This post first appeared on The Guardian Sustainable Business Blog (Jan. 23, 2014)
Dara O’Rourke, a professor at UC Berkeley and the co-founder of GoodGuide.com, is the chair of WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Sustainable Consumption.
The next generation of consumers is clearly on the minds of the CEOs and CMOs at Davos. A number of sessions have touched on what emerging “millennial” consumers of China, India, Brazil, and beyond will look like in 10 years. And similarly, how the next generation of consumers in the US and Europe will act.
Everyone seems to agree that new technologies, and in particular emerging mobile, wearable, ubiquitous, transparent information systems, are radically changing how new millennials see and interact with products, brands, and retailers, what they demand of them, and what they want for their futures. Consumers can know more, and they obviously share much more than ever before. The pace of this change is only accelerating.
However, brands and retailers are frustrated that their efforts to engage consumers around sustainability have had limited impact to date. Increasingly, they admit in closed-door sessions, that they simply don’t know how to talk to the new millennials.
These new consumers, in fact, bristle at even being called consumers. They think of themselves as makers, users, sharers, and sometimes participants in the production of products, services, content, etc. They have values. They get status from different things than their parents did. And they want to support products and companies that align with their values.
But as one CEO lamented: are young consumers really disruptive enough? Do they care about labor and environment issues? Will they change their demand for cheap fast fashion when they learn about tragedies like in Bangladesh? Or do they just want new sexy products at low prices?
These questions have bottom line impacts as CEOs assess how to redesign products and business models to meet new demands. And they clearly have implications for global sustainability. Will these new millennials consume as Northern consumers have? Or might they embrace sharing (rather than owning) and the circular economy? Will they even have jobs to pay for the goods and services these companies sell.
There is clearly significant potential to engage these new millennials, and in particular to support their participation in efforts to rethink products and business to promote sustainability.
The good news on this is that some of the largest retailers and brands in the world are studying these issues and beginning to develop programs to try to engage the next generation of consumers/makers/citizens.