Understanding How Sustainability Initiatives Fail: A Framework to Aid Design of Effective Interventions

Aaron R. Brough, Grant E. Donnelly, Vladas Griskevicius, Ezra M. Markowitz, Kaitlin T. Raimi, Crystal Reeck, Remi Trudel, Kurt B. Waldman, Karen Page Winterich, Kimberly S. Wolske

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Many sustainability initiatives are successful and produce results that benefit the environment. However, others miss the mark and fail to produce the desired outcome. Past research has typically focused on understanding why initiatives fail, without first considering differences in how they fail. Focus of the Article: This manuscript is related to Research and Evaluation—specifically, the social marketing concept it focuses on is evaluating the outcome of sustainability initiatives. Research Question: What are the different ways in which sustainability initiatives can fail? Program Design/Approach: A multi-day workshop of interdisciplinary behavioral sustainability scholars led to the identification of five systematic differences in how sustainability initiatives can fail, suggesting that failure can take on not only different levels of severity, but different forms altogether. Within this framework, we provide examples of each type of failure. Importance to the Social Marketing Field: We argue that diagnosing how instead of just why an initiative fails offers important insights that can reduce the likelihood of future failures—insights that may be missed by a narrow focus on the why behind any given failure. Recommendations for Research or Practice: The identification of the different ways in which sustainability initiatives fail can lead to improvements in the design and implementation of behavioral interventions, facilitating successful sustainability outcomes and preventing unintended outcomes. Specific recommendations are discussed for each type of failure. Limitations: The examples in our framework are not exhaustive, but are instead intended to be illustrative exemplars of each type of failure. Moreover, as our focus is on how sustainability initiatives fail, we do not attempt to diagnose why particular initiatives fail.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)309-324
Number of pages16
JournalSocial Marketing Quarterly
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Marketing

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