Promoting Sustainable Behavior

“ Promoting Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing”
Doug McKenzie-Mohr, in Journal of Social Issues 56:3, 2000
Read January 2011

I was drawn to this article because of its introduction, in which McKenzie-Mohr writes of his conviction that environmental psychology literature should be shared with those outside of the field who are actually designing environmental communication programs. He admonishes his fellow researchers, saying that their publications “contribute far more 
to career advancement than they do to environmental betterment” (543) and that

“until we reach out to the individuals who design and deliver environmental programs, our efforts will remain invisible to those who can most benefit from them” (544).

I have similarly begun to perceive that although there is a great amount of literature available in the field of environmental psychology, communication designers are not using it because we are largely unaware of its existence.

McKenzie-Mohr goes on to point out that, although many campaign designers believe that increasing an audience’s knowledge or awareness of an issue will lead to behavior change, this in reality is not the case. I have come across this principle multiple times during my literature review—information alone does not lead to behavior change. Nonetheless, I have two points of disagreement with McKenzie-Mohr’s view of information.

First, he limits information to “increasing knowledge” and “creating supportive attitudes” (544). But information can be used in broader ways; for example, to communicate social norms with audiences, or to highlight an eco-friendly choice. One of the case studies the author mentions, in fact, uses information to draw people’s attention to products containing recycled materials.

Second, I do not think information should be abandoned altogether. It can instead be 
used as part of a robust campaign, to increase awareness and to educate audiences, as suggested by Gardner and Stern. This will not only help foster long-term behavior change, but also addresses some of the ethical issues which exist with persuasion, by allowing people to learn about the problem and choose whether to take action.

As an alternative to (procedural) information-based campaigns, McKenzie-Mohr re-commends a solution he calls “community-based social marketing” (546). This technique contains four steps:

  1. Uncovering barriers and selecting behaviors to target
  2. Designing an intervention to remove these barriers, using psychological principles
  3. Piloting the designed intervention on a small scale
  4. Evaluating the intervention by directly measuring behavior

What I find intriguing about community-based social marketing is that these four steps seem very intuitive to me. They are not only similar to the design process, but also to how I have structured my thesis project for this year. Focusing on removing barriers and using an iterative process is what we do as designers. In addition, McKenzie-Mohr points out the importance of directly measuring behavior, not relying on self-reports, attitudes, or intentions. As designers, we learn to observe what people actually do, not just what they say they do. We realize that surveys are inherently limited in what they can tell us about real needs and behavior.

McKenzie-Mohr has become very successful in his field. His website,, contains a database of articles, case studies, and forums based on specific environmental behaviors, and he teaches seminars on community-based social marketing. I strongly believe, as he does, that we need a way for those who design campaigns to connect with existing research. I hope that he is still trying to bridge these gaps and bring this information to those who need it.


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