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

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Social Marketing Quarterly






Sage Publications, Inc.

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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. 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? 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. 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. 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.