Generation Green

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They’ve grown up with Earth Day celebrations their entire lives. Their “three Rs” aren’t reading, writing, and ’rithmetic, but rather reduce, reuse, and recycle. And yet, are the members of Generation Y as environmentally conscious as we—or they—think they are? Sure, these Americans—often called Millennials—may be sporting sustainable slip-ons from Toms Shoes and snacking on Annie’s Homegrown burritos, but “going green” may simply be the result of an engrained culture, as opposed to an authentic passion for environmental activism. 

According to a report by Pew Research, most Millennials recycle and try to buy green products, but perhaps no more than their older counterparts do. In fact, the report, “The Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change,” shows that—compared to Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation—Millennials may be the least likely to recycle. (For more on the differences between generations, see CRM’s November 2008 special report, “Generation Spending.”)

According to the Pew report, roughly 69 percent of Millennials say they recycle paper, plastic, or glass at home, compared to 77 percent of Gen Xers. The report does note that the disparity is probably more an outcome of life-cycle circumstances than a measure of environmental commitment. (Youngsters are less likely to own a home, for example.) 

Another study, though, offers a positive view of the younger generation’s green tendencies. “The Beliefs and Values of Teens and Tweens Today,” published by Harris Interactive and The Girl Scouts Research Institute, underscores the presence of socially responsible behaviors. The report suggests that, despite media portrayals of youngters as “irresponsible, lazy, and morally corrupt,” Millennials are, in fact, “responsible to themselves and others, and value being involved.”

According to the firm Information Research, Inc. (IRI), Millennials represent an emerging $54.3 billion opportunity—but they’re far removed from the paradigm of the typical consumer. Microsegmentation will enable retailers and manufacturers to take advantage, says IRI director Brent Baarda, but understanding Millennials’ propensity to buy and their behavioral patterns is essential. 

With income levels far below those of Boomers and Gen Xers, Millennials are known to pull back their spending on “indulgent” purchases and even necessities in times of financial crunch—and even more so in the midst of a recession. “Millennials are just as interested and motivated in green products [as older generations], but what we’ve seen is shoppers have hit the pause button,” Baarda says. “When the country recovers, I would expect many [will] revert back to [their] organic-eating lifestyles, even though those products will be more expensive.” 

Still, even as they tighten their purse strings, Millennials are paying more attention and taking part in the green movement in other ways. For example, enrollment for degrees in environmental studies is on the rise, according to The New York Times. At Iowa State University, more than 150 students were in the environmental studies and environmental science programs in 2009, up from 99 in 2003. 

For Stanford University student Travis Urban, a manager of the university’s student store, launching a green campaign was really a no-brainer. Stanford implemented a paperless receipt system last year that sends invoices to customers via email, thereby reducing paper consumption. The biggest reactions, Urban says, seem to be from nonstudents and even parents of students, who don’t necessarily understand the point of eliminating paper receipts. Students, though, seem to have taken the change in stride. “The people who are younger and are used to email, [they’re in favor of] the idea,” Urban says. “The older generation—they aren’t as receptive to it.” (See “Saving Trees, One T-Shirt at a Time,” for more on the Stanford case study.)

Millennials display their relative unflappability in other ways, as well. Baarda says youngsters watch less television than their older counterparts do, and—plugged into social networks and nontraditional media—are simply not as receptive to the marketing campaigns of yesteryear. Some retailers are catching on, and recent books—such as Generation Green: The Ultimate Teen Guide to Living an Eco-Friendly Life and MySpace/OurPlanet: Change Is Possible—further illustrate the possibilities present among the younger and greener generation. 

At natural-goods store Whole Foods, a five-year-old program, Teens Turning Green, encourages youngsters to transform the world by focusing on daily life—on campus and in their communities—“investigating and eliminating toxic exposures that threaten our health and the environment.” Activities have included an initiative called Project Green Dorm as well as a two-day green-teen leadership conference. The program has even created a line of ecofriendly beauty products—which Whole Foods now sells in its stores—all in pursuit of an “ecofabulous” image. 

“Youth exhibit a strong sense of community and global responsibility in their attitudes toward environmental stewardship,” the Harris Interactive report states. “Fully 78 percent of seventh- to 12th-graders—girls and boys across all age groups—agree that everyone has a responsibility to take care of the environment.” 

Sounds like the older generations have some greening up to do.

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