We haven’t heard that much from Greta in a while. No doubt she’s taking a well-earned break from the media eye. Judging by our recent research however, she might want to come out of early retirement to goad her own generation into taking some action.
Gen Z and Millennials get a lot of air-time when it comes to concern for the environment. Theirs are the generations that know they’ll have to fight the battles of a climate legacy the rest of us are leaving them. It seems rather strange then, that some of their personal actions don’t – on the face of it - reflect this concern.
In terms of shopping behaviour, our survey shows sustainable actions by the younger generations lag far behind those of their parents and grandparents – whether it’s buying recyclable packaging, avoiding single use plastic, buying local, wonky fruit & veg, buying less meat or other similar actions. In fact, the only items 18-34 yr olds are more likely to buy, than other age groups are organic, vegan and vegetarian foods.
The surprising news doesn’t stop there; the younger the shopper, the fewer items they’re recycling: 55+ year olds recycle twice as many types of packaging as 18-24 year olds. This gap has widened significantly over the course of the last three years: these younger age groups are also less likely to be recycling at all.
And therein perhaps lies a clue. Our data also confirms the frequent reports of younger generations’ mental health suffering most as a result of the pandemic. These age groups are experiencing higher levels of anxiety: no fewer than 39% of 18-34s report feeling very or extremely anxious, compared with just 9% of over 65s. Coupled with feelings of isolation/ loneliness, they are also now more worried about losing their jobs against a background of inflation. We know anxiety constrains, that feelings of being overwhelmed fuel an inability to do more than the bare minimum. It's likely this is impacting on their ability to look further and act ‘green’.
No doubt the pandemic has exacerbated the tendency of younger generations to shop less sustainably and recycle less. It didn’t cause it, however. This is something we and others had already reported on pre-pandemic. What else is going on?
Our data show that Gen Z believe the government and manufacturers should take the most responsibility for protecting the environment. They place personal responsibility further down the list than do older cohorts, perhaps because recent events have suggested individual actions are relatively meaningless in the face of collective requirements (which have been, of late, driven by government).
What younger groups are more prepared to do is buy eco-friendly clothing and shoes… shopping as a form of activism. They are also less insistent on matching the prices of sustainable goods to standard ones, which makes them attractive customers. But the choices and options must be made easy.
When asked what would make them buy more eco-friendly products, 44% of 18-25 year olds need them to be ‘easier to find/ see in store’ (compared with 37% on average). ‘Knowing which stores sell these kinds of products’ is also more important for Gen Z (26% vs 24% average). This age group will also be more motivated to buy eco-friendly if they are given ‘more awareness of the positive impact of eco-friendly products’ to (36% compared with 24% average).
Younger groups aren’t as willing to expend the same levels of effort hunting for eco-friendly products or proactively learning how/ where to recycle something as older age groups. They need to be told why they should buy, where they should buy and what they should buy.
Signposting eco-friendly products in-store needs to be fool-proof: once motivated, this group of shoppers is more willing to pay for eco-products than older cohorts but needs the experience to be made easy.
Manufacturers, retailers and local government should not assume that all consumers and shoppers are sufficiently aware of the importance and impact of their individual choices and actions whilst shopping and recycling. Building levels of awareness and motivation both require further investment if the youngest generations’ green actions are to match their levels of concern.