Sustainability for generations

The first article in Earth Matters looks to decode the meaning of sustainability across generations, from Seniors and Boomers (age 55+) and Gen X (age 39-54), to Millennials/Gen Y (age 25-38), Gen Z (age 10-24) and Gen Alpha (age 0-9). For each one, we look at how brands can and must work with all consumer cohorts to enact positive change.

Part of the complexity of sustainability is that it means different things to different people from different generations and different backgrounds. This is due to a number of external factors that influence their priorities and behaviour, including social, economic and environmental events that happen(ed) in their lifetime. With each generation, there are challenges and opportunities for brands to use targeted messages, initiatives, channels and tone of voice to connect with their consumer base and gain their attention, to ensure their efforts and sustainability messages resonate. Although most of the consequences of staying unsustainable will bleed into the lifetimes of the younger and future generations, this does not mean that Seniors, Baby Boomers and Gen X should (or wish to) remain mere bystanders.

The shift in mindset and consumption behaviour can and must happen across all generations, and brands can help by finding the right approach to inspire, motivate and enable change among all consumer groups.

Seniors and Boomers (age 55+): Rooting for the future.

2.5 minute read

Let’s start at the (supposed) root of the problem, the older generations. They are often portrayed as the carefree beneficiaries of fossil-fuelled prosperity, who mortgaged the future by accumulating wealth recklessly, selfishly and unsustainably. But this assessment is not entirely fair. As knowledge of sustainability issues grows and reaches us all, Seniors and Boomers can be motivated to make positive behaviour changes… Provided they are made to feel a valued and valuable part of the effort.

They have already started to demonstrate their commitment to the cause: in recent surveys, 82% of Europeans over 60 said that brands should offer more environmentally-friendly forms of packaging,[1] and a sizeable 40% of US Boomers claim they are happy to pay more for goods produced sustainably.[2] So how can brands connect with them? After all, making the world a better place is part of this generation’s DNA: they came of age after the darkness of the Second World War, fighting for causes such as feminism and Civil Rights.

The key is to make the offer relevant to their lifestyle, to keep it single-minded and honest, and to thereby reignite their passion for positive change in a way that suits who they are today.

Leverage a parallel cause
Neal’s Yard embeds its overall ethical and eco-conscious ethos in a positive ageing narrative to appeal to Seniors and Boomers with a targeted campaign and product range. It celebrates the beauty of women of all ages and empowers them to choose a high quality product and a brand that values them and the difference they can make to the wellbeing of the planet.

Neal’s Yard Remedies, The Age Well Revolution

Choose eco-retirement

Located in New Zealand, Pacific Lakes provides an eco-friendly sanctuary for retirees. The homes are designed and built to provide comfort while also seamlessly integrating sustainable systems and practices into residents’ lifestyles. The complex is powered by renewable energy and advanced water management, and residents are encouraged to use electric vehicles, recycle and spend time outdoors growing their own produce and connecting with nature.

Pacific Lakes Village, Sustainable Retirement Home

Play the nostalgia car(d)

In the 60s, the iconic Volkswagen Beetle underwent a curious transformation: people dismantled its exteriors, replacing them with barebones bodies. Thus was born the equally iconic Dune Buggy. The sand crawler is now coming back as an electric vehicle that is a modern interpretation of the classic. The refresh is a nostalgia-fuelled incentive for consumers who loved the original model to switch to electric, to relive and make new memories more sustainably.

Volkswagen, Electric Dune-Buggy

Seniors and Boomers are grounded, dedicated and generally more brand loyal than their younger counterparts. Brands that offer them a targeted, considered product or service with clear sustainable benefits (instead of dismissing them through a “the damage is done” attitude) enter into a long-term partnership that is as good for the planet as it is for profit.

OK, Boomer (and Senior). Show us what you’ve got 😉

Gen X (age 39-54): Family-friendly sustainability.

3 minute read

Gen X comprises a group of consumers that is often ignored by brands within and beyond the sustainability sphere. And yet, as parents and young grandparents, they are effectively the connective tissue in family structures, and are perfectly placed to bring about change across the generations that precede and follow them. In fact, Gen X’s concerns around the people and planet often centre around how an unsustainable world will impact their children’s futures. Growing up in an age of uncertainty (from the divorce boom to the Cold War) translates into a desire for stability for themselves and their loved ones. Hence why, for example, more Gen X consumers (61%) tend to always consider sustainability factors when selecting an investment product,[3] and climate change is what Australia’s Gen X worry about the most.[4]

Therefore, a good place for brands and Gen X to work together for a more sustainable future is at the hub and heart of the family: the home.

Switch, fuss-free

Bulb is a renewable energy provider whose average consumer is 48 years old. The brand puts this down to the switching process being quick and simple. The interface is very different from that of traditional providers, with bright hues and hand-drawn icons to convey the brand’s game-changing (human) energy and convenient (digital) modernity. Both reliable and eco-conscious, Bulb lets Gen X provide for their family and safeguard the planet at the same time.

Bulb Energy

Do it for the kids

The average UK child receives £350 in toys per year, many of which are soon thrown out.[6] Whirli is a swap-and-share subscription toybox. Parents curate a box online. If the kids love a toy and keep it for 9 months, it is owned by them. Otherwise, Whirli takes the toy back to inspect, sterilise and recirculate it. This appeals to (grand)parents with a simple, flexible system that marries nurturing children with sustainability.

Whirli, Toy Subscription Box

Come clean

Blueland provides a set of infinitely reusable acrylic spray bottles and detergent tablets made of non-toxic ingredients. Consumers mix the tablets with tap water to create multi-surface, bathroom and window cleaners. Only the tablets need re-buying, and these are plastic-free, lighter and significantly reduce shipping emissions. Blueland’s solution requires a very small change in housekeeping habits, but can make a real difference to the planet.

Blueland, Refillable and Reusable Home Products

Gen X can be relied upon to commit to the behaviour changes needed for a more sustainable future in the interest of the younger generations. By opting for greener, ethical products and services that drive convenient, reliable changes at home, Gen X can make sure that these choices become habits and sustainability becomes a family tradition.

Millennials/Gen Y (age 25-38): Taking it personally.

3 minute read

Talking about Millennials (aka Gen Y) means moving into the realm of sustainability activists. These consumers increasingly see sustainability as a must-have for all brands: 83% of Millennials believe business success should be measured by more than profits, and by the positive impact companies have on society and the environment.[7] But these demands are matched with a great degree of scrutiny and scepticism. Digitally savvy and connected, Millennials were raised to believe the world was their oyster… Until they became witnesses and victims of global social and environmental disasters, from floods and deforestation, to terrorism and the nightmare of being a garment factory worker in Bangladesh.

They want brands to help them do better by people and planet, often through counteraction, reparation and mitigation, rather than completely changing their behaviour. However, they will see through greenwashing, so sustainable brand narratives need to be transparent and believable. They see a purchase decision as a way of expressing and reflecting one’s personality.

Above all, Millennials take brands personally, and therefore expect them to be meaningful and authentic about their values.

Measure the difference

Tony’s Chocolonely fights child labour through strict cocoa bean sourcing principles that set the standard for the entire category. The brand is very forthcoming about its cause, using both the pack and the web to share their story. A simple tool on the website also lets consumers see their impact and a clear link between their purchase decision and the brand’s ethical mission, which resonates with Millennials seeking meaning and transparency.

Tony’s Chocolonely

Be naturally social

According to Sir David Attenborough, “The connection between the natural world and the urban world … since the Industrial Revolution has been remote and widening.” By joining Millennials’ passion for digital and social, the GrowIt! app is designed to reforge this connection. It links up curious, enthusiastic Millennials with experienced local gardeners, so they can rediscover nature, reduce their carbon footprint, and share this new experience.

The GrowIt! app

Mind the backlash

TOMS started with a simple idea: for each pair of espadrilles sold, it donated shoes to a child in need. But consumers soon saw the naivety of the model and how it diverted attention from more pressing development needs. TOMS has since chosen to address bigger challenges, like healthcare and water access. But it may be hard to regain Millennials’ trust, especially given the wide range of brands they can choose from with more considered causes.

TOMS, The Flawed “One for One” Model

Millennials want to be able to identify with and express their commitment to sustainability through the brands they choose. They will connect with brands that tell credible sustainable stories that have depth, intent and passion behind them, especially if they provide a more conscious alternative to products or services they already love.

Gen Z (age 10-24): Walking the talk.

2.5 minute read

In the last months, we have seen (and heard) a lot of Gen Z doing what it does best: using its extensive online network and native digital prowess to make its voice heard about taking action to save people and planet. Think of, for example, Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, who made many a news headline in 2019.

A recent survey of US teens revealed that 80% believe their demographic has the potential to change the world for the better.[8] It is this will and the actions that go with it that set Gen Z apart. Gen Z are not content with demanding a better world. They are driven by the certainty that progress is possible, and they lead by example by changing their behaviour (rather than focusing on mitigating the consequences).

Brave brands that make an honest effort to revolutionise their offer, or come up with an entirely new proposition that is better for people and planet, will find Gen Z ready to make the switch, even if it means breaking habits and norms.

Sharing is caring

Compared to its predecessors, Gen Z is less attached to possessions. This creates opportunities for systems based on swapping and sharing, like Mud Jeans. The jeans subscription service lets members rent jeans and then send them back to get a new pair, so that the old ones can be upcycled and/or recycled. They bring this to life through the warm, inspiring tone of voice of a consumer community that marries living life fully with doing the right thing.

Mud Jeans, Denim for Rent

Kentucky fried miracle

KFC recently revolutionised its offer by developing its own-blend plant-based burger. It was trialled in 2019 in Canada and sold out in just four days. KFC shows how a brand recognised for its original, authentic flavour, can take credible, significant steps towards sustainable innovation… And still be as finger lickin’ good! This move draws Gen Z in and even has the potential to convert more conservative poultry lovers to try the vegan alternative.

KFC, Plant-Based Meals

Green girl power

Feminism can be a way into sustainability, from turning the traditional stay-at-home-mum into the pinion of a greener household, to women starting successful businesses founded on equality and eco-consciousness. US travel magazine Unearth Women aims to raise the profile of women in eco-business and create awareness on themes like human trafficking. The Feminist City Guides give Gen Z a tangible connection to these issues and those working to find solutions.

Unearth Women, Feminist City Guides

Gen Z is motivated and ready to make the change, and expects to see its resolve matched by brands. Those that fail to meet the standards of this generation will be boycotted or become irrelevant… Unless an authentic apology and tangible amends are made. Because Gen Z are also realists, and realise that becoming sustainable is a complex process.

Gen Alpha (age 0-9): Born to be sustainable.

3 minute read

Gen Alpha is the first generation of sustainability natives. They are born in a world of global heating, climate crisis and divisive politics, but they can access and build on vast shared knowledge from their Millennial and Gen Z parents, in school, and through the media.

This early awareness is absolutely crucial: Gen Alpha will have to be the most sustainable cohort yet in order to limit global heating to 1.5°C. To do this, their carbon emissions will need to average one eighth of those born in 1950.[9] Hence why the Italian Government has been the first to announce that, as of September 2020, climate change and sustainability will become school subjects, taught to students as young as three years old.[10]

To appeal to Gen Alpha, brands need to think about education, making learning fun and engaging to ensure that the language and messages around sustainability are not frightening, but hopeful and active.

The bright side

As a familiar brand in many households, Persil hopes to leverage its position to educate and inform the next generation of eco-warriors about the different ways they can save the environment that are interactive and joyful. The games and activities they create and share with the parents of Gen Alpha paint an optimistic but realistic picture of sustainability and how to work on it from day one.

Persil, Sustainability for Kids Activities


Dressed for progress

Petit Pli’s mission is to clothe the future of humanity, starting with Gen Alpha. Their designs are made from sustainably sourced recycled fabrics and have a mono-fibre construction (allowing them to be easily recycled), and are also breathable, lightweight, rainproof and tear-resistant. But their most distinctive feature is the textile’s special concertina fold, which allows each garment to “grow” with the child by up to seven sizes.

Petit Pli, Grow-With-You Clothes

Playing nice

Lego has committed to using sustainable materials in core products and packaging by 2030, and some pieces are now made of polyethylene, a soft, durable plastic derived from sugar-cane. In parallel, their “Sustainable Adventures” animations communicate the benefits and importance of sustainability with positivity, energy, and the right amount of urgency to stir spirits without frightening the young audience.

Lego, Plant-based Pieces

In a recent survey, the Co-op found that one in six parents believe that their children know more about recycling than they do, with 25% of children encouraging their parents to shop more sustainably.[11] Brands that play a part in teaching Gen Alpha to grow up more sustainably will be remembered by all generations.

The shift in mindset and consumption behaviour can and must happen across all generations, and brands can help by finding the right approach to inspire, motivate and enable change among all consumer groups. All are part of the same, interconnected system: failing to engage with one group will bring the entire system down.


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