Hippies vs. Hipsters: Who’s winning at sustainability?

by | Jul 5, 2018

We wanted to find out which generation is actually leading the sustainability charge: Boomers or Millennials? Millennials were long celebrated for being so green. And then they started getting older … and headlines started questioning their reputation. On the flip side, Boomers are sometimes congratulated for valuing efficiency, or credited for environmental conscientiousness attributed to guilt … and sometimes they’re overlooked when it comes to sustainability.

We took a look at our Shelton Eco Pulse data to settle the matter. We surveyed 2,000 Americans ages 18 and older across a variety of topics, and we compared the differences and similarities of Millennials ages 18-36 (“Hipsters”) and Boomers ages 53-71 (“Hippies”). Of course, we know all Boomers weren’t hippies, and all Millennials aren’t Hipsters, but we couldn’t resist the nicknames here. So, between the two, who’s winning?
Millennials think it.
Hipsters – aka Millennials – are winning when it comes to sustainability attitudes. Hipsters (72%) are more likely than Hippies (60%) to agree/strongly agree that “Global warming, or climate change, is occurring, and it is primarily caused by human activity.” And although the sustainable impact of a vegan diet is under consideration, many still believe it is the most sustainable eating option. Hipsters are also significantly more likely to have a positive reaction to the word “vegan” (36%) than Hippies (22%).
Boomers do it.

If you’re measuring by action, Hippies – aka Boomers – win.

Hippies are doing more energy conservation in their homes. Fewer Hippies (15%) than Hipsters (27%) say they have NOT purchased any energy-conserving home products, and 13% of Hipsters have NOT taken any water conservation steps at home, compared to only 7% of Hippies.

Out and about, Hippies are more likely to wear their green on their sleeves. Hippies are prouder of their Priuses (19% of Hipsters would be embarrassed of their Prius vs. 10% of Hippies) and more embarrassed (76%) if caught throwing trash out the window (only 59% of Hipsters would be).

There is one behavioral anomaly: Hipsters are buying into sustainability.

There is one sustainable-minded behavior that Hipsters are more likely to say they do than Hippies: purchasing. Forty-nine percent of Hipsters agree/strongly agree that buying/using eco-friendly products is an important part of their personal image, compared to only 31% of Hippies. Hipsters (48%) are significantly more likely than Hippies (32%) to say they had chosen – or stopped using – a product because of the environmental reputation of its manufacturer. We’ve written a whole report on why we think that is: “Millennials Are Crowdsourcing You.” The headline? Hipsters have found an easier way.

We see Hipsters “outsourcing” sustainability to companies and governments at a greater rate than Hippies. Hipsters (50%) are more likely than Hippies (33%) to agree strongly/very strongly that “energy conservation will work better if we price energy correctly through higher fuel taxes to make efficient energy use in people’s own interest.” Maybe it’s because Hipsters recognize what we see in the data – more of their age cohort aren’t likely to follow through with the sustainable action unless encouraged by legislation.

The social impact side of triple-bottom line sustainability, the people part of “people, planet, profit,” is also part and parcel to buying a better future. Hipsters (32%) are significantly more likely than Hippies (16%) to say that a company’s involvement in social issues or nonprofit partnerships and donations has a strong/very strong impact on their decision to buy its products. And Hipsters (35%) are also significantly more likely than Hippies (25%) to say they have chosen or stopped using a product based on a company’s involvement in social issues or its nonprofit partnerships or donations. We’ve recently taken a deep dive on social responsibility in general as well. You can learn more about social purpose’s role in giving brands a lift in our latest report “Brands & Stands: Social Purpose is the New Black.”

Why do we see the differences? 
Generational cohorts are a great tool for marketers to get a generalized sense of the whole population. What works about generational cohorts is that the majority within the group share enough in common that we see similar attitude and behavioral patterns – even though, of course, many people will say they don’t fit with the stereotype of their generation. To better understand these differences that we see between Millennials and Boomers, it’s helpful to think about what makes generations similar and different. The heart of the similarities and differences seem to be wrapped up in three aspects of an individual’s culture:

  1. Historical context
  2. Passed-down values of parents and community
  3. Life stage

If your target consumers (or you!) don’t feel generational stereotypes match, look beyond birth years and historical context. Dig into the birth years of parents to understand the values the individuals’ experienced in early life. Then take a look at where those individuals fall within life stages: Single? Double income, no kids? Married with kids? Empty nesters? The economist-demographer, Harry S. Dent, tells us that “peak spending” (maximum earning, spending and borrowing) typically starts with having kids. So, it’s possible that Hipsters are still just in an emerging life stage and can’t yet behave the way their attitudes and beliefs lead them. And perhaps as Hippies are past that point of “peak spending” – and maybe even peak keeping-up-with-the-Joneses – they are happy to hearken back to earlier years of doing something to make a difference.

About the Author

Susannah Enkema

Susannah Enkema

Susannah leads the research department in developing projects, and then in dissecting the findings and boiling them down to the most important insights that pave the way for smart marketing strategies and creative approaches. She works closely with the creative and account departments to offer ideas, support and information that help all departments meet client goals.

About the Author

Susannah Enkema

Susannah Enkema

Susannah leads the research department in developing projects, and then in dissecting the findings and boiling them down to the most important insights that pave the way for smart marketing strategies and creative approaches. She works closely with the creative and account departments to offer ideas, support and information that help all departments meet client goals.


  1. Interesting survey but what it really shows is that hipsters don’t know a lot and have not entered into a life stage where they have to make a choice that costs them something. For example, re-cycling does not save energy. Re-cycling consumes more energy than it saves. The reason people re-cycle is because it makes then feel good about themselves. If someone really wants to cut energy consumption they should cut the use of their air conditioner or other similar things. It is well known that people say things on surveys but live differently from what they say.

  2. I love the concept of this piece and the research you all do. Did you inquire as to whether or not individuals rented or owned their residence? If we measure sustainability by energy conservation at home, renters can be at a big disadvantage due to lack of control of efficiency of appliances, insulation, etc. I’d guess more of the 18-36 year olds rent versus own. Always interesting to see the different ways sustainable behavior is perceived and measured.


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Suzanne Shelton

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Suzanne is the voice and the vision of Shelton Group. Drawing on her extensive experience in energy and the environment – and 25+ years in the marketing and advertising industry – Suzanne provides high-level strategic insights for our clients and guidance for our research and creative departments. She regularly speaks at conferences around the country, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and the International Builders’ Show, and serves as a guest columnist for publications like Fast Company, Green Builder and GreenBiz.com.

Susannah Enkema

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Susannah directs our research team and plays a key role in extracting the nuggets of information that pave the way for recommended marketing strategies and creative approaches. Susannah has nearly two decades of market research and strategy experience, including her role as president of SE Consulting, where she led the services for the likes of DIY Network and the makers of GORE-TEX®.

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Aaron brings to the table more than 20 years of marketing leadership experience with premium consumer-facing brands. He came to Shelton Group by way of Malibu Boats, where, as Director of Global Marketing, he oversaw strategic marketing planning and execution for multiple product lines, with specific emphasis on social media and digital. Prior to that, he served as CMO for a leading daily fantasy sports operator, guiding it from startup to the industry’s third-ranked site.

Scot Case

Senior Consultant

A sustainability strategy consultant since 1993, Scot has served as non-profit leader, as a partner in an environmental marketing firm that he grew and sold, and as an executive in a multi-billion-dollar, international company. He has published dozens of articles and case studies, was co-author of the original “Sins of Greenwashing” study, testified before Congress, and been quoted on NPR, Good Morning America, CNN, The New York Times, Business Week, and the Wall Street Journal. Scot was also highlighted in an Emmy award-winning documentary on sustainable purchasing.

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Casey manages our relationships, growth and development with a specific group of clients that includes Environmental Defense Fund, Cotton LEADS and CertainTeed Insulation. She provides leadership and support for the account team members who manage the day-to-day processes for these clients. She contributes to strategic direction for each client and guides our creative efforts to ensure everything we do builds toward meeting – or exceeding – the client’s goals. Her ability to simultaneously see the big picture and pay close attention to the details helps her champion her clients’ needs and identify new growth opportunities for them.