Last reviewed 29 August 2017

We hear a lot about millennials. Often perceived as demanding and fickle, they are reportedly having a big impact on how organisations operate, not least by expecting better when it comes to corporate social responsibility (CSR). But do millennials really care about the environment? Laura King investigates.

We are told that millennials have high expectations, and reports show that many want to work for, and buy from, responsible businesses. The figures speak for themselves. The Values Revolution Report, published in 2015, reported that 60% of millennials prefer to buy products or services from ethical companies. The same report stated that 62% of millennials wanted to work for a company that made a positive impact on the world.

Other studies agree. Research conducted in 2016 by the job-searching organisation, Monster, in conjunction with YouGov, showed that 83% of millennials surveyed wanted to work for an organisation with values that matched their own, and 70% wanted to work somewhere that has a powerful social and environmental conscience.

Do millennials matter?

What makes the case even more compelling for CSR is that the opinions of millennials matter.

The definition of a millennial is hazy, but it is loosely defined as those born between the early 1980s and the mid to late 1990s; ie those who are in their 20s to mid-30s. What makes them significant is the fact that they are the largest group of people since the baby boomers, and will soon form the majority of the working population. PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that they will form over 50% of the global workforce by 2020; accountancy firm Deloitte predicts this figure will rise to 75% by 2025. As future leaders, consumers and employees, their voice is a significant one.

The challenge this presents is not insignificant, particularly when it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent. Millennials are not renowned for their propensity to stay anywhere for long, and the surveys tend to concur.

The global 2017 Deloitte Millennial Survey showed that 36% of millennials would leave their organisation in the next two years if given a choice; 7% would leave “soon”. The Monster World of Work survey agrees; 58% of millennials were already thinking about their next job opportunity and 26% were planning to leave in the next six months.

Many reasons are cited, but one clear driving force is progression. Millennials want — and expect — a varied career and have a strong desire for personal development. Where these needs are not met, they are relatively flexible about moving on.

The implications of this are sizable. A report by Oxford Economics estimated that it costs on average £30,614 to replace someone earning over £25,000 a year. When considering that in a couple of years, 50% of the workforce will be comprised of individuals looking to regularly switch jobs, the cost to an organisation is noteworthy.

Do millennials care about the environment?

Surveys indicate that many millennials want to work for an organisation that supports the same values as they do and it is not unreasonable to think that there will be many millennials that are interested in environmental matters. Indeed, the Deloitte survey reported that the environment was of direct concern to some 31% of respondents from mature markets, and there are a plethora of studies showing that millennials are sustainability-conscious consumers.

So, do millennials care about the environment? On the face of it, yes. However, the full picture is not so clear-cut.

Although there may be many millennials that are conscious of CSR, the studies do tend to focus on those in work and only represent a small sample of the population. For every person who is aware of CSR, there is likely to be as many who are not. And although the surveys show that millennials will favour sustainable brands, it is notable that there are still many unsustainable brands that are bought by millennials.

It would also seem that millennials are not always as environmentally-friendly as other generations. For example, according to a survey by consumer research firm Mintel, younger people between the ages of 20 to 24 are more likely to say their household does not recycle when compared to householders aged 55 and over.

Similarly, a study by Recycle for Wales found that 34% of 25–34 year olds do not recycle their food waste. When compared to the over 65s, 95% of whom claim to recycle their food waste, the statistics appear to show a huge disconnect between how millennials think and how they act.

CSR beyond reputation

This disconnect can perhaps be explained by the world of information that now surrounds most of us. The world’s problems are readily communicated and most people are aware that we all need to do more; but with so much information, many are unsure where to focus their efforts.

True to this, the Deloitte survey indicated that millennials feel accountable for many societal and environmental issues, but do not feel as if they can make a real difference. Interestingly, the place where millennials did report having an impact was in the workplace. Correspondingly, the report highlighted that where employees were involved in an organisation’s CSR initiatives, they were more likely to say that they had an influence on some of the issues facing the world.

How to use CSR

Despite conflicting information, CSR should still be seen as a critical tool in retaining and attracting young talent. However, in itself, a standalone CSR policy will not be enough. To fully engage, it will need to meet the needs of millennials and give them influence over things that matter to them by:

  • providing an opportunity to grow, learn and be valued

  • providing opportunities, however small, to make a difference

  • actively demonstrating the company’s values.

Some options for CSR engagement might be to:

  • introduce an active volunteer programme whereby employees have an opportunity to learn new skills or have meaningful personal development, for example, through getting involved in conservation projects

  • allow employees to get involved by communicating CSR policies and sharing goals and achievements. There should be opportunities for employees to participate by suggesting ideas, for example, by identifying resource efficiencies

  • provide ways for employees to make positive changes in their personal lives, for example, through cycling to work schemes

  • find ways of targeting the CSR’s sustainability programme to individuals and include this as part of their one-to-one feedback

  • provide fundraising opportunities for people to get involved with at work — many people do not have time to be involved in charitable causes, so providing opportunities within the workplace can make a difference.

Millennials are not perfect examples of environmentalists, nor will they stay in a job for life. They do, however, understand the responsibility they have as individuals and believe that companies have a responsibility too. Good CSR helps employees match their values with those of an organisation, provides development opportunities and also provides a conduit for staff to influence issues they care about. These are all positive steps regardless of how environmentally-conscious an individual is, and the likelihood is, all employees would like these opportunities, not just those classed as millennials.