Briefings Magazine

The Spread of Eco-anxiety

You see older groups seeming to ignore the problem.

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By: Daniel Goleman

My granddaughter, a college student, hates to shop. She disdains “fast fashion” and its cheap and quick styles. Instead she prefers getting her clothes at the Salvation Army or swapping with friends. She’s not alone. Her attitude represents a generational shift in shopping, one driven by longterm fears about our environmental future.

Eco-anxiety seems to be shaping a new consumer style among the youngest, one that will likely create new opportunities to win market share. This shift may be understandable, given the drumbeat of dire climate forecasts over the rest of this century—and their lifespan.

Try this thought experiment. Imagine you are a 12-year-old girl, one who one day hopes to be a mom. As you imagine what the future holds for you, you fear that the predictions of a much hotter and wilder climate by the time you are 20 or 30—and an even worse one when you are 40 or 50—will doom your dreams.

You see older generations seeming to ignore the problem, even as they worsen it. Instead they run a race of avoiding heat, from air-conditioned car to office to home. But the treadmill of avoiding heat, which aids that denial, will end in power outages. The climate hits everyone—unlike a gated community that keeps out crime and litter. That 12 year old realizes we will suffer; we can’t warm the planet and escape the heat at the same time.

Such insights create new habits among the young—not just buying secondhand items, but also borrowing, renting, or repurposing what’s already on hand. Plus trying to lower their carbon footprint and urging friends to do the same.

A recent online survey of 1,338 people, reported in The Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that 46 percent felt strong anxiety about their environmental future, and that these fears were strongest among the youngest surveyed. A significant number of the youngest respondents also espoused the more thrifty shopping ethos. Intriguingly, personal experience of an ecological disaster did not seem to be the only driver: seeing media images of wildfires, floods, and heat waves primed eco-anxiety in many. Experts expect such worries to increase among the young as time goes on.

This trend opens the way to innovative strategy. Start with a rethink of the ways we manufacture and offer services. Given that our current material world has been built without much concern for environmental consequences—accountants have told us we can consider them “externalities,” or someone else’s problem—a radical rethink seems essential. And, as always, first movers in a given sector will have a marketing advantage, if only from their head start. There are countless ways to turn this trend into a business win, if not now, then soon.

Some golden opportunities:

The electronics industry. It stands as a case in point with its current business model of throwaways. A smart company might find ways to truly recycle its product, thereby winning over a younger generation already primed for the next digital-product round.

Food. There is already a discernible shift away from meats to vegetable-based alternatives. While that market segment may be small today, it’s certain to grow.

Packaging. A biodegradable wrapper that could replace never-disintegrating plastics wins here.

Energy. With California mandating all-electric vehicles in the future, the need for alternative energy sources will certainly multiply.

But why stop there? Why can’t auto companies compete on making their cars lighter while also maintaining their protective strength?

More and more companies are expressing their mission in terms of making the world a better place, one way or another. Aligning that purpose with actions that both improve the planet and appeal to tomorrow’s market seems a smart strategy.

Goleman is the author of the international best seller Emotional Intelligence. See for his series of primers.


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