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Speaking Sustainably

Millennials may not be as green as you think

You've been hearing the truisms for years: Millennials are more focused on sustainability. Millennials prioritize buying greener products. Millennials care more about the environment.

The truth is, a lot of the "common knowledge" about this age group -- those born between 1980 and 2000 -- isn't accurate. We've been reporting for years in our Pulse studies that millennials are more attitudinally green than behaviorally green.

But we've softened this finding with mitigating explanations: "Most of them aren't homeowners yet -- so they don't have a need for a lot of green home improvement products." Or: "Their economic circumstances limit their ability to buy a lot of green products, since those products often cost more."

Maybe we've cut them too much slack. Here's the unvarnished truth about millennials from our 2013 Eco Pulse study.

While they are firm believers in climate change -- 66 percent think it is occurring and primarily caused by humans, compared to 58 percent of Americans overall -- other attitudes and behaviors don't sync with this belief. For example, when given a choice, they don't select the environment over their personal comfort or convenience -- and 18- to 24-year-olds are particularly comfort-focused. They also don't consider themselves to be more personally responsible than other age groups to change their daily habits and purchase practices to positively affect the environment.

As noted, their average number of green habits and purchases falls far behind the average for Americans overall: 11.4 vs. 12.6. And yes, the biggest gaps are in the home improvement categories. However, millennials are slackers when it comes to a lot of everyday activities that cost nothing. Here's how they stack up to Americans overall:

• Always recycle aluminum cans, plastic bottles, newspapers and cardboard: 33 percent vs. 51 percent
• Bring my own bag(s) when I go shopping: 30 percent vs. 38 percent
• Drink water from reusable containers instead of disposable plastic bottles: 40 percent vs. 43 percent
• Avoid letting the water run, such as when washing dishes or brushing teeth: 40 percent vs. 49 percent
• Always unplug things and turn off power strips: 28 percent vs. 33 percent

And while they are more likely to research issues and products on the Internet than other age groups, they are not more knowledgeable about many sustainability issues. For example, they are not particularly driven by health concerns or chemical avoidance and are not more knowledgeable about indoor air quality and VOCs or potential carcinogens in personal care products.

A fractured group

Additionally, millennials are not one big, sustainable, homogenous group. We see some big differences between younger millennials (ages 18 to 24) and older millennials (ages 25 to 33).

For example, while both age groups shop more often than all others, 25- to 33-year-olds are more concerned about saving money and reducing costs, while 18- to 24-year-olds are much more likely to say they regularly pay more for brands they like.

While both are significantly less dazzled by "Made in the USA" claims than older Americans, 18- to 24-year-olds are much more internationally focused, including being more worried about worldwide population growth and more committed to international environmental and health and human service initiatives.

Eighteen- to 24-year-olds are significantly more interested in 100 percent natural ingredients or 100 percent organic foods, while 25- to 33-year-olds are much less worried about GMOs.

Twenty-five- to 33-year-olds are much more impressed by product recyclability and recycled content, while 18- to 24-year-olds expect companies to offer take-back or trade-up programs.

The green millennial

A few things, though, do sync with the stereotype of the green millennial:

Buying and using green products is a more important part of the millennial public image than for all other age groups (40 percent vs. 33 percent overall). This indicates that sustainability is a cultural norm for them, and cultural norming is, perhaps, the most powerful force in affecting behavior long-term.

And while the numbers are small -- generally less than 20 percent -- more of them are tackling big, game-changing sustainable behaviors than Americans overall:

• Growing much of their own food (21 percent vs. 17 percent)
• Regularly making all-natural green cleaning products (16 percent vs. 13 percent)
Bartering or swapping rather than buying (15 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds vs. 9 percent overall)
• Participating in a borrowing membership, such as Zipcar, rather than buying (9 percent vs. 5 percent)
• Installing solar, geothermal or wind generation (8 percent vs. 4 percent)

And more millennials say they are likely to participate in alternatives to ownership in the near future (34 percent vs. 25 percent). All in all, millennials have a long way to go to fully integrate their beliefs and actions, and they still have a lot to learn about sustainability.

However, what they're focused on is telling. They seem to be developing a more inclusive worldview and higher standards, and they're trying more disruptive behaviors. Smart marketers should take heed.

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.

Girl with recycling sign image by xavier gallego morell via Shutterstock.

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