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Does Sustainability Have a Millennial Problem?

Sorry, Planet Earth, but don’t count on millennials to save you.

Despite a reputation for being socially, politically and environmentally “woke”—to the point of caricature by their curmudgeonly forebears—the demographic born between 1982 and 2000, per the U.S. Census Bureau (and 1981 and 1996, according to the Pew Research Center) isn’t about to martyr themselves on the altar of the greater good.

This might go against everything we think we know about the avocado-toast-loving, safe-space-demanding, ownership-averse group. An oft-quoted 2015 Nielsen Global Corporate Survey, after all, found that 73 percent of millennials, versus 66 percent of the general population, are willing to pay extra for items that dovetail with their progressive values.

But intent and action can be very different animals. And when it comes to triggering an actual purchase, recent research shows that sustainability isn’t the foremost consideration you might think. 

A study conducted last month by a pair of University of Cambridge MBA students and ethical e-tailer Mamoq, for instance, found that sustainability came in a distant fourth to fit, price and style as the top criteria shoppers use. In the survey of 123 respondents, 84 percent proclaimed fit as their No. 1 priority. Perhaps most tellingly, 67 percent of them were unwilling to sacrifice fit, price or style to buy a product that bettered society or the environment in some way.

A larger sample size bore this out, too. In February, New York City’s LIM College revealed that only 34 percent of the 685 millennials it surveyed said they were driven to buy a garment or accessory because it was eco-friendly and sustainably produced. In comparison, 95 percent were motivated by ease of purchase, 95 percent by price and value and 92 percent by the uniqueness of the item (nobody wants to be caught on “the ‘gram” wearing the same thing as everyone else).

Et tu, millennials?

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For Robert Conrad and Kenneth M. Kambara, the marketing and finance professors who conducted the study, the results weren’t wholly unexpected.

“We knew that uniqueness and value for the money have been the key purchase drivers, so it isn’t a stretch that sustainability isn’t top of mind for fashion purchases,” Kambara said. “The social awareness attitudes are there, but when it comes down to spending, other things matter more.”

It’s not that millennials don’t want to put their money where their hearts are. Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed agreed that millennials and Gen Z will help create more sustainably produced products by convincing businesses and governments to change existing practices. And an equal percentage affirmed they would ditch a product or brand for overtly damaging the environment. 

But there simply aren’t enough brands that can check off all of millennials’ desired boxes, Conrad and Kambara said. Even “eco-friendly youth-oriented brands” such as Anek, Everlane, Nudie Jeans, Patagonia, People Tree, Reformation and K.O.I don’t have the scale or variety of offerings to meet millennials’ requirements for ease, price and uniqueness.

“It is one thing to like something— ‘thumbs up’—and another to be willing to pay for it— ‘wallet out,’” Conrad said. “That is true for all of us at some level. This is simply one way it applies to millennials.”

These numbers aside, sustainable apparel, by and large, is on an upward trajectory, according to Katie Smith, director of analysis and insights at Edited, a retail-technology firm based in London, New York and San Francisco. But millennials also came of age at a time when you can make price comparisons online in seconds, so they’re at once “exceptionally price savvy and sensitive,” she added.

It should come as no surprise that millennials are watching their wallets. Many entered the workforce during the economic downturn. With traditional full-time employment disappearing in favor of the so-called “gig economy,” financial stability has become an abiding concern.

Faced with “rising costs of education, property and city living, one way millennials are approaching sustainability is buying less clothing, full stop,” Smith said. “[They’re] opting to not just wear and throw away but are shifting their spend to experiential pursuits instead.”

Another study from Ohio State University claimed consumers can “willfully misremember” facts about products that were made less than sustainably or ethically. After they were asked to memorize the attributes of a list of made-up brands of desks, for instance, participants were able to accurately recall their size and quality but faltered when it came to remembering if they were made of tree-farm or rainforest wood. A similar pattern emerged when they were asked to differentiate between jeans made from adult or child labor. 

Memory, it turns out, is a tricky thing, especially when it threatens to make us feel poorly about a potential purchase, according to Rebecca Reczek, associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business and co-author of the study, which was published in December 2017 in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“It’s not necessarily a conscious decision by consumers to forget what they don’t want to know,” Reczek said in a statement. “It is a learned coping mechanism to tune out uncomfortable information because it makes their lives easier.”

Indeed brands and retailers that hone in on sustainability to the exclusion of everything else are essentially asking their customers to set aside their own interests for some nebulous act of charity they’ll never see the fruits of, said Alden Wicker, a blogger, influencer and yes, millennial, who writes extensively about ethical fashion.

The most successful of the “conscious” brands are those that don’t prioritize sustainability or ethics over fit, value and style. Instead their virtuousness feel more like perks, Wicker said. Take Allbirds, the footwear phenomenon that’s taken over Silicon Valley by storm, for example.

I think most people who buy Allbirds aren’t doing it because they use nontoxic glues and wool,” Wicker said. “I think they’re doing it because they get a lot of value out of them as a direct-to-consumer brand that looks cool and is comfortable.”

Same thing with Reformation, the breezy cool-girl clothing label beloved by celebrities like Karlie Kloss, Olivia Wilde and Rihanna. Sure, it repurposes deadstock fabrics and offcuts from the manufacturing process, but that’s hardly its selling point.

“It’s just a sexy-looking brand that people really like. It follows the same lines: the price is right, the fit is great, it’s a great-looking brand and oh yeah, it’s sustainable, awesome,” Wicker said. “This might be the final nudge toward pressing the purchase button, but it’s not what initiated the purchase decision.”

This dovetails with recent revelations by Impossible.com’s Lily Cole: The average Jane or Joe doesn’t want a deep dive into how a garment was made. In fact, Cole found that the more information people received, the more overwhelmed and alienated they became.

The key is to keep the message simple.

“What we honed in on is storytelling and photographs,” Cole said at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in May. “If you see the images of the people making the clothes, if you see the places they come from, that seems to be a more engaging way for people to understand.”

But ultimately brands—sustainable or not—can’t coast on virtue signaling. Millennials want to feel good about their purchase, but they won’t go out of their way for that extra dopamine hit.

“[Millennials] care about the women making our clothes. We care about the refugees. We care about the polar bears,” Wicker said. “But eventually we sort of run out of steam and we can’t care about everything and everyone. So in the end we’re just thinking, ‘How can I get the style of the clothes that I want at a price that I can afford?'”