Why millennials are driving the sustainable brand revolution

Young adults - or millennials - are a rapidly growing consumer market and source of talent for companies. If brands want this influential demographic on board, they will have to be more sustainable and communicate a strong social purpose, say experts.

Millennials  are more environmentally and socially conscious than older generations, and if companies want to cash in on their rising purchasing power or retain young, talented workers, they have to step up on environmental and social responsibility, said industry experts on Monday.   

Speaking at the Sustainable Brands Sydney conference at the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth hotel, Ben Peacock, founder of sustainability and innovation company Republic of Everyone, noted that many millennial — that is, people born between the early 1980s and 2000 - prioritise purpose and sustainability more than financial rewards. 

If companies fail to prove that they are sincere about environmental and social sustainability, they risk alienating this group both as customers and employees, said Peacock.  

Young adults also influence the purchasing habits of their families, he added, citing a study by research firm Mobium Group, which found that out of 350 parents of Australian millennials polled, 62 per cent said their children regularly discussed environmental issues at home, and 40 per cent of them had purchased a different product because their children urged them to do so for environmental or health reasons.

Research also shows that millennials “will go out of their way to work for a company which shows a genuine commitment to corporate social responsibility, environment, and sustainability,” noted Peacock.  

As a recent study by consulting firm Deloitte found, about 56 per cent of 7,700 millennials from 29 countries polled ruled out ever working for a particular organisation because they did not agree with its values. Close to half of them had chosen not to undertake a work task because it went against their personal values as well.  

“This generation doesn’t want to work for a system that doesn’t work for them,” said Peacock, referring to challenges such as rising inequality, climate change, and a lack of affordable housing, which disproportionately affect young people.

“Current workers are more engaged and stay longer in a company that shows real purpose and commitment to reducing its impact on the world,” he added. 

Sally Hill, founder of sustainable events agency Wildwon, added that a company has to prove it is sincere about its efforts, because millennials are very perceptive to marketing gimmicks, and quick to reject them.  

Sometimes, this may mean launching an initiative that does not try to sell something, but instead just focuses on doing something that is genuinely about a purpose, she noted.  

The growing influence of millennials is just one of the many trends putting pressure on businesses and brands to be more sustainable, said experts at the conference, which was attended by more than 200 people. 

It’s critical to transform the key systems we rely on and to involve everyone in the value chain, from the producers and manufacturers right through to the end-user, all working together towards a common aim.

Sally Uren, chief executive officer, Forum for the Future

Sally Uren, executive director of sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future, noted in a keynote address that businesses also have to contend with climate change and resource scarcity, growing scrutiny into company supply chains, and an increasing concern about the way businesses influence human health and well being, among other things. 

While these factors will push companies to be more resource efficient, pay higher wages, and change their product offerings to meet consumer demand for healthier products, they also present new opportunities for brands, said Uren. 

For example, a series of exposés by non-profit organisations and the media about slavery and human rights violations in Southeast Asia’s fish, prawn, and shrimp farms — these commodities were shipped to consumers worldwide — highlighted how murky supply chains could pose a reputational risk to companies, noted Uren. 

Conversely, “hyper-transparency is a way of bringing producers into the stories you tell about your brand”, she shared, adding that one company which has done this successfully is Tetley Tea, a brand of Indian firm Tata Global Beverages. 

The firm in 2012 launched a social media campaign called Farmers First Hand, where smallholder farmers and tea estate workers posted about their daily lives, work, and cultural events on a Facebook page

The campaign has garnered more than 700,000 fans, allowing Tetley to showcase its efforts to grow tea in a sustainable and ethical manner 

Out of all the trends businesses will have to keep up with, Uren noted that one of the most major developments is the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 targets adopted by global leaders last September. 

These goals include fighting climate change, promoting inclusive economic growth, and promoting responsible consumption, among other things.  

“Use these as a framing device for your business strategy,” Uren urged those in the audience, who were mainly brand managers, marketers, and sustainability professionals.  

“It’s critical to transform the key systems we rely on and to involve everyone in the value chain, from the producers and manufacturers right through to the end-user, all working together towards a common aim,” she added. 

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