Speaking Sustainably

My not-so-green millennial

Oblivious young woman staring at phone in a park
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Considering oneself a champion of the environment is not the same as being one.

We’ve all heard the stereotype: Millennials really care about the environment. We’ve seen studies such as the one published by Morgan Stanley, which finds millennials are three times more likely to seek employment with a company because of its stance on social and/or governmental issues and twice as likely to invest in funds that target specific social or environmental outcomes.

We know what they think but what do millennials really do?

As both the mother of a millennial and a researcher tracking self-reported sustainable behaviors over the past 10 years, I’ll tell you what the answer is: Not as much as you might think.

Millennials talk the talk

Now, my daughter is no slouch. (Forgive a moment of bragging before I throw her under the bus.) She’s graduating in the top 5 percent of her class and is a member of the National Honor Society. In addition, she was named “Student of the Year for Community Involvement” by our local Optimist Club.

Yet, after years of coaching and cajoling, I can’t get her to put her aluminum cans into the recycling bin (at least they are deposited on the kitchen counter, rather than the trash can). And she never turns off the lights as she leaves a room. But if she hears someone say they don’t believe in climate change, she’ll quickly climb up on her soapbox and set them straight.

And that’s the critical point. Millennials are very attitudinally green, but unlike other age cohorts, those attitudes often don’t translate into action.

But do they walk the walk?

I wrote a myth-busting post on this topic back in 2013, and was curious to see if our most recent Eco Pulse study data might show improvement. But the trends are consistent. Here are a few stats.

    Millennials say that a company’s environmental reputation has a strong/very strong impact on their decisions to buy products (35 percent vs. 30 percent of the overall population), and 40 percent of them say they’ve actually chosen one product over another or stopped purchasing a product based on the environmental record of its manufacturer (compared to 33 percent of the total population).

    Sixty-eight percent of them agree that climate change is occurring and primarily caused by human activity. Yet they report the lowest number of sustainable behaviors: 9.7, compared to 10.8 for Gen X, 12.9 for boomers, and 14.2 for seniors. As I found in 2013, that lower average doesn’t just stem from being renters rather than homeowners. They fall short on basic behaviors such as adjusting the thermostat, recycling and conserving water.

    Encouraging signs

    A few stats give me hope: Millennials are more aggressively pursuing solar and other renewable energy alternatives, embracing more sustainable transportation behaviors and exploring alternatives to ownership. (Whether these are economically driven choices that will change as they become more affluent remains to be seen.)

    Interestingly, millennials’ behavioral drivers are somewhat different from their parents’ and grandparents’. They, like people of all ages, are primarily driven by their personal health. But while they say they are worried about climate change, they are actually less driven by natural resource protection and environmentalism, and more driven by a desire for higher quality and the protection of both animal and human rights than previous generations.

    And while they might be less likely than other age groups to recycle or turn off the tap as they brush, they, even more firmly, expect the companies they buy from to recycle and conserve water.

    Making green easy

    This is a key to understanding millennials: Many moms and dads have stayed intimately involved in their affairs (just a text message away) and swooped in to solve problems longer than any previous generation — hence the term “helicopter parents.” So there’s a way in which they expect the companies they buy from to fill that parental role: “Just take care of it for me, so I don’t have to.”

    To be fair, some of their behaviors (staying in school longer; delaying marriage and home ownership) have been driven by the economy and a dismal job market during the Great Recession, but a “do it for me” mindset seemingly has bled into many millennial lifestyles.

    Don’t get me wrong — they are incredibly innovative and entrepreneurial, and I fully expect my daughter’s generation to solve much of the mess their parents and grandparents have made through new technologies. But I suspect that the underlying motivation behind many of those activities will be, “Let’s solve this so that we don’t have to change our behavior.”

    This article first appeared at Shelton Insights.