Are so-called millennials – the demographic cohort born from around 1980 up to 2000 – more sustainability-minded than their parents or grandparents? More importantly, do they represent a greater demand for greener products and are they prepared to pay more for them?
It would be handy if they did. Young consumers who prioritise sustainability, and with expanding spending power as they get older, could provide the demand that will help smooth the shift to a greener economy.
But unfortunately the evidence to support the claim that millennials are more sustainability-focused is inconclusive at best.
Some backing for the idea that millennials are greener comes from the Outlook on the Millennial Consumer 2014 survey, carried out in the US by consultants Hartman Group. It found that millennials are more likely than older cohorts to opt for organic food or “natural products” and to consider the environment when making purchasing decisions.
But other research, also carried out in the US by the thinktank Pew Research Center
, found that millennials are significantly less likely to identify themselves as “environmentalist” compared to older cohorts.
The Eco Pulse survey from Shelton Group in 2013 meanwhile, seemed to imply a certain laziness on eco-issues among millennials compared to other demographic groups. It found millennials less likely to recycle or to save energy by turning off lights or unplugging devices on standby.
… but environmentally aware
Whether or not millennials are more inclined than other demographic groups to act in a sustainable way, they are very aware of the environmental challenges that society faces.
The Eco Pulse study found that millennials are more likely than the average American to believe in climate change and to attribute it to man-made causes. Increased media coverage of environmental issues, and inclusion of issues such as global warming in educational curricula means that sustainability is a hard subject for millennial to avoid.
But at the same time millennials have expectations related to products and services that are way beyond what their parents and grandparents had. They expect as a matter of course to have access to the internet, social media, connected devices and easy travel.
These can come with a sustainability cost, of course. Air travel is one of the fastest rising greenhouse gas emission sources, for example.
Hairshirt? No thanks!
Will Gardner, CEO of Collectively
, a brand-backed digital media channel focused on sustainability, says millennials broadly want sustainability but will not accept it as a “hairshirt sub-culture”. They want “cool and inspiring” products and services, and that is unlikely to change soon.
For companies this presents a challenge. They might have hoped that with each new generation there would be a sustainability dividend – consumers more likely to opt for green or certified products, thereby handing the advantage to companies that prioritise environmental and societal integrity.
But the evidence does not really support this. Instead, it might just be that millennials are characterised by high expectations about products and services, and in many cases this, rather than sustainability considerations on their own, will continue to drive purchase decisions.
The situation changes when poor corporate behaviour is uncovered – there’s nothing cool about child labour, for example. So, to succeed, companies must carry on meeting high product expectations within increasingly tight environmental limitations and with established, high social impact standards. Perhaps that’s the millennial challenge.