Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Policy

First Advisor

Christian Weller

Second Advisor

David Cash

Third Advisor

David Levy


More than $6 trillion of savings subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) is invested unsustainably, constituting a policy problem through market failure and policy contradiction. Externalities from capital allocations perpetuate systemic inequalities, while information failure yields suboptimal investment decisions. As a result, unsustainable investing, when material environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors are discounted, is the status quo in private sector workplace retirement plans. In contrast, sustainable investing in private sector retirement plans can achieve a more just and efficient capital markets allocation while enhancing retirement income security of American workers.

This dissertation examines the institutional forces affecting the adoption of sustainable investing within private sector workplace retirement plans. Using a new institutionalist framework that interlaces concepts from social movement and decision theory, I use a sequential mixed-methods design to examine how ERISA and its norms impact sustainable investing, and the extent to which the frames and behaviors deriving from these norms limit rational decision-making. I also evaluate the ability of sustainable investment advocates and a specific retirement policy to modify fiduciary behaviors toward greater sustainable investment. The research design consists of expert interviews, content analysis, and an online survey of fiduciaries, overlaid with participant observation.

Dynamism is present throughout the study via contested frames and institutional entrepreneurship. I find that the old frame that traditionally maintained inertia on sustainable investing persists in modern discourse due to values-based, ideological associations, even as entrepreneurs look to diffuse a new frame centering on materiality. I also find that added oppositional elements of risk and ambiguity, hindrances known to other areas of retirement benefit design, enter the sustainable investing discourse to prolong inertia and thwart effectiveness of the new frame. Amid the contestation of these frames are fiduciary norms to follow amorphous best practices, a mimetic force which at times represents fiduciary behavior at odds with the best interests of plan participants and beneficiaries. In addition, the continued emphasis of risk and ambiguity in the retirement field reveals that sustainable investing advocates have limited ability to elicit change via peer influence, and sustainable investment adoption among pooled employer plan designs will be limited to integration commitments of service providers.

The primary contribution to scholarship is the application of new institutionalism to a contemporary, dynamic issue in U.S. retirement policy. The most salient policy implication from the findings is the potential conflicts inherent to the fiduciary role in the provision of employer-sponsored retirement benefits.


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