Can millennials peddle sustainable consumption to the masses?

Speaking Sustainably

Can millennials peddle sustainable consumption to the masses?

Schwinn Traveler by Fauxlaroid via Flickr

A year ago on our downtown square, I noticed a gold Schwinn Traveler bicycle parked outside a restaurant.

I looked closely and saw that it had two gears -- the kind you switch by gently touching the pedal in reverse.

I recognized the bike because my parents had given me that very model -- that very color -- for Christmas in 1965.

Not long after that vintage bike sighting, outside a downtown diner, I saw a young man unlocking a blue Schwinn Varsity 10-speed.

I was again transported back in time: I rode a blue Varsity in the 1970s and a silver one in the '80s. "Yeah, it was my dad's," said the young man.

Just a few years ago -- well before the economic downturn -- I saw three bicycles for sale on the sidewalk outside our local Goodwill store.

They were all 10-speeds. One was a Schwinn Continental, the deluxe version of the Varsity. All were in working order, marked at $20 each. As the store was having a half-price sale, I paid only $10 for each bike.

Vintage bikes may not have been cool in 2005, when you could buy them for a song. But they certainly are now.

Not long ago, I went to unlock my homely black 1964 Raleigh 3-speed outside my workplace and saw a young busker in dreadlocks smiling in appreciation. "That is a classic," he said, nodding.

Another time I was riding my Raleigh, wearing a coat and tie, on a downtown street. As I passed a group protesting against nuclear power, one of them, a young man dressed as a zombie, looked at my Raleigh and said, "Sweet."

Millennials are cool with bartering, sharing and buying used items

Twenty-somethings' appreciation for old and used bicycles points to the distinct trend of younger people actively participating in collaborative consumption -- bartering and sharing rather than buying -- and buying used items. Older age groups, on the other hand, just aren't that into it.

Our Eco Pulse data tells us that millennials, roughly the under-30 generation, are the greenest age group in attitude but not necessarily in their buying behavior.

They are practical, brand-conscious and savvy about what goes into products. They care about the environment, but they are not necessarily an easy sell for green brands, in part because they are young and short of money.

Another new trend in our research, and another apparent contradiction, is that actives -- our greenest consumer segment, many of them higher income and older than 45 -- say they most often "buy used and/or repair items rather than buying new items."

Yet their preferences for living out their green values actually revolve around buying shiny new green products -- cars, appliances, sporting gear -- rather than sharing or buying pre-owned items.

In part, this is because they are older and have plenty of money. It also shows one way that they are quite different from the young folks.

In a New York Times Sunday Magazine essay on millennials, economics reporter Annie Lowrey presented a perspective on her generation that can help us get a handle on why millennials are inclined to take part in collaborative consumption.

She first thought back to her grandmother, raised during the Great Depression, and a member of the Greatest Generation, which saved rather than spent.

Lowrey then compared that experience to millennials, who have "adapted to our once-in-a-lifetime financial crisis -- the one that battered career prospects, drove hundreds of thousands into the shelter of schools or parents' basements and left hundreds of thousands of others in continual unemployment.

"Some early research suggests that we, too, have developed our own Depression-era fixation on money."

She describes the experiences of "the group that economists call younger millennials: the young adults who entered the job market in the wake of the recession, a period in which the unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds reached 17 percent, when graduate school competition grew more fierce and credit standards tightened.

"Many also saw their parents struggle through pay cuts, job losses or other economic disruption."

She concludes, "The millennials' relationship with money seems quite simple. They do not have a lot of it, and what they do have, they seem reluctant to spend. Millennials are buying fewer cars and houses, and despite their immersion in consumer culture, particularly electronics, they are not really spending beyond their limited means. Their credit card debt has declined, most likely because many millennials can't get a credit card, and in part because they know they cannot afford to spend now and pay back later."

So out in the world, millennials are using Craigslist to find roommates, embracing public transportation and avoiding big-ticket purchases.

They are buying and trading in used and refurbished laptops, video game systems and phones on the Internet. They are using car-sharing programs such as WeCar and Zip Car.

And, yes, they are getting around, in style, on vintage bikes.

This column originally appeared at Shelton Insights. To learn more about collaborative consumption and the convergence of sustainability and technology, be sure to check out VERGE SF Oct. 14-17.

Schwinn Traveler image by Fauxlaroid via Flickr