Millennials are greener! Really?

by Sep 5, 2013

A myth-busting analysis of Millennial attitudes and behaviors

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 (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 like, “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% of them think it is occurring and primarily caused by humans (compared to 58% of Americans overall) – other attitudes and behaviors don’t synch 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 do to change their daily habits and purchase practices to positively impact the environment.

As noted, their average number of green habits/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% vs. 51%
  • Bring my own bag(s) when I go shopping: 30% vs. 38%
  • Drink water from reusable containers instead of disposable plastic bottles: 40% vs. 43%
  • Avoid letting the water run while washing dishes, brushing teeth, etc.: 40% vs. 49%
  • Always unplug things/turn off power strips: 28% vs. 33%

And while they are more likely to research issues/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/chemical avoidance and are not more knowledgeable about indoor air quality and VOCs or potential carcinogens in personal care products.

Additionally, Millennials are not one big, sustainable, homogenous group. We see some big differences between younger (18–24) and older (25–33) Millennials. Some examples:

  • While both age groups shop more often than all others, 25–33s are more concerned about saving money and reducing costs; 18–24s 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, 18–24s are much more internationally focused, e.g., they’re more worried about worldwide population growth and more committed to international environmental and health and human service initiatives.
  • 18–24s are significantly more interested in 100% natural ingredients or 100% organic foods; 25–33s are much less worried about GMOs.
  • 25–33s are much more impressed by product recyclability and recycled content, while 18–24s expect companies to offer take-back or trade-up programs.

There are a few things, though, that do synch with the stereotype of the “green Millennial”:

Buying/using green products is a more important part of the Millennial public image than for all other age groups (40% vs. 33% 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 under 20%), more of them are tackling big, game-changing sustainable behaviors than Americans, overall:

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

And more Millennials say they are likely to participate in alternatives to ownership in the near future (34% vs. 25%). 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.

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About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.


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