Millennials Are Balancing Overspending Habits by Prioritizing Environmentalism

Though sometimes materialistic, this consumer group seeks out ways to give back

A dollar sign is carved into the grass and filled with water; two people are seen maintaining the dollar sign with their rakes
Sustainable, eco-friendly products and services are a priority to millennials. Getty Images

With the advancement of technology and the penetration of social media, it seems that materialistic individuals are all around us, each obsessed with showing off their latest expensive purchase and often appearing to have very little regard for the environment.

According to Pew Research, millennials are especially more materialistic as a result of growing up in an abundant world, sometimes even to the point of spending beyond their financial means. On average, millennials have a debt of $42,000, with credit card debt making up a full fourth. As such, many consider materialistic individuals to be the enemies of the environmental movement due to their overconsumption.

But are these claims truly justifiable? Is the relationship between materialism and environmentalism as black and white as it appears?

While materialists’ consumption patterns do not appear to align with the typical environmentalist priority of reduced consumption and environmental protection at first glance, recent research published in the interdisciplinary journal of Psychology & Marketing revealed a surprising relationship between materialistic values and environmental behaviors. Through a series of experimental data and secondary data from the World Value Survey (WVS), the world’s largest nonprofit-run survey, the researchers found that rather than simply castigating consumers with materialistic values, which are relatively enduring and difficult to change, there are practical ways to engage these individuals in the environmental movement.

As consumers become exceedingly more aware of various environmental problems, the gap between materialistic behaviors and environmental values increases.

Materialistic individuals are actually seeking out ways to indirectly engage in environmental behaviors, such as through fundraising or advocacy, and this desire is particularly heightened in those who possess increased environmental knowledge. Evidence from the research noted above also suggests that individuals are pursuing these behaviors as moral compensation to boost their own moral self-concept. This is particularly the case when the individuals are highly self-conscious and realize the impact of their overconsumption.

Today, as consumers become exceedingly more aware of various environmental problems, the gap between materialistic behaviors and environmental values increases. One of the means by which consumers compensate is through their conscientious choice of the companies and brands they purchase from and interact with. Now more than ever, consumers are seeking out brands that are associated with a good cause. They are not simply looking for green products. Instead, they desire to participate in a variety of environmental behaviors indirectly, such as through fundraising campaigns and environmental organization membership. In fact, according to the Shelton Group, 70% of millennials say a company’s environmental focus impacts their purchase decisions; they prioritize buying from sustainable brands or companies with sustainable practices.

This new shift presents environmental organizations and campaigns with the opportunity to market and engage with an audience that has previously been ignored, one that has been considered hard to reach. Many leading corporations have already been captivated by this newfound shift. For example, Google created one of the world’s most energy efficient data centers and has funded green energy projects by installing numerous solar panels and windmills. They also host farmer’s markets and bring goats to trim the grass, a uniquely creative and fun way to show consumers their dedication to the environment. Similarly, S.C. Johnson followed suit by reducing 1.4 million pounds of polyvinylidene chloride from Saran Wrap, Target introduced an eco-clothing line and Nike created a line of sustainable products.

The fact that materialists are balancing their consumption appetites with the desire to behave prosaically is remarkable news. Consumers, especially millennials and those high on materialistic values, are an untapped market with a pent-up demand for environmental programs. The latest Nielsen report on sustainable shoppers found that across all age groups 15 years old and above, millennials are the highest percentage (85%) of respondents who said that it is “extremely” or “very” important for companies to implement programs to improve the environment.

Though millennials may be heavy spenders, they may also be the group most eager to contribute to environmental causes, even though their motivation might be to morally cleanse themselves after overspending. As such, marketers and environmental activists alike can tailor products and marketing communications messages to target this group of individuals. After all, this would be a win-win for all parties involved.

Elina Tang is a marketing professor and consultant for the American Council on Education (ACE) and is a member of our Adweek Academic Council.
Suzana Tesla received her MBA in finance, international business and business analytics as well as a second Masters in marketing from the University of Illinois at Chicago.