Save the Planet Sustainable Ecology Concept

Younger generations know they’ve been had — and they’re mad. The older generations have not only let them down, they’ve dumped their problems on them. Older generations, particularly Boomers, have always clung to “hope,” the hope that tomorrow would be better than today. After all, this is the world they grew up in. The years following World War II were boom years of exponential opportunity and growth. If you could dream it, it could become yours. The middle class flourished.

Today, with Boomers aging at a fast pace, the world they are turning over to younger generations is not quite what Millennials had hoped. For hope is not really a plan, and Boomers have proved not to be very good stewards of the earth — at least from the vantage point of Millennials and Gen Z.

Sustainability is a defining concern for today’s consumers — with a younger, more diverse vanguard that attests to its staying power. It touches on powerful ideals around honoring our connections with nature and one another. It speaks to the hopes — and fears — we have for the world we leave to generations that follow us.

When interviewing Millennials during the qualitative phase of our Sustainability 2019 syndicated research, there was a palpable sense of fear and apprehension in their responses. A few were downright angry.

“We adults have to think beyond ourselves. We cannot keep kicking the environmental can down the road. We may have to sacrifice money and comfort.” — Millennial Male

Consumers act on this concern in various spheres of their lives, and most factor sustainability into their purchase decisions at some point. Younger consumers are more likely than older consumers to consistently factor sustainability into their purchase decisions. Almost one-third of Millennials (32%) and 25% of Gen Z consumers say they almost always/usually base purchase decisions on sustainability compared to 20% of Gen X and 17% of Boomers.

A Shifting Sense of Responsibility

Sustainability is a multidimensional topic that encompasses the environment, the family, the community and even the economy of today’s world. The scope of sustainability and its many issues is beyond the scope of what the average individual can wrap his or her head around. It’s far beyond any one person’s control.

For consumers, today’s sustainability challenges are more acute than ever before.

In the two years since The Hartman Group’s last sustainability study, media reports have documented mounting environmental and social challenges worldwide. Americans today are surrounded by stories tracing the impact of their consumption on society, the natural world and their own communities.

Whether it’s extreme weather events, worker treatment or plastics in food, the overarching narrative is one of systemic ills requiring urgent action. This story is not a new one, but it is far more acutely felt and consistently articulated today. Consumers we speak with are summoning specific images and events that shape their perspectives and sense of urgency. Complex issues like climate change with implications for our future are now connected to events in the present, both globally and at home.

Who, then, bears the most responsibility in making our world more sustainable?

For many years, consumers have considered individuals primarily responsible for sustainability in their roles as both citizens and consumers. However, recently a sea change seems to have occurred.

In two short years, consumers have shifted from considering individuals most responsible for sustainability to large companies and governments. More consumers consider sustainability the responsibility of government as the protector of both consumers and resources. Consumers continue to see companies as the cause of “the problem,” however, and therefore responsible for developing solutions.

We believe that consumers’ growing awareness and concern about large issues like ocean plastics and climate change has led to the sense that there is only so much that individuals can do to address global problems.

Our Sustainability 2019: Beyond Business as Usual report finds that when faced with actual and potential rollbacks of social and environmental protections, many American consumers feel fear and anxiety about the future. They view the current moment as one of inaction at a critical time.

“I really believe there will be some dire circumstances just in my child’s lifetime, and sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice having a child. We would need a philosophical change on how we live life, what it means to us, what makes us feel content.” — Millennial Female

Almost one-fourth (23%) of Millennials say they are willing to drastically change their lifestyle to live in a more environmentally sustainable way (compared to 13% of Gen X and 13% of Boomers).

While consumers seem to be more willing to change their lifestyles in the name of sustainability, an important shift has occurred in their recognition of the need for collective action and the corresponding limits of individual action.

Learn more about The Hartman Group’s Sustainability 2019 report: Beyond Business as Usual