Gen Y forces the green issue (without even trying)

April 26, 2008, 12:17 AM UTC

In this, the week of all things Green, I’d be remiss if — amidst the talk of CFL bulbs, organic farmers, and the like — I didn’t bring up that other green issue: Gen Yers. (Don’t act so surprised…)

At Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference in Pasadena earlier this week, there was much high-level discussion amongst high-level executives, researchers, and activists of the problems one might expect — for instance, panels such as “Nuclear Power: A Debate” and “The $1 Trillion Carbon Market.” But what struck me was the way that Gen Yers crept into these green leaders’ conversations.

In “Wall Street and Climate Change,” Lehman Brothers managing director Theodore Roosevelt IV called green one of his best recruiting tools, saying that when Lehman goes to business schools, the younger generation asks what the company’s doing about environmental issues. And in “The Green Consumer: Myth or Reality,” Marc Mathieu, Coca-Cola’s SVP of global brand marketing and creative excellence (i.e. marketing guru), pointed out from the audience that — whatever the back and forth here about how to get consumers who say they’d rather buy green to actually do it — the next generation was going to take ownership of this movement. They’re not going to change when they get older, he said, citing his own teenagers, who are all members of Greenpeace or organizations like it.

To some extent, this is starting to emerge in the research, like this 2007 study, which found that 50% of Gen Y respondents said environmental messaging influenced their shopping behavior. (For the record, I’d like to think that older people would say the same, but the study didn’t go there.) It called to mind a recent conversation with a researcher in this field, who said that, as far as he could tell, the only thing preventing young people from going completely green was their obvious lack of that other kind of green — cash. As Yers’ incomes grew, he thought, we’d begin to see the impact of their green leanings.

Of course, I’m curious to hear what you think. Would you stay at a company that promised it was getting greener, or leave one that wouldn’t? And once you have the money to do it, would you spend on green? Or do you, as Green Consumer panelist Joel Makower of Greener World Media, put it, think this is “just marketing.” (Which, to clarify, is an insult.) I got into a heated “debate” a while back with my 23-year-old sister — otherwise known as my Gen Y guinea pig — around this very question of the mainstreaming of green. While she was glad to hear more people express an interest in the environment, she said she couldn’t help feeling like green was rapidly gaining fad status. And since, to quote Heidi Klum, “In fashion, one day you’re in and the next you’re out,” she felt it might only be a matter of time before the hype died down and we were left just about where we started.

She’s still hoping to see us prove her wrong, but I wonder how many of you out there agree with her. And how many are cautiously more optimistic? And how many more are in the group that Makower brilliantly sketched out for us, people who find no irony in getting in their poorly tuned Escalades with under-inflated tires and turning on their cold engines to drive three miles to buy their favorite recycled toilet paper. He laughs — and hey, it’s funny, because we all know (or are) those people — but one does worry that this last camp of convenience is the one that most of us fall into, when it’s all said and done. (Not unlike the young women in this piece, for whom green is, apparently, a true fashion statement.)

So is it true, guys? Are we a bunch of fair-weather environmentalistas? Or are we, as I’d like to think, really going to make a change here, not just through our own actions, but by our ability to force the companies trying to hire and market to us to get with the green program?

*****

And in other news, if you haven’t already, check out our “Face of the future” gallery, part of this year’s Fortune 500 coverage. It was a labor of love for photographer Mackenzie Stroh and me, amassing images and interviews from more than 50 young people at 11 Fortune 500 companies to get a little insight into what life is really like for them. If you don’t mind paper, the magazine version is worth a look, too, with beautiful photographs and a more in-depth look at 29 of these hard-working — and I hope, high-rising — Yers. And when you’re done, do me a big favor and have an awesome weekend…