Will Millennials Be the First Sustainable Generation?

Will Millennials Be the First Sustainable Generation?

For as long as I’ve been involved with environmental issues, people have always predicted that the latest generation of youngsters were the ones who would sort the problems out, because they were the ones that cared about it the most.

I’ve been skeptical of such claims in the past, and I would say with good reason.

After all, the first time I heard it, it was being said about my own generation when I was that youngster. But my generation turned out to be the one that ramped up the scale of exploitation and pollution to levels previously undreamed of.

The one that came after was little better. The point is that people respond to incentives, and they respond to peer pressure. However idealistic and change-minded they start out, as they mature other instincts kick in.


But the new generation is genuinely different. How different remains to be seen. But it is the generation of digital natives, and that’s leading to some changes in attitudes that are surprising, and may even represent a breakthrough when it comes to how we build sustainable behaviours for the future.


If you believe the research, the new generation is about to supercharge the movement for corporate social responsibility.

There have been plenty of headlines over the last couple of years that tell the story. Millennials demand CSR from companies, and since they represent something like $2.45 trillion spending power in the US alone, they’re a force to be reckoned with.


According to Cone Communications, 70% of Millennials will spend more on brands supporting causes they care about. [ cash register noise ]


There’s more. When companies support social and environmental issues, Millennials respond with increased trust, 91 percent, loyalty, 89 percent, and likelihood to buy from them, also 89 percent.

What’s more, it carries over to decisions about where to work, with 78 percent more likely to want to work for the socially responsible companies. So that’s a big blow struck in the war for talent, obviously.


Companies have started to respond to the message that they should aim to make their CSR activity relevant and engaging for millennials.


Just recently Heineken became the latest to give this a go, when they produced a YouTube video introduction for their latest sustainability report … in the form of a rap.

It wasn’t the perfect attempt to “get down with da kidz”. For one thing, the video was still titled ‘sustainability report 2016’ which, in my experience, is one formidable barrier right there to the sort of audience they’re aiming at actually giving it a try.


But there’s one more substantive problem. While I’d love to believe all that research at face value, I just don’t. It’s the same sort of wishful thinking research that we’ve seen in the past, and has tended to give broadly similar results.


If you ask someone if they would prefer to buy from a nice company or a nasty one, they do know, at the point of answering, that there’s really an implied right and a wrong answer to that question. And they tend to want to give the right answer.

In the past, we used to see figures that said 86 percent of consumers would rather buy a product associated with a cause. In truth, only a small fraction of those actually demonstrated that through their buying behaviours. It was enough to make some well-considered cause marketing campaigns viable, but it was not the revolution, and the marketing directors knew it.


I don’t see the difference between those, and these recent surveys. Sorry. It’s still my view that CSR is not going to be consumer-driven anytime soon.


But that doesn’t mean that there might not be changes that have interesting implications for sustainability.

Millennials, as we know, are the always-connected generation, spending more than five hours a day engaging with each other, and with user-generated content. And this single fact has created a completely different mindset to what has gone before.


We all thought that just meant they had the attention span of your average goldfish. But it has led to some further changes of attitude, and some interesting changes in behaviours.


On the attitude side, we have the first generation for whom equality for everybody is broadly a non-controversial proposition. So, for instance, 70 percent of Millennials support same sex marriage.

It’s something you would expect, given that the global nature of the internet makes it more likely people will interact directly with people who are different to themselves.


But more interesting changes come down to how this generation chooses to consume, and its attitude to ownership.


I’ve seen a couple of attempts since I first got involved in the environmental movement – to launch a car-sharing service.


The logic was always impeccable. Growing levels of traffic produced local and a contribution to global pollution, and when you look at cars, generally you see people journeying solo, which is an awful lot of empty spaces moving backwards and forwards at some considerable environmental cost.


But the attempts to get people to share their space always failed. There may be a number of factors specific to the car-sharing companies concerned, but the number one reason was simply this: The travelling public didn’t want it. They wanted to own their own car, and they wanted to be able to be in their own space. The idea of sharing that space was just not seen as a popular thing to do. The businesses suffered the fate of any company that comes up with a product that depends on people being the way we’d like them to be, rather than the way that they actually are. In other words, they went out of business.

But suddenly, that’s begun to change. According to the OECD, in 2013 60% of all millennials were interested in renting vs owning all sorts of goods and services. And car journeys has become one of the ways that has been expressed.


Companies like BlaBlaCar and Zipcar have sprung up, to give people the option of sharing a lift in return for paying their share of the petrol. Where the previous incarnations had failed, these are now growing fast.


According to the statistics – and here we’re talking about the real-life stats of what people are actually doing – first time car buyers are now more frequently coming in around age 25, whereas a few years ago it would be 18 or 19. It’s not that millennials have decided never to buy their own car, just that there’s no hurry, and they’re happy to share in the mean time.


This takes potentially a large number of vehicles off the roads at any one time.


Other companies have started to explore how this could play out with different business models for other sectors. For instance, clothes and fashion. Mud Jeans now offers that you can lease its jeans, rather than buying them outright. They manufacture the garments to be easy to upcycle or recycle when they’re returned, and the whole aim is to reduce waste.


It’s no longer just a fringe idea, with a number of companies looking at the approach as one that could address the inherent short-term nature of most fashion purchases. We want new things to wear, and we want the newest thing rather often. But a leasing scheme might nevertheless extend the lifetime of a fast fashion garment considerably.


Even quite recently, the idea would have been considered outlandish. Doomed to failure. Never mind something as personal as your clothes, that was the case even for a business to business product.


Something like ten years ago, I remember that Interface Carpets tried out an experiment in a more sustainable business model. It tried to persuade companies to rent a professionally carpeted floor, rather than to buy carpet. The principle was the same.


Under the rental model, Interface made the most money when it could reduce the throughput of material by repairing worn out carpet in a spot treatment approach. Under the old model, it made most money by persuading people they needed a whole new carpet


But the customers weren’t ready. Corporate clients still wanted to own their own carpet. That’s just the way our minds worked.


Perhaps it is the rise of the millennial mindset that could finally make products like that viable.


After all, just at the time when the world needs new, lower consumption business models, we are seeing an unprecedented period of experimentation with new disruptive approaches. Whether it’s AirBnB challenging the hotel industry, or Uber rattling the cage of the taxi drivers. Private space is shrinking as people who are used to being connected to hundreds of friends, and being part of a community that creates content rather than passively receives it, look to invent new and better ways to make their way in the world.


So with all this going on, it’s natural for companies and brands to want to interest millennials in what they’re doing on CSR. Even if they’re not the new ethical consumer revolution, they are certainly more open to the conversation, and to new ways of relating to products and companies.


I don’t have stats to back this up, but my impression is that millennials are more open to thinking well of companies than perhaps their more cynical predecessors have been. The companies that they see day to day are the brave new tech companies, modern, forward-looking, generally progressive when it comes to making a stand on equality and on the environment.


If you’re not one of those companies, it doesn’t mean the shine automatically transfers to you. But it’s a space you can project yourself into.


The thing is that won’t happen following the old rules. For brands wanting to engage their consumers with their CSR activity, they need to find new ways to communicate.


My advice? Don’t start thinking about that in terms of your sustainability report. Your report may be of interest to NGOs, and regulators, and academics. But your millennial customers and employees simply don’t get their information this way. Even with the services of a rapper.


The key lessons are this.


Use the channels where your audience naturally go, and track this because it changes quickly. Think the answer to communicating with millennials is to get a Facebook page dedicated to your social responsibility? Think again. The millennials moved off Facebook the moment their parents moved onto it.


For me, the biggest challenge to companies and brands in communicating with Millennials is to shift from corporate speak to the personal. Social media channels such as Snapchat and Instagram are personal. The marketers and brands that are crushing it on those channels, are making the message more discursive and individual – exactly what companies struggle m ost to do.


But the real opportunity is to look again at the business model of your company. Ask yourself what a creative digital native might come up with in order to disrupt your industry. And then do it yourself first.




All, 2016