taking a proactive view of the supply chain's relationship to the ecological environment can actually create competitive advantage for a firm. Perhaps the most well known example of this perspective is 3M's "Pollution Prevention Pays" program, which has saved the company billions of dollars (3M 1998).

Other companies have had similar success at reducing their ecological impact while improving economic performance. For example, Interface Carpet has implemented numerous programs in an attempt to produce sustainable floor coverings. These efforts have led to improvements in economic performance that are driven by reductions in material consumption, waste and energy consumption (DuBose 2000). Xerox has invested heavily in the remanufacturing of their products, especially in Europe. Although the remanufacturing process itself has increased headcount, Xerox estimates multimillion-dollar savings from reductions in material and energy consumption as well as land-fill waste (Maslennaikova 2000).

Evidence suggests that a prevention-based mind-set toward the ecological environment can improve operational performance. Russo and Fouts (1997) found that an increase in environmental performance is linked to an increase in firm performance, when using return on assets as the key performance indicator. Klassen and Whybark's (1999) results indicated firms that proactively addressed environmental issues had higher plant performance than firms that took reactive stances. These authors also posit that having a capability in pollution prevention may be of greater benefit in uncertain environments. Melnyk, Stroufe and Calantone (2003) discovered that having a certified environmental management system, such as ISO 14000, leads to higher levels of operational performance.

Still, the link between ecological performance and economic performance is a contentious issue. Many managers believe that they cannot have both, a view that is buttressed by some empirical evidence (Carter and Dresner 2001). Therefore, Christmann (2000) takes a more nuanced look at the question of the link between ecological performance and economic success and finds that only those firms that have a capability in process innovation are truly able to leverage their investments in EM.

The theory underpinning this prevention-based view of the ecological environment is very similar to the theory that underpins programs such as TQM. Basically, pollution impacts the ecological environment in the form of waste. If the pollution of a supply chain can be reduced, its processes should be more efficient and hence more competitive (Christmann 2000). Thus, pollution prevention might be an appropriate response to a hostile environment because it may allow for increased profits without an increase in sales.

However, there is evidence (Russo and Fouts 1997) that pollution prevention is a more appropriate investment for firms in a dynamic and constantly changing environment because it often requires radical rethinking of product or process design. This is best explicated by Russo and Fouts (1997):
 Under normal conditions, an investment in redesigning and replacing
 existing processes in a competitive environment is financially
 significant and involves substantial risk. However, the decision
 to adopt clean technologies and to incur the added costs of
 pollution reduction without governmental action is even more risky
 for two reasons. First, early in their life cycles technologies and
 processes that are on the cutting edge of source reduction may cost
 even more and be of lower quality. Second, the viability of new,
 clean technologies can be largely unknown, as are the economic
 consequences of their use (Kemp 1993; Shrivastava 1995).


Russo and Fouts also note that in low-growth (hostile) competitive environments characterized by standard products and mechanized organizational structures, the policies associated with pollution prevention could be difficult to implement and might degrade economic performance. Klassen and Whybark (1999) reach similar conclusions. Accordingly, investments in EM may not be beneficial in all environments.

Relevance of This Research Effort

The literature, then, provides a mixed view of investments in EM. Many managers believe that overcoming the challenges required to improve environmental performance causes a reduction in profits. Additionally, the literature is contradictory and inconsistent regarding both the economic and ecological merits of such investments. On one hand, pollution prevention behaviors may mimic TQM and help a company to reduce waste, making investments in EM appropriate for hostile environs. On the other hand, the level of innovation necessary (Hart and Milstein 1999) to succeed in this new area may make such investments more appropriate for firms facing dynamic environments.

In an attempt to begin to demystify these seemingly contradictory information streams for supply chain managers, this research examines investments in environmental management systems. The efficacy of these investments is examined in the face of varying cues from the competitive environment.

HYPOTHESES AND MODEL

The literature suggests the following set of hypotheses useful in building the model presented in Figure 1.

H1 -- Hostility is positively related to investments in EM.

H2 -- Dynamism is positively related to investments in EM.

H3 -- Investments in EM are positively related to performance.

The model posits that managers who face hostile competitive environments will improve organizational performance if they make investments in EM. If, as many believe (e.g., Hart 1995), pollution prevention will lead to a decrease in costs, such investments should be of value in hostile environments where there are limited opportunities to increase sales. The model also proposes that, in dynamic competitive environments, investments in EM will lead to increased performance. The literature (e.g., Christmann 2001) shows strong linkages between the ability/need to innovate, ecological performance and firm performance.

METHOD

Survey data gathered as part of the Global Manufacturing Research Group (GMRG) 2002 data collection effort was used to test the model in Figure 1. GMRG is a multinational community of researchers dedicated to the study of international operations management. Its primary goal is to promote an understanding of differences in manufacturing practices across international boundaries through joint research efforts. The GMRG data set is constructed by a number of researchers who pool their survey data from multiple countries. Survey questions cover the areas of manufacturing activities such as sales forecasting, production planning and scheduling, shop floor control, purchasing and materials management and manufacturing performance. Full details regarding the survey and its development and administration appear in Vastag and Whybark (1994) and Whybark (1997).

The current study uses 103 samples collected from Taiwan (64) and the United States (39). The questionnaires administered to Taiwanese companies were translated and back-translated in Mandarin. All managers received a survey in their native language. A total of 628 surveys were sent to manufacturing plants in both the computer and machinery industries. Phone calls and follow-up letters were used substantially to improve the response rate. This resulted in 103 questionnaires being returned. The response rate was 16.4 percent, which is comparable to much of the recent literature using the survey method. In addition, Carter (2000) notes that, in general, studies using dyadic methods suffer from low response rates; thus, the response rate for this study is actually higher than expected.

The average number of employees of the surveyed firms is 887. In general, the Taiwanese firms are larger, with an average number of employees of 1,366, and the U.S. firms are smaller, with an average of 136 employees. Respondents from both the manufacturing and purchasing areas addressed plant performance and the external/competitive environments. The inter-rater reliability of these responses was addressed using the criteria set forth in Boyer and Verma (2000). Based on their criteria, the items have high levels of inter-rater reliability (correlations all greater than 0.2 and significant). This finding is important as it indicates that both manufacturing and purchasing managers perceive the competitive environment and plant performance in similar ways, reducing significantly the risk that the results are due only to the biases of a single set of respondents. The responses for these items were combined.

Only the manufacturing managers addressed the investments in EM. This was done because it was assumed that the individual functional level managers would have the best knowledge about decisions within their areas of responsibility. Hence purchasing managers might not be in a good position to comment on the types of operational investments being made to address ecological issues.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The items used to address the constructs generally come from previous research. Appendix A details the items used for each scale. The competitive environment scales are directly from Ward, Duray, Leong and Sum (1995). Performance is a composite of a number of plant-level metrics, including quality, price, flexibility and so on. For each item, the plants compared themselves to their competitors. Creating this composite follows much previous work, including Ahmad and Schroeder (2003). Finally, the scale for investments in EM is a new one, created for this research. All of the scales display good psychometric properties with coefficient alphas exceeding Nunnally's (1978) recommendation of 0.6.

The correlation matrix presented in Appendix B indicates that both country and plant employment (a proxy for size) may influence the statistical results. T-tests confirmed that there are significant differences between the plants in Taiwan and the United States. However, t-tests also showed significant differences between large and small plants. Since size is strongly correlated with country (the Taiwanese plants in the sample tend to be larger), the effect may be either a country effect or a size effect. Both of these contingencies are controlled for in the analysis.

RESULTS

The model was tested using path analytic methods. Path analysis was chosen because of the nature of the model. Figure 2 shows the results from testing the model using all of the data. Based on the criteria set forth in Hatcher (1994), the model displays good fit. In addition, most of the paths are significant and in the predicted direction. Equally important, many of the effect sizes are fairly large, and the amount of variance explained for performance is high, especially given the number of factors that influence plant performance.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The last two sets of tests were performed to control for the influence of size and country. Table I displays the results when the sample is split by country and by size.

The paths involving dynamism, investments in EM and performance are basically consistent for all plants. Regardless of setting, companies are responding to increases in dynamism with an increased emphasis on EM, which is leading to positive results. The one exception is that the plants located in the United States are responding to increases in dynamism with a reduced investment in EM, even though such investments are linked positively to performance. Table II summarizes the findings as they relate to the hypotheses.

IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE

The results portray an interesting picture for the supply chain manager attempting to determine the efficacy of investments in EM. These results may be even more important to the manager trying to convince other members of the supply chain that these investments are not going to harm competitiveness and may even increase the profitability of the chain.

Investments in EM provide increased performance for all companies, regardless of country or size. This result is very important because managers generally tend to view the relationship between the ecological environment and profits as a zero-sum game (Feldman, Soyka and Ameer 1997; Angell and Klassen 1999). Evidence suggests that many managers view environmental management as a constraining factor, often associated with burdensome regulations. Within the supply chain realm specifically, there is evidence of the reluctance of suppliers to make environmental investments because of the sometimes questionable benefits of such commitments (Walton, Handfield and Melnyk 1998). However, these results show that investments in EM improve plant performance and should be viewed as an opportunity, not a cost. If all members of the chain were leveraging these opportunities, significant improvement in chain performance could be achieved.

These results should facilitate companies' efforts to persuade their supply base to pursue certifications such as ISO 14000. Certainly some suppliers are reluctant when mandated to use ISO 14000 certification if they perceive no immediate benefits to themselves. However, these results, especially when added to others (e.g., Melnyk, Stroufe and Calantone 2003) provide a compelling argument that making investments in EM in general, or in specific programs such as ISO 14000, provides benefits to the supplier beyond just keeping the buying firm's business.

Min and Galle (1997) found that the general motivation for making ecological investments was risk reduction and hence avoiding future liability, and not increasing profitability. While it can be assumed that a supply chain with fewer ecological impacts is likely to have fewer future liabilities, current results suggest that investments in EM have a more immediate payoff in terms of increased operational performance. Therefore, the results should provide some impetus to explore investments in EM as more than just risk mitigation tools.

These results seem to be of greatest importance to U.S. managers. United States companies in the sample that did invest in EM systems received a significant boost in performance. However, these firms appeared to react to increases in dynamism with decreased investment in EM, when the opposite behavior would have improved performance. In other words, this is an opportunity that is not being leveraged by many firms. While the data does not provide insight as to why this is the case, plant size is likely to be a determining factor. Previous research (e.g., Klassen 2001) suggests that smaller firms tend to be less clean than larger firms. Since most of the U.S. companies sampled are small and medium-sized firms with limited resources, it is possible that they do not set EM investments as a high priority, even though these investments could be lucrative. Future research should explore this issue in more detail.

In contrast, the Taiwanese firms are responding strongly to increased dynamism with increased investments in EM systems. This is in spite of the fact that these investments do not have the same influence on performance in Taiwan. All Taiwanese firms sampled are from high-tech industries. Their investments in EM are very high due to the requirements of ISO 14000 certification from their European clients and stringent environmental regulations. Moreover, manufacturing facilities are often located close to residential areas, which forces firms to give waste and pollution control high priority. Early adopters may be able to generate more sales because of the ISO certification. However, in the long run, many firms in this industrial setting are making these investments mainly to remain competitive.

Finally, the results show that the competitive environment has a strong influence on the investments that firms are making. Dynamism has a strong influence on the level of investment in environmental management systems. This is consistent with the results of Russo and Fouts (1997) as well as others who have noted that successful environmental management tends to require a high level of innovation.

However, hostility is not driving firms to invest in environmental management, even though there is much evidence to suggest that these investments may help control costs through waste reduction (e.g., Christmann 2000). It is also possible (as suggested by Russo and Fouts 1997) that investments in environmental management, at least for now, are risky and may actually create less efficient processes in the short run. Another possibility is that the efficiency gains posited for these investments (King and Lenox 2001) may actually take years to accrue. Linked to this supposition is the possibility that firms in hostile environments may have much shorter planning horizons, making them less likely to make investments that they do not think will have an immediate impact on the bottomline. Further research is needed to determine if firms in hostile environments are behaving rationally or if they are missing an important tool to reduce costs.

CONCLUSIONS

This research provides more support for the proposition that "it pays to be green." Although the plants sampled were not reacting to the increased cost pressures associated with hostile environments with increased investments in EM, the results suggest that if they did they would have improved performance.

Similarly, for firms in dynamic industries that face pressure to innovate, investments in environmental management are a lever to improve performance. Interviews with Taiwanese managers confirmed that ISO 14001 certification in high-tech firms often required re-examining manufacturing processes, not just the outputs. With the opportunity of re-engineering current processes to decrease levels of pollution, firms actually were able to improve operational performance. Creating clean products or processes requires new, innovative ways to produce. Pursuing these investments in a competitive environment with considerable pressure to create new products and processes also builds competitive advantage. The results also suggest that high-tech companies in Taiwan are doing a better job leveraging these investments, which has significant implications for U.S. managers who may still perceive a zero-sum game when it comes to balancing ecological and profit considerations.

The study results are compelling, but limitations might constrain the generalizability of the findings. The actual sample size is small, and data is collected only from the United States and Taiwan. Future research should attempt to replicate these results using a larger sample that provides greater global coverage. Of greater importance may be the cross-sectional nature of the research. It is possible that the influence of investments in EM will increase or decrease with time. Future research should examine the efficacy of investments in EM over time to improve upon the "snapshot" approach of this research.

In addition to improving upon the methods of this research, there is much left for future researchers to answer in regard to the efficacy of investments in EM and related topics. At the broadest level, it seems appropriate for researchers to move beyond asking "Can a company be green and profitable?" to "How can a company be green and profitable?" Most of the existing literature on how to make EM work is based on single cases or anecdotes, with little that can be applied broadly. This lack of strong generalizable results may help to explain the reluctance of many managers to embrace these investments.

Under the rubric of how are many important supply chain issues. For instance, how does one create and then manage a waste-free supply chain? How does a supply chain determine which chain member should lead such an effort? How does a chain identify the capabilities the supply chain members will need to be successful at these initiatives? Equally important will be determining how to measure the value of many of these investments (for instance, how does one determine the value of improved groundwater?). If supply chains, in general, are going to take advantage of these investments to reduce costs and increase innovation, future research will have to become much more prescriptive.

This research provides a key prescription for managers, specifically that they should be willing to pursue investments in environmental management systems. The present research provides one more compelling piece of evidence that investing in environmental management is a way to create competitive advantage. However, at this juncture, these investments are being poorly leveraged by many firms, especially smaller U.S. firms.
Appendix A DESCRIPTION OF MEASURES

 Alpha
Construct Item for scale

Environmental investments 0.79
 Investments in ISO 14000
 certification
 Investments in pollution
 prevention
V2 Investments in recycling of
 materials
 Investments in waste reduction
Hostility (1) 0.72
 Keen competition in local markets
V3 Keen competition in foreign
 markets
 Low profit margins
 Declining demand in local markets
 Declining demand in foreign
 markets
 Producing to the required quality
 standards
 Unreliable vendor quality
Dynamism (1) 0.88
 Rate at which products and
 services become outdated
V4 Rate of innovation of new products
 and services
 Rate of innovation of new
 operation processes
 Rate of change in taste and
 preference of customers in your
 industry
Performance 0.89
 Production costs
 Total product costs
V1 Supply chain costs
 Product features
 Product performance
 Perceived overall product quality
 Supply chain integration
 Order fulfillment speed
 Delivery speed
 Delivery as promised
 Delivery flexibility
 Flexibility to change output
 volume
 Flexibility to change product mix
 Manufacturing throughput time
 Product design time
 Solid waste disposal
 Air emissions
 Water emissions
 Health and safety record
 ISO certifications

(1) From Ward et al. 1995

Appendix B CORRELATIONS

Variable 1 2 3 4 5 6

1. Country 1.0
2. Employment 0.287** 1.0
3. Hostility (V3) -0.008 0.356** 1.0
4. Dynamism (V4) 0.619** 0.447** 0.166 1.0
5. Environmental
 management (V2) 0.549** 0.417** 0.028 0.415** 1.0
6. Performance (V1) 0.366** 0.291** 0.207* 0.236* 0.409** 1.0

*P < 0.05
**P < 0.01

Table I ALTERNATIVE MODELS

Model Path H1 Path H2 Path H3 R2 EM R2 performance

Large firms* -0.12 0.47** 0.36** 0.21 0.13
Small firms -0.10 0.32** 0.38** 0.14 0.12
United States 0.13 -0.3** 0.35** 0.10 0.13
Taiwan -0.14 0.45** 0.21 0.18 0.04

Model Chi-square CFI

Large firms* 0.22 0.94
Small firms 0.28 0.95
United States 0.08 0.78
Taiwan 0.004 0.56

* Number of employees [greater than or equal to] 100

Table II SUMMARY OF STATISTICAL RESULTS

Hypotheses Results

H1: Hostility is positively No support.
 related to investments
 in environmental
 management.
H2: Dynamism is positively Generally supported--except for U.S.
 related to investments companies, who reduce investments in
 in environmental environmental management as dynamism
 management. increases, even though increased investment
 leads to higher performance.
H3: Investments in Strong support, although for Taiwan p <0.1
 environmental not 0.05. But the effect size is still
 management are large given that the dependent variable is
 positively related to performance.
 performance.


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AUTHORS

Mark Pagell is director of research, Sustainable Business Initiative, and an assistant professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.

Chen-Lung Yang is an assistant professor in the department of technology management at Chung Hua University in Taiwan.

Dennis W. Krumwiede is an associate professor of operations management at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho.

Chwen Sheu is a professor in the department of management at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.
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Date:Jun 22, 2004
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