Green Consumers: Shaping Good Habits in Millennials

The Elusive Green Millennial Consumer

Brands with a sustainable offering face a frustrating paradox. Millennial consumers “increasingly say they want brands that embrace purpose and sustainability,” (White, Hardisty, & Habib, 2019). However, studies reveal that those purchase intentions don’t equate to actual sales (White, Hardisty, & Habib, 2019), leading to an “intention-action gap” (see Figure 1). Which begs the question, how can brands reach these finicky consumers? But more importantly, if “our behaviors as individual consumers are having unprecedented impacts on our natural environment,” (White, Hardisty, & Habib, 2019; Stern, 2000) how can brands shape sustainable behaviors in consumers?

Figure 1: Intention-Action Gap
Intention-Action Gap

Data Source: White, Hardisty, & Habib, 2019.
Chart Source: Kelly Strine, 2021.

White, Habib, and Hardisty (2019) define sustainable consumer behavior as “actions that result in decreases in adverse environmental impacts as well as decreased utilization of natural resources across the lifecycle of the product, behavior, or service.” Consumer demand for sustainable options is strong with 66% of consumers and 73% of Millennials willing to pay more for sustainable products (White, Habib, & Hardisty, 2019). Clearly the desire to be a sustainable consumer is alive and well—especially within the Millennial demographic. Brands have the unique opportunity to shape good, sustainable habits in consumers by staging strategic habit interventions, offering incentives, and making it easy to consume responsibly.

How Are Habits Formed?

“Many environmentally relevant behavior patterns are frequent, stable, and persistent,” (Kurz, Gardner, Verplanken, & Abraham, 2015) such as commuting to work, buying clothing, shopping for groceries, and disposing of unwanted packaging and products. By understanding repetitive behaviors, many of which “seem to be driven by mere repetition and habit rather than by conscious deliberation of costs and benefits,” (Verplanken, 2011) brands can influence positive change in consumers.

Traditional theories of behavior, including the theory of planned behavior (TPB), assume that “people are driven by maximizing the expected value of a particular behavior,” (Verplanken, 2011) by intentionally weighing perceived costs and benefits of an action. The perceived costs and benefits associated with the behavior then leads to the formation of an attitude, which can be influenced by social norms (i.e., subjective norms), and perceived behavioral control (Verplanken, 2011). In other words, “behavior is thus assumed to be caused by an intention, while intentions are considered to be caused by some combined influence of attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control,” (Verplanken, 2011). This theory describes a linear process, which is illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Theory of Planned Behavior
Theory of Planned Behavior
Source: Verplanken, 2011.

“Although behavior may originally be predicted by conscious intentions, over time an automatic association between the context and the behavior forms so that behavioral intentions become less predictive of actual behavior,” (Thomas, Poortinga, & Sautkina, 2016). And thus, a habitual behavior, characterized by automatic processes, is formed. Leanne Johnstone and Cecila Lindh’s (2017) research “extends the theory of planned behavior by indicating that the behavior, in essence, is often unplanned and rather unconscious, especially under the pressure of prevailing subjective norms and social pressures experienced in younger groups,” such as Millennials.

Millennial Consumers

Millennials, generally characterized as those born between 1980 and 1995(ish) have been “battle-hardened by trying circumstances” (Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, 2020). They’ve weathered many public traumas such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, costly and unresolved wars in the Middle East, the Great Recession of 2008, natural disasters (i.e., Hurricane Katrina), and mass bombings such as those in Oklahoma City and Columbine (Tanenhaus, 2014). Millennials also grew up with helicopter parents, participation trophies, and personal computers in the home during an era of dizzying technological change. With all that being said, “having grown up in a progressive world of globalization and economic disruption, this generation holds a very different worldview in comparison to previous generations,” (Fisher, 2019).

Rather than the entitled generation, Pew Research Center’s sequence of reports on Millennials found them to be “complex and introspective” (Tanenhaus, 2014). In an era of the 24-hour news cycle, Millennials are “a generation digitally wired from childhood, and reared on apocalyptic videos,” (Tanenhaus, 2014). “They are naturally opinionated sceptics that are perpetually filtering overwhelming amounts of sources, misleading content, and ‘fake news,’” (Fisher, 2019). “Millennials are inherently curious and often suspicious of information they receive, and they question companies’ motives and authenticity as they see beyond the bright lights, catchy slogans and humorous puns and are not immediately swayed by brands with entertaining ads and talking meerkats,” (Fisher, 2019).

“[Millennials are] full of hope and angst, and at the same time, are imbued with the possibilities of technical wizardry and global fogginess,” (Green & Holbert, 2015). Deloitte call Millennials and their younger generation, Gen Z, the resilient generations (Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, 2020). As “survivors of unprecedented economic and societal challenges compared to previous generations still in the workforce,” (Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, 2020) Millennials, “the nation’s more dogged optimists” (Tanenhaus, 2014) have been able to roll with the punches.

Although traumatized, Millennials are empathic toward environmental issues. According to the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey (2020), 83% of Millennials “agreed that climate change is occurring and is caused primarily by humans.” Additionally, Deloitte survey respondents ranked environmental issues a top concern both before and during the global coronavirus pandemic, demonstrating where Millennials’ priorities lie (Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, 2020). Given the intention-action gap described previously, some experts question if Millennials are “more attitudinally green [rather] than behaviorally green?” (Fisher, 2019). The answer is complicated. However, for a generation that pushes businesses and governments to put “people ahead of profits,” and prioritize environmental sustainability (Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, 2020), “brands that establish a reputation for environmental stewardship and social responsibility among [Millennials] have the opportunity to not only grow but also to build brand loyalty and gain traction in the power-spending generation of tomorrow,” (Fisher, 2019).

Shaping Good Habits in Millennials

Research confirms that “ethically minded consumers seldom purchase ethically,” (Johnstone & Lindh, 2017), thus leading to the intention-action gap. Brands have an opportunity to lessen the gap by shaping good, sustainable habits in Millennial consumers by way of habit discontinuity, incentive campaigns, and making it easy to consume sustainably through process innovation and prompts.

Habit Discontinuity

Habits, characterized by a “lack of conscious intent,” (Verplanken & Roy, 2016) shift the decision-making process from cognitive (i.e., weighing the costs versus benefits of an action) to one based on environmental cues, thus making habits resistant to change. Bas Verplanken and Deborah Roy’s (2016) research hypothesizes that “when old habits are temporarily disturbed, people may be more sensitive to new information and adopt a mind-set that is conducive to behavior change,” (Verplanken & Roy, 2016). Therefore, “while habits are hard to break, finding opportunities where exiting habits are temporarily broken may make a behavior change intervention more effective,” (Verplanken & Roy, 2016).

Verplanken and Roy (2016) “tested the hypothesis that an intervention delivered in the wake of a major discontinuity (residential relocation) is more effective than if the intervention is delivered under default conditions.” The study, conducted in England, included roughly 800 participants—half of whom had relocated in the previous six months (aka the “movers”). Participants were assigned to either an intervention or a control condition and were given a questionnaire targeting “a wide range of environmentally relevant behaviors, including water conservation, waste reduction, reducing car use, and saving gas and electricity,” (Verplanken & Roy, 2016). The participants receiving an intervention received a “sustainable goodie bag” containing a free reusable shopping bag, “eco-washing liquid, vegetable and flower seeds, a bus timetable, a shower timer, and a set of brochures on environmentally friendly choices,” (Verplanken & Roy, 2016). Intervention participants also received a “green directory,” and newsletter campaign with additional information regarding sustainable solutions and resources.

Results of the study concluded that the “intervention effect was statistically significant, suggesting the intervention was effective in changing behavior in a sustainable direction,” (Verplanken & Roy, 2016). The analysis also “revealed that the intervention was most effective when participants had relocated relatively recently” suggesting that “the intervention was most effective during the first three months after relocation,” (Verplanken & Roy, 2016). (Verplanken & Roy, 2016). Further investigation also reveals that “a prerequisite is that a motivation to adopt the new behaviors is present in the first place, which needs to be genuine and self-related in order to have the potential to translate into action,” (Verplanken & Roy, 2016).

Habit Discontinuity in Millennials

According to Verplanken and Roy’s research, when individuals move into a new phase of life, such as transitioning from school to work or getting married and starting a family—common life events for Millennials— “the habits defined by a social practice are subject to change, and may thus be interesting targets for interventions,” (Verplanken & Roy, 2016). Therefore, brands looking to target Millennial consumers who are already a sustainably primed demographic, may find success in staging an intervention by way of marketing campaigns targeting Millennial consumers entering college, buying their first homes, entering the workforce, or planning weddings or baby showers. Timing will be key, however. Deploying campaigns to reach Millennials as they move through these life events will determine success because “a disruption is a temporary condition, and once a person is settled into the new situation, old habits may easily be re-activated,” (Verplanken & Roy, 2016).

Incentive Offerings and Millennials

The first step in changing bad habits (or shaping good habits) is to disrupt the repetition and automaticity of the habit. As Verplanken and Roy (2015) point out, “those moments of change, when minds and behaviors temporarily unfreeze, may provide precious opportunities for adopting healthier and more sustainable lifestyles.” For in these moments, brands have the opportunity to intervene with sustainable product offerings and campaigns that enable sustainable change.

“Actions that encourage repetition…can strengthen positive habits,” (White, Habib, & Hardisty, 2019). Incentives such as “rewards, discounts, gifts, and other extrinsic incentives can increase desired behaviors and positive habit formation. Monetary incentives, such as rebates, tiered pricing, and cash can encourage people to adopt and maintain sustainable behaviors,” (White, Habib, & Hardisty, 2019). By encouraging repetition of positive habits—offering discounts to consumers who forgo one-time use cups for reusable cups, for example—brands
can positively influence sustainable change in Millennials and consumers of all ages.

Although Millennials are typically financially stressed (Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, 2020), White, Habib, and Hardisty (2019) suggest that “smaller monetary rewards are often less motivating than other types of incentives, such as a free gift, a lottery entry, or social praise.” Additionally, “one-time sustainable actions are easier to encourage with incentives than are longer-term changes,” (White, Habib, & Hardisty, 2019). Therefore, brands seeking to maximize positive behavior change in Millennials may want to consider an incentive offering when marketing sustainable one-time purchase products, such as a free bicycle helmet with the purchase of a bike.

Making it Easy

“Many sustainable actions are viewed as effortful, time-consuming, or difficult to carry out, which can be a barrier to sustainable actions,” (McKenzie-Mohr, 2000). “Thus, one strategy to encourage sustainable habit formation is to make the action easier to do,” (White, Habib, & Hardisty, 2019). Brands can enable sustainable behavior by incorporating contextual changes to the environment, such as placing recycling bins nearby in workplaces, brick-and-mortar stores, and other communal spaces (White, Habib, & Hardisty, 2019). Brands can also make the sustainable choice the default option, such as making paperless billing the default option in billing cycles (White, Habib, & Hardisty, 2019).

Another method of making sustainable behavior easy and thus encouraging good habit formation is the use of prompts. Prompts are “messages that are given before the behavior occurs to remind the consumer what the desired sustainable behavior is,” (White, Habib, & Hardisty, 2019). Successful prompts are large, clear, easy to follow, and work best when “placed in proximity to where the behavior will be performed,” (White, Habib, & Hardisty, 2019), i.e., placing a sign near the recycling bin.

Brands can “make it easy” when it comes to selecting a sustainable product—especially within the Millennial demographic. A study of marketing techniques by Katherine Smith (2010) found that the words that influence Millennials’ perceptions of whether a product is environmentally friendly (or not) include “eco-friendly, recycled, and green,” and “the package feature that most denotes environmental friendliness is the recycling symbol,” (Smith, 2010). Additionally, Smith cites a study by Outlaw Consulting which identifies the characteristics that make some green brands more attractive to Millennials than others, including “brands that practice minimalism, meaning that they use clean designs, packaging, and advertising,” (Smith, 2010). Therefore, brands seeking to influence the perceptions of Millennials can make selecting a sustainable option or product easy by creating packaging with terms that resonate with Millennials, clearly communicating sustainable product features (i.e., using the recycling symbol), and utilizing clean package design.

Looking Forward

Sustainable habits can be analyzed from two perspectives—the social psychological perspective, meaning change comes from the individual; and the social practice perspective, meaning change occurs at the societal level (Kurz, Gardner, Verplanken & Abraham, 2015). From the social psychological perspective, brands can influence individual consumer behavior by disrupting old habits, and then offering easy, sustainable options and solutions to shape good habits, especially within the eco-friendly Millennial demographic. This strategy is successful “because consumers are often low on cognitive resources, [therefore] simplifying the decision-making process can allow them to more automatically form sustainable habits,” (White, Habib, & Hardisty, 2019).

From a social practice perspective, change comes from legislation, infrastructure change, and technology innovation (Kurz, Gardner, Verplanken & Abraham, 2015). “By 2025, Millennials will represent 75% of the workforce,” (Fisher, 2019), and according to the Pew Research Center, “Millennials are supportive of stricter environmental laws … and likely to favor environmentally friendly policies such as green energy development and economic incentive for sustainability,” (Naderi & Steenburg, 2018). As the wheels of legislation typically turn slow, brands can prepare for the new wave of consumers by updating their corporate infrastructure and adapting sustainable technology innovation to enable repetition and automaticity—key features of habit (Verplanken & Roy, 2016).

“The world of the Millennials has the potential to be an interconnected, dynamic and creative one, but it also offers a cornucopia of low-cost virtual outlets for discontent and frustration,” (Green & Holbert, 2015). Although Millennials want it all and want it all now, they’ve also “seen how quickly the Earth can heal, how rapidly business can adapt, and how resourceful and cooperative people can be,” (Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, 2020). By harnessing the power and tenacity of the resilient generations, brands can narrow the intention-action gap in sustainable consumer behavior and make a positive contribution to sustainable environmental change.

Kelly Strine

Kelly Strine is the founder of Left-brained Creative, a brand marketing and graphic design firm dedicated to partnering with small businesses and nonprofits who are working toward creating positive social change. If you have a project you want to team up on, let’s chat!


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