Monday, May 7, 2018

Are Millennials the ecofrugal generation?

Sometimes I ask myself if I'm a Millennial trapped in the body of a Gen-Xer.

This first occurred to me last year when I came across an article in Advertising Age about Millennials' shopping habits. Unfortunately, the article is no longer available to non-subscribers, but the gist of it was that Millennials are less likely to be brand loyal than previous generations. They care less about the name on the package and more about the price and the quality of the item. The Brandless online store, which I wrote about back in September, seeks to appeal to this group with healthy, high-quality products at reasonable prices.

Now, I'm a good ten years older than the oldest Millennials, but this sounded like a pretty good description of the way I've been shopping all my life. Many of the products at the Brandless site, too, seemed calculated to appeal to ecofrugal shoppers like me: organic peanut butter, Fair Trade coffee, "tree-free" bath tissue, and cruelty-free skin care products with no parabens or phthalates. I started wondering: are Millennials actually a whole generation of ecofrugal shoppers?

Other stories I've read seemed to shore up this suspicion. CNBC, for instance, reported that Millennials are wary of debt—one in three say it's their greatest fear—and tend to eschew credit cards. USA Today notes that Millennials save a greater percentage of their incomes than previous generations (though they save less in dollar terms because their earnings are lower). And the Organic Trade Association reports that Millennials, especially those who have kids, are "big buyers of organic."

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I heard a segment on Young House Love Has a Podcast that made me start to question this view. This podcast, by the way, is the current endeavor of John and Sherry Petersik, the creators of the Young House Love blog I celebrated in my 2013 Thrift Week series. In 2014, they decided to stop updating the blog on a regular basis, and I spent a while hunting for a substitute without success—but a couple of years later, they popped back up again with a new weekly podcast, which I now listen to in the shower every Monday.

Anyway, John and Sherry themselves are right on the cusp of the Millennial generation—they sometimes refer to themselves as part of the "Oregon Trail generation"—and in their latest episode, they were discussing some of the ways in which they do and don't correspond to others in their demographic. For example, other Millennials supposedly dislike using top sheets on their beds; they think it's a lot easier to make the bed if you have only a duvet and a fitted sheet. Their view, which I agree with, is that making up the bed with a top sheet is a lot less work than wrestling the duvet out of and back into its cover every couple of weeks so you can wash it. However, they are in agreement with their fellow Millennials about not using bar soap because it's too germy, or fabric softener because they think it's unnecessary, or paper napkins because, hey, paper towels are pretty much the same thing, so why buy two separate products? In fact, they say, they've gone one better and done away with tissues as well, because toilet paper off the roll—especially if you buy the nice soft kind—works just as well.

From an ecofrugal perspective, I agree with some of these choices but profoundly disagree with others. For instance, I completely agree that there's no need whatsoever for fabric softener. Clothes feel plenty soft enough if you wash them with just water and a little soap, so there's no reason to apply extra chemicals to them. (I don't even bother with dryer sheets, even when I actually put things in the dryer rather than hanging them on the line; if there's any static buildup, I find I can dispel it by giving the things a good brisk shake before putting them away.)

But bar soap, to my thinking, is clearly a more ecofrugal choice than liquid soap; all the waste it generates is a small plastic wrapper, or even a paper one that can be composted, rather than a whole plastic bottle and pump assembly. (The plastic bottles may be recyclable, but the pumps never are.) Plus, according to Grist Magazine's "Ask Umbra" column, bar soap uses a lot less energy to produce and to ship, and we use less of it, making it greener all around. And why worry about getting a few germs on your hands if you're about to wash them right off?

Likewise, I was entirely in agreement with the Millennials about not using paper napkins—until I heard that they were replacing them, not with washable cloth napkins, but with paper towels. We don't even have paper towels in our house, because there's nothing they can clean that can't be cleaned just as well with cloth rags, which are both reusable and free. I would have thought this idea would appeal to thrifty Millennials—but perhaps, given their reaction to bar soap, they'd find the idea of reusing a rag too icky. And they'd no doubt be horrified to hear that the reason we don't have tissues in our house is not because we find it easier to use toilet paper, but because we actually blow our noses on—ewwwww!—reusable cloth handkerchiefs. (Though I wonder whether these same people are actually all that diligent about discarding their disposable tissues immediately after use and then washing their hands immediately, every time. If they're not, I'm prepared to bet that my sturdy cloth hanky does a better job of containing germs than a wussy paper tissue that gets soaked through after one good sneeze.)

So now, frankly, I'm not sure what to think. It appears Millennials are more ecofrugal than older folks in some ways, like eating organic and being price-conscious rather than brand-conscious. But they're just the reverse in some other ways, like eating out more and choosing more heavily packaged products.

I guess the bottom line is that the Millennial generation probably isn't going to remake the world on more sustainable lines, all on their own. But on the other hand, at least some of their habits suggest that folks this age are likely to be receptive to the concept of ecofrugality. They care about cost, and they care about environmental benefits—at least as long as they can get them without sacrificing convenience. So maybe, what blogs like mine need to do is focus on green products and services that can deliver all that in one package. That way, we can attract the attention of more Millennials and, in the process, expose them to the broader message of ecofrugality. If we can get them on board with that, they might eventually be willing to change some of their less ecofrugal habits, swapping out some of those disposable soap pump bottles for bars. Or maybe they'll come up with some entirely new form of soap that no one has thought of yet—one that's cheap, eco-friendly, and easier to use. That would be a win for everyone.
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