By Cynthia Figge
This past weekend I participated in a program at my alma mater, Lawrence University, to connect college students with alumni in business, law, the arts and medicine. As the entrepeneur “role model,” I spoke alongside two other professionals about their journey post-Lawrence. Maybe it’s because I have a “save the world” gene and attract others who share this passion, but it seemed like a considerable number of students are involved in sustainability. They are planting gardens on campus, volunteering in the community, designing new ventures to help homeless people make the transition to a viable livelihood, traveling to China to study sustainability, lobbying for the greening of campus buildings, instigating recycling programs to close the loop, and leading many other independent study and senior projects with a focus in ecological and social issues.
This is why I deem the emerging cohort graduating from college in the past and current decade “sustainability natives.” I borrow the term from Marc Prensky’s “digital natives” – the notion that people under 30-something have come of age after the Internet was made accessible to all. Consequently, their expectations for how the world functions differs significantly from only a generation prior. Just like digital natives, sustainability natives have an innate understanding of the ecological and social issues facing the planet. They do not debate whether these challenges exist or are an imperative for their generation. They instead take for granted the need to creatively solve sustainability’s challenges of efficiency (reduced material and energy throughput and reduced waste), and sufficiency (what does society need to truly create a sustainable economic equilibrium for 7 to 10 billion people).
Furthermore, their expectation that business takes a lead in tackling these issues is a given. This means that for the sustainability native, they will expect more from the corporate world around them. According to Cone Communications, “83% of Americans want MORE of the products, services and retailers they use to support causes.” And in their day to day job, 88% of sustainability natives will choose employers based on their CSR and 86% would consider leaving their job if CSR no longer held up (according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers). Born into a certain assumption about the imperative of sustainability, this generation bridges the professional and personal and marries their values and their dollars spent.
But what caught my attention was the following. At a brainstorming workshop on business solutions to societal problems, this question was raised: are companies truly are becoming sustainable if the highest rated companies on CSRHub are in the low 70s (out of 100)? Surely the best cannot be only a C+. But even more concerning to the students was the question of sufficiency – do we even need the unsustainable products and services that we are trying to make more sustainable? Isn’t this an exercise straight from the Emperor’s New Clothes?
Far beyond dreaded greenwashing, this harkens to a deeper point: can capitalism be sustainable if it’s driving force is consumption? Aren’t the two necessarily at odds? After all, even if we lightweight a 12 ounce soda can and recycle it after consumption, we still have a product that combines water – a precious resource – with an average of 10 packets of sugar to create a drink with no nutritional value. And how many pairs of shoes or numbers of iPods do we really need?
Many of us who are not digital natives do fairly well learning and adapting to all things digital, and many of us who are not sustainability natives work hard to create a more sustainable world. However, the sustainability natives may address and solve the underlying challenges of efficiency and sufficiency in a way that “sustainability immigrants” (like me) may not. The question of what do we really need to consume may rattle the sustainability field – and it should. It may be these sustainability natives that are the most disruptive; challenging our attempts thus far to “sustain” the unsustainable. Their call is to challenge the consumption-centric economic model at its very core. After all, they must.
Photo of Lawrence University students working in a garden (courtesy of Rachel Crowl).