5 Ways to Make Sustainability Sexy for Millennials

06/15/2015 02:34 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2016

The California drought is approaching its fifth year. Alabama is quaking with every new frack. And the honeybee is on its way to extinction.

All signs point to the fact that using our resources with reckless abandon will put our planet in peril.

We need to transform the way we consume.

That's why it's more important than ever for companies to get consumers to start thinking about sustainability -- whether that's the food they eat, clothes they wear or means of transportation -- it's time for us to harness the forces that influence consumer buying habits to change the world.

A big opportunity awaits for companies to appeal to an emerging generation with strong values to drive systemic change.

Let's leave behind the days of stale, verdant green (or worse, brown dirt) packaging and ads for sustainable products. Product designers, marketers, media and advertisers -- we can reinvigorate the way we sell sustainability so that it's trendy and fun, something we all want to buy into.

By making sustainability sexy, we can usher in a new era of responsible consumption.

The rise of the young, conscious consumer

Now for some good news. There's a growing population of "conscious consumers." According to a recent study, 1 in 3 millennials look for brands to make a positive impact on the world. And in another survey, 30 percent of respondents said they expect to increase the amount of goods and services they buy from socially-responsible companies.

Interestingly, this figure jumps to 41 percent when you look at people who are 18-24 and steadily declines as the age of the respondents increases -- plummeting to 21 percent for the 74+ age group.

Sadly, this suggests the ship has sailed for your grandparents who will likely choose price over purpose, but the opportunity is prime for younger consumers who are motivated by social and environmental values.

For many brands I've worked with, one of the biggest challenges they face is figuring out how to talk to their consumers about the good work they're doing for the environment and their communities. I get questions like: Should we make an app for that? Should we put it on our packaging? The reality is, many are missing the mark. According to a recent study by IBM and Econsultancy, only 35 percent of consumers said their favorite companies sent "relevant" messages.

When it comes to young people, what penetrates the consciousness of the consumer? How do we connect with the core in a way that's relevant and tactful? Here are a few ideas:

1. Make it work

First and foremost, consumers are looking for stuff that works. Sustainability should not come at the cost of the product's function or the consumer's satisfaction.

If you look at this ad from Seventh Generation for all-purpose cleaner, what you see is kids voraciously devouring birthday cake right off the dining room table.

What we don't see is how this cleaner keeps toxins out of water systems or how workers are treated humanely in the supply chain (although these might be true). Instead, we see that this plant-based cleaner can make your glass-top table sparkle -- and your kids can go nuts all over it without worry about toxins.

The initial hook is that the product actually cleans. The benefits of using a sustainable product -- icing on the cake. It's good for me and good for the planet -- this is what consumers need to see, in that order.

2. Be bold, be brave

Corporate activism never looked better when corporate leaders took a stand against the anti-gay religious freedom legislation in Indiana and Arkansas. When major corporations (and not just politicians and nonprofits) speak up for what is right, people pay attention.

But as sustainability expert Henk Campher points out, the majority of companies are still simply not doing their part. For every forward-looking one out there, we have a thousand bad apples.

Activist brands are scarce, but just one can energize a movement. Just look at what happened with Salesforce's response to Indiana's bill and the cascade of supporters that followed. Or when Patagonia shut its doors during the Climate March to encourage employees to "be loud and visible in the streets." These brands don't think of themselves as companies first, but rather as agents of change. And it's no coincidence that these bold players often are the most adored by conscious consumers.

3. Make it easy

In the age of Ice Bucket Challenges, where many young people think tweeting a hashtag is the equivalent to activism, the impetus is on companies to act -- because, broadly speaking, consumers won't get involved in issues on a deeper level. Companies need to be the ones driving change, and they should do it in such a way that harnesses this limited but apparent level of engagement -- enabling the consumer to be part of purpose without too much effort.

Call it passive activism. Social and environmental issues should be a gift at purchase, not a purchase driver. You want your customers to know that you're saving the world, and that by buying your product/service, they are too.

TOMS and the many companies who have followed suit with a one-for-one philanthropy model have done a great job at this. They're leveraging their business models to address community needs around the world.

This positions your product so that foremost, you're satisfying consumers' needs (for example, a cute pair of shoes) and then, consumers can feel good about buying it knowing the connection to a larger purpose and external benefit.

4. Drop the word "sustainability"

Consumers don't use the word, and largely, don't understand what companies mean by it. Only 16 percent of consumers say they see the word "very often," and most associate it solely with environmental issues. When I tell my friends I work in sustainability, I typically get a blank stare. It's just too vague.

If we are to reach beyond the "green consumer" (those who actively seek out products with purpose), then we need to rethink our vocabulary so that we're speaking a universal language. We need to get creative about telling the sustainability story in different ways.

If you ask people, "Do you care about sustainable agriculture?" you might get a shrug. But if you ask, "Do you buy local food when you can?" you might find an enthusiastic advocate for farmers' markets. We need to unearth the values and issues beneath our jargon to form authentic connections with consumers.

5. Make it sexy

And by sexy, I mean, fun, quirky, trendy, clever, charming. Have fun with it! Here are two examples of what I'm talking about.

Tesla wanted to show people its electric cars are just as much fun to drive as their gas-guzzling counterparts. It introduced "Insane Mode" on its P85D model -- blasting the clean vehicle from 0 to 60 MPH in just three seconds. Videos of people reacting to Insane Mode depict, simply put, people freaking out like they're riding a roller coaster. The videos have reached more than 5 million views on YouTube. Tesla tackled (and indeed leveraged) expectations around sustainable cars for being less powerful by surprising and delighting people with an exciting and thrilling experience.

In an effort to reduce food waste, French supermarket chain Intermarché experimented in selling its "ugly" misshapen produce (instead of, like most grocers and farmers, throwing it out to keep shelves full of cosmetically flawless fruits and vegetables). The campaign's ads poked fun at themselves, profiling each piece of produce with the most unappetizing photos and charming, humorous taglines. Intermarché sold out of its 1.2 tons of "inglorious produce" by appealing to consumers with humor and value, making the discounted produce the sensible, easy and fun option.

It's time to harness the "inherent coolness" of sustainability and make it sexy when we sell it. Doing so will entice people to consume in better ways and demand sustainable production from the brands they love.

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