What Millennials Expect from Green Businesses

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."

Things that are hot, new and sexy as well vintage items and cool updates of fashions of yesteryear have huge appeal, she said. And if today's smart set latches onto an item and decides "this green product is really cool, let's make it blow up," according to Horn, it can be a golden moment. "That has happened in certain cases," she said. "Hopefully, it will continue to happen, there's also a bit of luck involved."

If today's green products, such as energy efficient lightbulbs, become as iconic as the Edison lightbulb, they have the potential of being an even greater influence on consumer choices, she added. "That's thinking in terms of multi-generations, and you just have to have hope and faith that these green products teach our children well," she said.

On Takin' It to the Streets

"One of the things that I don't get, having grown up in the era of Vietnam and social injustice and ultimately through climate change, why aren't young people just more pissed?" Makower asked. "I don't know why people aren't marching in the streets on climate change because that is your future. Why aren't people angry? Is it just too abstract? Are you just too heads-down doing thumb exercises?"

"Certainly, the fact that it's such a global, interconnected and multi-faceted problem, you can't just say, 'Oh, there's this clear injustice,' like there was in the Civil Rights Movement," Horn responded. "In climate change, there's a lot of gray area ... People should be taking to the streets and saying, 'Hey, climate change is real, this is an immediate problem, we need an immediate solution.' Yeah, I don't know why [they don't] ...

"My biggest question is why aren't people thinking more about the way they are interacting with the planet, saying 'We are going to pass on a worse planet than was given to us. We might not have clean air or we might not have clean water...'

"So that, I think, is what people should be taking to the streets about. And I don't know why [they aren't], why aren't we?"  

On Whether Millennials are More Open to Change

"With earlier generations, they really wanted change without changing anything they were doing. It strikes me that you guys are more open to some radical new thinking," Makower noted, pointing to the popularity of carsharing. "How can business help you do what you think needs to be done on this planet?"

To the first comment, Horn replied: "I think it's just literally a function of age. I'm sure when you were my age, you looked at your parents and said, 'Wow, you guys won't change.' "

To the question, she said: "I think there's a call for business to understand, as they gain more power, politically, socially and obviously economically, there's a responsibility to behave like a good citizen and enforce the public good. Coupled with that is the idea of transparency. My generation, our lives are so transparent, we post the most intimate details of our public life online. Because we are so transparent we don't understand any other way of being."

On Corporate Trust and Responsibility

"What do you want to know about companies that would make them more transparent?" Makower asked.

"Spending, executive salaries, mission statements, general philosophy of business, goals -- I think it varies from company to company, whether you are selling a service or selling a product," Horn said. "If you're selling a product, where did it come from, is it made in the United States, are you thinking about waste, how are you evaluating the morality of your own practices in terms of the products that we buy?"

"What does it take for you to trust a company," Makower asked, following up. "What do you need to know about a company on a high level to think, 'Hey, I like these guys,' ?"

"You could extrapolate to people at large, that's a massive ethical question: When is someone -- when is something -- good?" Horn responded. "Is it your intention, is it the outcome? What if you intend to do good and end up just completely failing?

"I have this conversation with my father a lot. [He is former Warner Brothers exec Alan F. Horn.] He always goes back to intention and as I think about it more, I agree with him more and more. There's the intention, and the desire to implement the intention, and then holding yourself responsible on whether you did it or not. I think that's pretty much all you can ask of people, to be aware of what they can and cannot do -- people and companies -- to be aware of what your options are and try to do the best thing."

Top photo of Cody Horn by Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com.