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Sustainability: Why One Size Will Never Fit All

Sustainability is a term that has been bandied around a lot in recent years, particularly by brands. But what does it really mean? And how does it play a role in consumers’ lives?

To some, sustainability is only about the now: recycling or reducing carbon emissions, for instance. For others, it’s about ensuring the safety, health, and security of future generations by creating a better world today for everyone tomorrow.

Whatever its meaning, the sustainability movement — and its tangible impact — is here. For consumers, it has become an important purchase driver. For brands, it means adopting distinct positions surrounding socially conscious consumption that consumers can latch onto.

Here we look at three generations in turn, to analyze what sustainability means to them, as well as the golden rules of engagement with each.

Baby Boomers (50+)

Sustainability is generally important to this group, but usually in a “small box” kind of way (i.e., a recycling bin). It’s not a behavior they were brought up with, but rather one to which they’ve adapted.

In general, Boomers are skeptical about the role brands play in their lives. They distrust brands’ attempts at making genuine connections with them, and, as a result, many of these consumers devolve responsibility when it comes to their own sustainable behavior.

The relationship Boomers have with sustainability is also a functional one: to them it means product longevity, not planet longevity. They mostly reject the “upgrade” culture, insisting that brands instead deliver inherently good quality products and services that last, and that are based on their needs.

John Lewis is one such brand where sustainability runs through everything they do, from quality products and services to the in-store models made from recycled materials. They are seen as a brand that is transparent and honest.

So what are the golden rules for the Boomer generation?

Make it easy

To encourage a sense of responsibility for sustainability amongst this generation, brands need to be accessible. Make information more readily available…and put recycling bins within easy reach.

Be transparent

The perception is that sustainability is an expensive enterprise — for you, for me, and for brands alike. Be open and honest, not just about your sustainability initiatives, but how being sustainable is impacting the business for the benefit of all consumers.


You are asking this group to adopt and repeat behavior that most of them were never taught. Teach them to help guide them towards practicing sustainability in their everyday lives.

Gen X (35-50)

For this group, it’s quite different: their motivation is building a sustainable future for their children and grandchildren. It might not necessarily come naturally to them and can feel like hard work, but they see why sustainability is important and understand the benefits.

To incentivize Gen X, you need to find ways to make sustainability relevant to them. The wider world is less important to Gen X; their own world is their primary concern. So, brands should localize their messaging, grounding it in initiatives and activities affecting this group’s community.

Gen Xers are, however, far more positive about brands playing a role in sustainability than Boomers. They have grown up with brands being part of their lives and accept that brands can take a more responsible position.

For them, the small things count just as much as the big things. Brands like Waitrose embody this well and are viewed positively mostly because of their community approach. Waitrose employees are given a real stake in the business, and they have developed the green coin initiative, whereby shoppers are given a green coin to put into a charity or initiative box of their choice when leaving the shop. At the end of each month, every Waitrose store then splits £1000 between the causes depending on coins collected. The concept is simple, effective, requires minimal effort and – most important of all – the charities are locally based.

So how can brands resonate with Gen X?

Make it relevant

This generation wants the work to be done on their doorstep, in their town, in their country. Local is the key.

Focus on the kids, and the community

Sustainability begins at home. Gen Xers want to guarantee a better future for their children, and help ensure the longevity of their communities.

Make it part of their life

With hectic family and work lives, sustainability needs to be effortless; it shouldn’t take any extra time, but rather be integrated into everyday activities.

Millennials (18-35)

Millennials have grown up with the idea of sustainability since the womb. Most strongly believe that brands have a major role to play in making the world a better place. This belief will continue to be a purchase driver for them as they age. They will choose one brand over another if it is deemed more sustainable and adheres to their ethical code, and they’ll embrace and champion brands that are doing a good job.

Millennials are confident in sustainable behavior. Our own work has shown that behavior such as recycling, upcycling, and composting is now inherent, and they expect everyone to be doing it. They are also wise to contradictions in business objectives and sustainability initiatives, and alert to “greenwash.”

They see the benefits of companies striving for global reach with their sustainability efforts, such as Telefonica, whose smart meter contracts and investment in the youth of tomorrow promotes digital literacy around the world. Being a brand that is about social and environmental change is increasingly important, and to them doing it on a global scale is vital too. All initiatives need to be future-focused and invest in the next generation. On this basis, Millennials will make decisions about brands.

This generation is also digital-savvy and wants to be part of the sustainability movement, not on the side-lines. So, when talking about the topic, brands need to be transparent, straight talking, and interactive.

So how do brands stay relevant to this group?

Make it sharable

Millennials want to be involved. Make your initiative a sharable experience – particularly on social media – they can embrace with their friends.

Think BIG

They have their sights set on the world and want sustainability to reach all corners of the globe. Brand strategies and communications need to match this zeal.

It needs to be in your DNA

Sustainability should be a given. Make it intrinsic to everything you do.

Despite being a fluid term, there’s no doubt that sustainability will become progressively prevalent for future generations. Today, brands simply can’t afford to ignore it or the fact that sustainability-related initiatives need to consider and engage the particular audience on which it relies for maximum return.

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