What Millennials Expect from Green Businesses

What happens when a Baby Boomer and a Millennial sit down for a chat about sustainability?

When the Boomer is GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower and the Next Gen'er is actor and activist Cody Horn, the result is a fast-paced conversation that lends insight into what Millennials expect from business -- and how their views differ from the generations before them.

The chairman and co-founder of GreenBiz Group and the winner of a 2005 Environmental Media Association Futures Award got together for their talk at the kickoff of the 2012 GreenBiz Forum series. I summarize some of their most lively exchanges below, but first a little context:

Makower came of age as the Vietnam War was at its height and the environmental movement celebrated the first Earth Day. The Civil Rights and Free Speech movements had brought people into the streets to demonstrate, and anti-war protests were doing the same.

Horn was born during the height of the Reagan Administration and at the dawn of the age of personal computing, just three years after a young company called Apple released a desktop computer called the Macintosh. Horn is part of the first generation to experience music, games, movies and other media with devices that were supercharged by IT and connected via the Internet.

Here are highlights of their conversation:

On the Need for Change and the Role of Business

"Where do you see business in all this, what does this generation think about business and sustainability?" Makower asked.

"I think people in this generation view business different than the people in the '60s and '70s, where it was more of a general place of fear," replied Horn, who studied environmental ethics at NYU and is a member of the Board of Directors of Global Green USA and the Young Hollywood Board of the Environmental Media Association. "I think my generation understands that business is, in many ways, the backbone of society, and is as important as government to enforce public good. There is an understanding that you can harness that backbone and use it as a catalyst for change."

"And so is business a good guy," Makower asked, "and can you make that statement about business in general?"

"No, no, you can't," Horn said. "It's up to each business to uphold some sort of moral code, and either they do or they don't -- just like people. Businesses are run by people, and there's good people and there's bad people."

On the Gap Between Environmental Concern and Environmental Consumerism

"I've been watching [this issue] for 23 years now, since I wrote a book called 'The Green Consumer,' " Makower said. "People said back in 1989 that they were ready, willing and able to make green choices [and] every time they opened their wallet to cast a vote for or against the environment. At the time, some very large numbers of people -- 70, 80, 90 percent of the people -- said they were ready, willing and able to make change. But that didn't turn out so great. It turns out that the gap between environmental concern and environmental consumerism is pretty large. Is that going to continue? What's the appetite for change [among young people]?"

"There's a great appetite for change," Horn answered. "We grew up in a generation where we're multi-tasking -- on the Internet, on the computer, watching TV, doing your homework all at the same time," she said. "So whether we realize it or not, we're constantly changing ... The youth understands that business and social media can be used for change. Look at Arab Spring as what can be positive, or you can view what happened in London as the negative side of it, and, of course, [there's] all the Occupy movements."

As to the concern versus consumer part of Makower's question, Horn said: "No one of my age has any money, so are we going to use money as voting power? Not necessarily. But at the same time, we are definitely consumers."