You may have noticed the overwhelming Millennial trend of environmentalism. Farmers markets and Birkenstocks. Outdoor adventures and photogenic, reusable water bottles. “Millennials,” itself, has practically become its own buzzword, and new research continues to surface in an attempt to pin down the qualities that make up a Generation Y consumer. They’re more traveled and tattooed than any previous generation. They often “friend” their managers on Facebook. But arguably one of the most interesting takeaways to this mass collection of data is the influence that Gen Y can have, is having, and very likely will have on the future of sustainability.

Consider the context in which most Gen Y consumers grew up. They were the first to join a society where the existence of processes like climate change, agricultural runoff, and deforestation were no longer widely contested. They were the first to receive any kind of formal environmental education in the classroom. The first to have access to digital, sharable content at their fingertips. In the course of their lives, the conversation around sustainability has fundamentally shifted; instead of “Is this happening?” the question is, “How do we respond in light of this happening?” – and such an evolution has encouraged a consumer mindset that is both more aware and more action-oriented.

Photo courtesy of: http://popsop.com. 

Photo courtesy of: http://popsop.com. 

Research from Millennial Marketing has found that almost 50% of Gen Y is more willing to make a purchase from a company if it supports a cause, and 37% would be willing to pay more for said service or product. This growing consumer preference has already had resounding implications on businesses and their branding strategies. Take The Elephant Pants, for example, gaining considerable traction among high school and college students since its establishment in 2012. Or Timberland’s ongoing Earthkeeper campaign, started in 2008.

Currently wielding a spending power of over $200 billion, Gen Y members were often excluded in previous decades from being able to afford green products. But, as more and more Millennials have come into higher income-earning jobs, they have begun to influence the sustainability of the marketplace. Brands that are able to innovate and advocate for more than a profit will stand a better chance at attracting their loyalty and monetary commitment.

‘Sustainable is being championed as the new luxury.’

That’s not to say this will be easy; Gen Y has a documented reputation for desiring a higher caliber of good at a more palatable price (aka: inexpensive luxury). It’s a combination that has forced many companies into a position where they must reevaluate their production costs, efficiency, and quality if they want to cater to their emerging audience. With newer brands like Tesla and Sweet Green already offering popular, eco-conscious alternatives, “sustainable” is being championed as the new “luxury.”

In response, a number of established brands are now doing whatever is within their means to compete. Since the early 2000’s, McDonalds has strived to revamp its image, redesigning restaurants with earth green facades, introducing several organic menu options, and announcing its efforts to convert spent cooking oil into biodiesel fuel.

McDonald’s first green restaurant in Singapore. Photo courtesy of: http://inhabitat.com.   

McDonald’s first green restaurant in Singapore. Photo courtesy of: http://inhabitat.com.   

Similarly, H&M recently launched a global initiative to advocate for environmentalism in the textile industry. Since 2013, they have released an annual “Conscious Collection” and encouraged customers to recycle their old clothing in return for in-store, discount coupons.

 Photo courtesy of: http://www.carolineitc.com/blog. 

 Photo courtesy of: http://www.carolineitc.com/blog. 

How much of this stems from a genuine desire to be sustainable, and how much of it stems from a calculated marketing approach to maximize revenue, remains widely debated. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

What can be more unanimously agreed upon, though, is that these efforts, regardless of their motivation, mark a movement towards the direly necessary. Our dependence on sustainability is something that transcends the division between the public and private sectors - something that transcends generations themselves. Given how interconnected Gen Y is on a multitude of social media platforms, appealing to Millennials comes with the added benefit of Millennials then appealing, in mass, to one another. With their preferences and their spending habits, they have the opportunity to promote a more environmentally-conscious lifestyle to the generations that follow - and that’s something we should all get behind.

- Elise Gout, MSD Intern