Youth and the environment are both instrumental forces creating change in economies across the world. So I was interested to delve into a new report from the United Nations looking at this subject.
The full report ‘World Youth Report: Youth and Climate Change 2010 ‘ has been compiled based on interviews with young people as well as youth organisations around the world and contains an overwhelming amount of information on this subject (all 200 pages of it).
Very broadly it looks at the following elements:
- An explanation of climate change: evidence, impact on our ecosystems and frameworks in place to combat it.
- Broad consequences of climate change to society and its impact on young people’s livelihoods.
- How young people are being affected by climate change in terms of consumption, behaviour and lifestyle.
- Existing youth efforts and initiatives to combat climate change.
The third section around behaviour and lifestyles is where it gets most interesting.
A consumption paradox
An underlying point from the report is that whilst young people are among those most concerned about the environment, the green agenda does not significantly influence purchasing decisions among the young cohort.
Conspicuous consumption remains ‘central to identity construction’ for youth today. It’s still all about having the latest cool thing, be it fast-fashion, the latest gadget or must-have item. Since they have relatively few financial commitments, this only fuels consumption. According to a UNEP/UNESCO survey, when it comes to buying, environmental impact and sustainability is less important to youth than trendiness, price and quality.
Rising wealth among young adults in consumers in rapidly developing economies is only raising levels of consumption of this group on a global level, putting more challenges on sustainable resources. Moreover, digital communication and technology is helping to spread advertising messages fuelling conspicuous consumption. Although you could also argue that the green agenda has also gained awareness among youth due to the very same digital and social technologies.
Other barriers to the adoption of more sustainable consumption among the young cohort include (based on the report):
o Green products are often perceived to be incompatible with the needs of youth. I’m taking this to mean not relevant, although it doesn’t really explain this well.
o Green substitutes are often not available that also “serve the same identity building function”. This is a bit surprising as greener products and services have been growing in number. Nike recently released some limited edition shoes made from shredded magazines. Perhaps these greener products are not hitting the right mark with youth?
o Young people have a lack of information about substitutes/alternatives available.
o Finally, there is a lack of real understanding about how their purchases influence the environment, underlining the importance of education.
Youth mobilize for climate change
Although youth may not be making changes to purchasing decision, their concern for the environment has put them at the centre of debate and there are many youth-led organisation with a commitment to spearheading change.
Social technologies have been instrumental in enabling these organisations to grow in size. The International Youth Climate Movement is “a worldwide coalition of youth organisations working to inspire, empower and mobilize members of the younger generation to take action on climate change.”
The educational challenge
The educational challenge centres not just on raising awareness through formal education but also getting youth involved in practical projects that benefit sustainable development.
The UN considers ‘the ladder of participation’ outlining different levels of involvement, which i rather quite like. Greater levels of empowerment are experienced by youth as they move from 1 to 5. This is not dissimilar to the evolution of marketing from push to pull tactics.
1. Informing and educating young people
2. Gathering information from young people
3. Consulting with young people
4. Involving young people
5. Establishing collaborative partnerships with young people
Source: UN/International Association of Public Participation, 2007
Overall, the report’s findings suggest that there is a big opportunity for brands to convert these so-called ‘green patriots’ into consumers of more sustainable products. But there are major hurdles in terms of image perception and education on why buying sustainable is so important.