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Speaking Sustainably

Do millennials worry more, but do less?

The most sustainably minded generation is the least likely to take simple environmental actions. "Reverse crowdsourcing" might ease their existential woes.

Millennials are savvy. They get how the world works and want to leverage their collective power to solve global problems. Yet Shelton Group’s latest research report explains how the most sustainably minded generation also can be one of the least likely to participate in simple daily actions that promote sustainability.

Since they represent the largest living generation of Americans (estimated at 29 percent, according to the Census Bureau), any discussion of millennials runs the risk of over-simplifying and under-rating them. How do you accurately generalize about such a big proportion of the population?

We recognize millennials as being much like previous generations, just with better technology and maybe a little more moxie. Millennials were lucky enough to be born at a point in history when science and technology transformed everyday society. Remember when phones went to a building instead of a person? For millennials, cell phones always have reached people, not places. Millennials’ ever-present tech, from cell phones to social media, has allowed them to do what every generation has wanted to do: expand connections with others.

Millennials have figured out how to "reverse crowdsource" brands and companies to get done what they can’t get done by themselves. In other words, their form of environmental activism is not to take a lot of individual actions. Instead, it’s to consciously, conspicuously buy from brands and companies that they deem are doing the right thing for the environment.

Millennials have figured out how to 'reverse crowdsource' brands and companies to get done what they can’t get done by themselves.

"Millennials see corporations as having the power of many — the ultimate crowd," said Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of Shelton Group. "Millennials see spending money with these companies as another form of activism. It’s crowdsourcing by consumerism."

This is a real opportunity for brands and companies to do some good while garnering the loyalty of the largest age cohort. Millennials get that big brands have the leverage of sheer size that they lack. And while 72 percent remain neutral to skeptical about the information brands say to them about the environment, 43 percent could name a brand they trust when it comes to what brands do for the environment and social or business practices.

But here is the paradox. They aren’t likely to do the little things associated with sustainability — bringing their own bags shopping or adjusting the thermostat. Nearly 39 percent of millennials who responded to the survey said that their worst environmental habit was wasting food, while a quarter admitted to not recycling.

Shelton Group’s 2016 EcoPulse study found that millennials fall behind others when it comes to the easier green activities: Only 33 percent of millennials say they adjust the thermostat to save energy (vs. 48 percent of all Americans) and just 34 percent recycled paper and aluminum cans (vs. 46 percent overall). They have bigger ideas for a bigger impact.

That doesn’t mean millennials don’t care about the environment. In fact, they worry more about climate change than other Americans: The survey found 76 percent of millennials say they are "somewhat to extremely concerned about the impact climate change will have on their quality of life during their lifetimes." And 82 percent say they’re worried about the impact of climate change on their children’s quality of life.

By comparison, only 51 percent of the general population said they were anxious about climate change.

"Millennials are concerned about the environment, but many feel the problems are too big for them to tackle as individuals," Shelton said. "So they’re looking to corporations to take action."

Nearly two-thirds of millennials look to companies to solve problems they feel they can’t address (or would rather not have to). Millennials are crowdsourcing you to accomplish their sustainability goals. If they truly trust your environmental and social or business practices, 90 percent say they will buy from your brand, and 95 percent will recommend your brand to their friends.

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