According to the Corporate & College Collaborative for Sustainability (3CS), millennials—the demographic ranging from late teens to late twenties—will make up 50 percent of the workforce in just four years.  With a mission of leveraging the role of millennials as future leaders of more sustainable business, 3CS focuses on enhancing sustainability curriculum in undergraduate education.

Last week, BSR had the opportunity work with a group of millennials by leading a session at 3CS’ conference in New York. The format of the event was designed for interactive discussion—both in-person and via Twitter—and presentations set up a specific problem or question for roundtable discussions.  At the conclusion of each session, all participants sent their key takeaways to event’s Tumblr blog, where the virtual discussion continues.

For the BSR presentation, I focused on the business challenge of sustainable consumption, asking, “How can business play a leadership role in fostering more sustainable choices?”

Based on BSR’s sustainable consumption initiative, we looked at some promising consumer trends:

  • the growing evidence that consumer interest and awareness of sustainability issues is increasing
  • the impact of the slow economic recovery and how consumers are responding by prolonging product lifecycles
  • the increasing amount of social and environmental product information available to consumers through websites such as the Good Guide or Sourcemap
  • the proliferation of new collaborative consumption ventures such as Swaptree and Groupon, which allow consumers to get greater utility out of products

I noted that, while encouraging and indicative of a shift in awareness, these trends have not yet led to widespread behavior change. There are also a number of considerations related to how consumers make purchasing decisions beyond cost and quality, for example how consumer choice is influenced by sense of identity, social acceptability, ingrained habits, and local community norms.

I was impressed with the discussion that followed, which showed no lack of strong opinions as well as an expectation that more sustainable products and options should become mainstream. A few of the comments left on Tumblr include:

“Products should be obviously sustainable instead of needing to communicate how they are sustainable. This will help build brand loyalty and incorporate sustainability into the company’s ethos.”

“The most important point I took from the BSR presentation is how the internet and mobile applications have the potential to scale collaboration and transparency for a variety of goods and services. For me, transparency is the key aspect to sustainable consumption because, in order to truly understand the impacts that products have on the environment and social fabric of the world, we must have full information. This information then has the ability to move consumer preferences and thus provide incentive for companies to act sustainably, creating a positive feedback loop.”

What do you think? How can businesses better tap into consumer concerns and awareness to begin to fill in the behavior gap?