Millennials’ sustainability attitudes contrast with actions

By Kaitlin Schuler

Although millennials grew up surrounded by conversations of sustainability and conservation, do their actions now reflect what they have learned?

Jenni Corcoran, 22, grew up in Evergreen Park, Illinois, but now lives in a Bridgeport apartment with two roommates and works for AmeriCorps. Growing up, her parents pushed the habits of turning off lights and televisions when leaving the room, which has grown into a daily habit that she appreciates. However, she knows she’s lacking in some other conservation areas.

“I know the effects of so many cars on the road,” Corcoran said, “but sometimes I’m just lazy or in a rush and drive instead of walking or using public transit. I reuse and recycle but could be better.”

Energy and environment research firm Shelton Group conducted a study in 2013 focused partly on millennials and their attitudes toward energy conservation. What they found is that millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) are more likely to be “attitudinally” green but not practically green. So, while millennials would like things to change to sustain the environment for their decades ahead, many of their day-to-day practices do not align with their beliefs.

Nine millennials—including both college students and young professionals—were surveyed for this article, ranging in age from 21 to 28 years and living in places from Dallas, Texas, to Ann Arbor, Michigan. While they consider themselves environmentally conscious, all nine admit that the cost of energy plays a bigger role in their actions than the environmental impact of their energy usage.

“I think people care more about the financial cost than the environmental cost,” civil engineer Clare Curtin, 23, of Urbana, Illinois, said. “I’d say this is especially the case with electricity since people don’t know the carbon footprint related with it – is it generated from wind, water or coal? Other than the large, obvious ways to save money or energy, I don’t make conscious efforts.”

Phantom energy can account for 15% or more of the total electricity used by plugged in items that are not in use. (Kaitlin Schuler/MEDILL)

University of Michigan student Ally Kane, 22, said she has always thought she was environmentally conscious, but having to pay her own energy bills now  further heightens her awareness.

“Our house is very old and doesn’t heat very well,” she said, “so the heating bill can get up to $100 per person when it’s really cold. It was shocking when we got that first winter bill, so I definitely developed a newfound appreciation for energy conservation.”

In a 2014 report on millennials, the Glass Packaging Institute found that an overwhelming 83.2 percent either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement: “Little changes I make in my lifestyle can add up to big improvements for the environment.”

While this age group may think they believe in that statement, software engineer Clayton Beyers, 22, of Ann Arbor, has seen differently.

“As far as education about the effects goes, you can tell people what is going to happen, what the global effects are, which is what we do now,” Beyers said. “But people see themselves as just an insignificant part of the problem. Until we can get people to take the personal responsibility and realize that if everyone thinks they are insignificant then nothing ever changes, we continue along the path with no one thinking they are at fault.”

The GPI report also found that millennials have the highest level of intent to follow through on eco-friendly measures, but their actions don’t always match. It may seem positive that 82.9 percent say they are conscious of trying to save energy, but in fact, every other age group surveyed had higher percentages of conscious energy savers. The 46- to 55-year-old group—which includes Baby Boomers and some members of Generation X—came in with the highest number, at 91.5 percent.

“I try to recycle, conserve energy and avoid buying plastic products as much as I can,” Kane said, “but I’m afraid everyone working on my level won’t be nearly enough.”

Using a power strip with an on/off switch ensures that items plugged into the strip are truly off when not in use. (Kaitlin Schuler/MEDILL)

So, why is there such disconnect between what millennials think and how they act? Research right now cannot say, but Corcoran posed a suggestion.

“I think most people operate with the mindset, ‘what I don’t know won’t hurt me,’” Corcoran explained. “So we eat Greek yogurt and red meat and drive our cars around with only one person, and we don’t contemplate what the repercussions are of everyone making these decisions each day. Most people don’t consider the ecological effects of electricity use as much as they do other forms of pollution and ecological impact.”

The GPI study reported that the role of environmental issues in product choice is highest for the millennial group, at 56.1 percent. With this in mind, new products are hitting the market that aim for environmental health: recycled batteries from Energizer, electric bikes powered by batteries that store energy from the sun or wind, and a shower head that changes color when too much water is being used.

But with millennials just entering the workforce, and older millennials who have been struggling since the economic downturn in 2008, will these products make a difference?

“Obviously no one will buy the technology if it is more expensive and makes them feel crappy,” Beyers said. “We, in essence, need something like that that brings the guilt onto someone and makes them make an active change. Another alternative would be to have energy packages that give people a certain allotment of energy that you then use portions of, and could get refunded for anything you don’t use.”

Corcoran also offered a suggestion, saying, “Maybe if we had gauges on the wall at home that ticked up hour-by-hour, day-by-day with how much money we were spending and what the ecological effects were, then people would take bigger steps to conserve energy.”

Though many millennials are still in college and others new to the workforce, all nine surveyed still had costs of energy on their mind and how they will afford that, among other necessities. (Photo credit:

However, with the number of young people making less than $25,000 a year at the highest level since the 1990s and 44 percent of college graduates working in low-wage jobs that often don’t require a degree, there are doubts that spending more to help the environment is something that millennials can do at this time.

“Money puts it all in perspective,” Beyers said. “Definitely at this point in my life my energy usage awareness is because of the cost of energy at college houses. Money is the primary concern right now, so that’s what makes it so prominent in my mind.”

So, while folks may simply assume that millennials are earth-hugging hippies from the 1970s reincarnate, research proves otherwise. The cost of bills coupled with lower average wages for the age group motivates most to try to conserve energy, countering the impeding possibility of a “Mad Max: Fury Road” world. But millennials are still young, and they do show hope for the future, despite their lack of more convincing action.

“Of course I’m concerned about energy usage because of my bills,” Kane said, “but I’d like to be able to leave the planet in a state suitable for my kids, grandkids and generations beyond, too.”

Photo at top: Millennials have grown into young adults, but their actions as consumers do not reflect their “green” upbringing. (Photo credit: Optician Training)