Leadership Studies Ed.D. Dissertations

A Marathon, Not a Sprint: A Longitudinal Study of Social Sustainability and Supplier Development in Athletic Apparel/Footwear Supply Chains

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)


Leadership Studies

First Advisor

Patrick D. Pauken (Committee Co-Chair)

Second Advisor

Paul Christian Willis (Committee Co-Chair)

Third Advisor

Deborah G. Wooldridge (Other)

Fourth Advisor

Bertie Greer (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Paul A. Johnson (Committee Member)


This retrospective longitudinal study describes the supplier development relationships and practices used by three athletic apparel/footwear organizations to improve social responsibility and sustainability within their supply chains which utilize contract manufacturing in low cost developing regions historically recognized for human rights violations. Beginning with their first annual sustainability reports (ASRs) published in 2000 to 2002, Adidas, Nike, and Puma are tracked through 2019 and compared as their practices reflect the values of their leaders and supply chain professionals.

A case-by-case analysis tracks each firm’s social sustainability efforts through their ASRs regarding environmental pressures, leadership orientation, espoused values, strategic sourcing orientation, and social practices and performance metrics. Once the distinctive approaches are presented, a comparison of their evolution over the 20-year span is reviewed as their social sustainability and supplier development efforts are redefined.

Numerous pressures served as catalysts for altering their buyer-supplier dynamics. While claiming initial engagement in social sustainability supplier development was intrinsically motivated, greater priority and the publication of the first ASRs were primarily a result of the consumer backlash from the 1990s’ assertions of NGOs and the United Nations regarding violations of child labor laws and working conditions. Over the 20-year span pressure from NGOs, consumers, employees and other stakeholders influenced adjustments in social sustainability practices from supplier auditing compliance programs to manufacturing advances and capacity building initiatives to improve working conditions.

By employing transformational leadership tactics to `model the way’ and `challenge the process,’ the firms shared highlights of innovative pilot projects and supplier successes in their ASRs. Their espoused values regarding distributive and procedural justice influenced their approaches to supplier development and use of performance-based punishments and incentives. Starting with compliance to Code of Conduct standards, auditor consultations aided in reaching minimum levels contractually required. Additional training and development were established to improve supplier ownership to internalize the necessity for social sustainability practices and encourage continuous improvements. As standards evolved with the growing knowledge of sustainability, strategic sourcing partners were identified to benchmark best practices used as examples as compliance monitoring moved further upstream to second and third tier material suppliers.