On Earth Day, many engage in activities to demonstrate their support for environmental protection. However, only about half of millennials, ages 21-34, say they are responsive to sustainability actions, according to a survey done by Nielsen Global Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility.
A Pew Research poll on individuals, divided by generations who consider themselves to be “environmentalists”, found that only 32 percent of millennials go with the description. Their percentage is over 10 percentage points less than older generations.
“I think the biggest obstacle is a combination of habit and convenience,” Jamie Adams, co-host of the SUNY Sustainability Association, a conference working to increase sustainability at SUNY schools. “No one goes out of their way to be environmentally un-friendly.”
Adams said that she thinks that overcoming the issue is a paradigm shift driven by the demands of the people, which isn’t simple.
“Individuals can make empowering choices,” Adams said. “Buy the large carton of yogurt and dish it out, rather than buying the cups – use glass or plastic containers to pack a lunch rather than single use ziploc bags.”
Shelton GRP, the nation’s leading marketing communications firm focused exclusively on energy and the environment, according to its website, reported in its Pulse studies that millennials are more attitudinally green than behaviorally green.
An Eco-Pulse survey done by Shelton GRP found that although many millennials may not be homeowners yet or might not buy as many green products due to their economic circumstances, millennials actually lack in everyday “green” activities that have no cost.
The study found that 33% of millennials always recycle aluminum cans, plastic bottles, newspapers and cardboard versus 51% of Americans overall. When it comes to unplugging and turning off power strips, only 28% of millennials engage in saving power versus the 33% of general Americans.
Ethan Kelly, a sophomore computer science major, said that anybody who lives in a somewhat populated area can’t claim too much about being environmentally friendly.
Kelly said that it really depends on where someone goes to judge if people around are environmentally conscious.
“Here on our college campus where it’s really more of a thing that’s preached to a lot of people, I feel like it is something that people will be more likely to practice, but in general I’m not too sure,” Kelly said.
Although the study shows that millennials are more likely to research sustainability topics online, they are not more knowledgeable about many sustainability issues.
“I think that if the world really understood what plastics are and how they are created, that could potentially drive a massive change in behavior,” Adams said. “Plastic is one of the most universally useful materials we’ve created. It’s flexible, hard to break, moldable and literally lasts forever.”
Adams explained how plastic is used in everyday common items like to package kids toys, carry groceries or to wrap around another plastic bottle as a label.
“Plastic isn’t evil, but it should be treated with respect,” Adams said. “ It’s made from limited natural resources and poses a huge threat to our current environment – not just the one in the vague future.”
Diana Hagedorn, a sophomore economics major, said that she wishes she could be more environmentally conscious and wants to change her recycling habits.
“I feel like now that we’re beginning to see the repercussions of our actions we are becoming more aware of it but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are changing our actions accordingly,” Hagedorn said.
The millennial public image consists mostly of buying and using green products as opposed to all other age groups (40% vs. 33% overall). Shelton GRP said that this public image indicates that sustainability is a cultural norm for Millennials, which is the most powerful force in affecting behavior long-term.
Harold Quigley, a professor in environmental design, policy and planning, said that he believes the influence of money in the political system is a barrier for people to be environmentally conscious.
“The mass media are increasingly captive to their corporate sponsors,” Quigley said. “As a result, the public is misinformed.”
Matthew Stepp, director of policy at PennFuture and active in millennial generation policy and advocacy issues, believes the opposite of the given data. He said that historically, the main focus of environmentalism has been about avoiding the consumption of products that pollute, like electricity from fossil fuels and harsh chemicals.
“While this is important, millennials are providing perspective on how to develop and offer alternative technologies that don’t pollute,” Stepp said. “So rather than just stop consuming, they’re showing we can develop smarter, more environmentally friendly technologies.”
Millennials, according to researchers at Shelton GRP, must learn more about sustainability before they can move forward to integrate their beliefs and actions.
Quigley said that sustainability can be achieved, however, not only through technological change.
“It must be accompanied by a fundamental change in our economic and political systems,” Quigley said. “It is an issue of behavior and morality”.