THE BLOG
09/22/2014 04:58 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

The Unexpected Sustainability of Gen Y

Gen Y has been accused of being selfish, lazy and bad recyclers--hardly poster children of an environmentally sustainable future. However, enabled by technology and in reaction to their financial challenges, Gen Y is finding all sorts of ways to do things differently-and in many cases more sustainably. This is good news for companies who are looking for ways to deliver consumer-delighting experiences that are also good for the environment. It's an opportunity to reach beyond standard "use less packaging" and "provide e-billing" approaches. Gen Y, for a variety of reasons, is giving us permission to shake things up. Here's how businesses can take them up on their offer.

Focus on experiences - Forget about the thing
We've heard over and over again that Gen Y values experiences over ownership - a clear win for sustainable design because it allows us to dematerialize and revisit product service systems. To really put this idea to work, though, it's important to understand why this generation values experiences and why the consumption of things is not an aspiration.

Millennials have come of age in a world of social media, where whatever you do can be captured, curated and shared instantly. In some ways, Instagramming has become the new version of keeping up with the Joneses. As a result, stories are the new status items.

Many of them have also witnessed the downfall of their parents' more material-focused aspirations, so-when the large suburban house full of stuff suddenly became unaffordable and threatened to jeopardize the promise of a comfortable retirement. Instead, Gen Y is focusing on non-material aspirations: shared experiences (e.g. dinner parties) and achievements (e.g. travel and education) that they continue to benefit from, can share, and don't need physical space to store.

This experience-focused mindset makes them the perfect access over ownership consumer. They aren't going to ask you why they should have to "give up" their car or their washing machine. They don't want the stuff--they just want the benefit associated with it, especially if they can save money along the way.

For designers and companies looking to create new offerings, our challenge is to stop asking "what should we make?" and to start asking "how can we deliver that benefit?" Rent the Runway and Netflix asked it. Imagine how it might change the world of appliances (How can we make it easier for people to have clean clothes when they need them?) or leisure (How can we make this destination experience accessible, without travel?). What kinds of new experiences and offerings could these questions help us create?

Provide quality and authenticity
An often overlooked trait of Gen Y is that amidst their financial challenges, they are willing to pay more for certain items. Rationally, quality items are seen as cheaper because they last-meaning you only have to buy one. We saw this play out on a recent apparel project when Gen Y shoppers projected the years of use they would get out of a pair of shoes to help them choose the most durable, and therefore low-cost, investment.

Still, financial savings is not the only reason this generation is looking to hold onto items for the long-term. Repairs, alterations, dents and scratches are all signs of stories behind objects. This worn down pair of boots? They brought me to the top of Kilamanjaro. This Eames chair? I repaired it myself after finding it in a dumpster.

And yes, Millennials are willing to put in work to create, maintain, alter and repair items. One of the benefits of having the internet at your fingertips is that you can find information on how to do pretty much anything -from how to fix your own iPhone to how to pickle your own vegetables. But Gen Y isn't DIYing just because they can. They are looking for a sense of connection and meaning through an understanding of how things are made, what they are made of, and who made them. They are looking for authenticity.

This desire for quality and authenticity has the potential to stretch beyond designer furniture and hand crafted bike seats, to impact all sorts of consumer products. Because Gen Y wants to hold onto their investments for the long-term, there are opportunities to create and profit from new brand touch points focused on maintenance, modification and repair. Instead of designing for obsolescence, companies could sell DIY repair kits, offer classes or provide upgradeable modular solutions.

Because Gen Y is willing to put in some work, there are also opportunities around self-assembly in categories ranging from beauty, to technology, to food and beverage. We are seeing this play out in prepared meals right now. Instead of choosing the classically convenient frozen meals, Gen Y is choosing with services like Plated and Blue Apron. They are willing to do some of the prep work, and in return get confidence in the quality of the ingredients, the ability to customize to their tastes and the benefit of a streamlined cooking experience.

Help them harness the power of their groups
Perhaps the least leveraged environmental attribute of Gen Y is their faith in the power of the collective. We've seen consumers of all generations become discouraged by their seeming lack of ability, as individuals, to make a difference. But, Gen Y is even more aware of environmental impacts than previous generations. They grew up with more access to information about the environment. This has led to even stronger feelings of ambiguity around their power to create change. They tend to feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the challenge. One comment we heard over and over again when discussing recyclable products with Gen Y was, "Is this really making a difference?"

This is surprising because Gen Y knows about the power of the crowd and as a result. They have virtual friend networks that number in the hundreds and thousands. And they take advantage of those networks in all sorts of ways--to seek guidance and recommendations, to get out a message to finance new ideas, even to pay strangers' medical bills.

There is a huge opportunity for companies and environmental groups to show Gen Y the power of their crowd and help them feel the momentum behind their choices. How many trees are still standing due to the collective use of air dryers vs paper towels? How much plastic has collectively been kept of out landfills and oceans thanks to coffee drinkers who have chosen reusable mugs or consumers who have chosen to refill their spray bottles instead of buy new ones? This data exists, but isn't often visible to individuals. Brands have the ability to show how they are committed to making a difference with Gen Y by making these small actions possible, and celebrating collective wins.

Do something different - now
From an innovation perspective, one of the great things about Gen Y is that they have lowered the barrier for new ideas, products and services. And if they had a good experience, they touted in their own social groups - both online and off.

Gen Y feels an imperative to do things differently--for financial and social reasons. Instead of trying to market the same old products and services to this new generation, we should be celebrating this opportunity to rethink assumptions around consumer preferences for ownership, definitions of convenience, openness to investing in the long-term and willingness to do work to maintain and repair. The outcome? Products and services that work for Gen Y and for the environment.

For more, watch why consumers buy sustainable products and services in this video:

This piece was written in collaboration with Isabeau Lalonde, Senior Envisioner at Continuum.