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The Eco Economy: Millennials, money and saving sustainably

Construction crew installing solar panels on a house.
Last year, a 35-year-old Australian millionaire and real-estate mogul gave some advice to young people in a 60 Minutes interview: stop buying smashed avocado on toast – and put the money towards a house deposit instead.

Tim Gurner’s comments went viral; the millennials fought back, blaming greedy oldies for locking them out of the housing market. They might as well enjoy their soy lattes and avocado toast, the millennials argued – those savings were never going to add up to a 20% deposit on an average $1 million Auckland property.

In fact, a 2017 report from New Zealand consumer spending specialist Marketview does suggest dining out rates high on millennials’ spending preferences. And a recent study by US site Bankrate.com backs up the trend: the average American millennial eats out five times a week, and has a weekly coffee and bar tab considerably higher than those of older generations.

But New Zealand millennials are right that government policy has rewarded “mom and pop” property investors handsomely and helped fuel a madly inflationary housing market, especially in the places young people want to live and work.

And when spending habits are surveyed, millennials – to their credit – lead the charge in favouring brands and companies with proven green credentials. A New Zealand Sustainable Business Council report says young people want to engage with “purpose-driven businesses”; products and brands that are exemplars of the trace and recycle “circular economy” get their approval. 

Businesses, however, have discovered actions don’t always follow good intentions: consumers – including millennials – might say they will pay more for sustainable products and services, but often at the point of sale choose functionality and economy over a more sustainable choice. What’s clear, though, is consumer demand for genuinely sustainable brands is rising worldwide (among S&P Global 100 companies, sustainable product revenue streams are growing at around six times the rate of overall company results). And if your eco-friendly price is right, millennials in particular, will be loyal customers.

A bit of research also suggests going green doesn’t have to mean jettisoning your home deposit savings plan or any other household budget goal; it just might require a little more time and planning. So even if a new energy-efficient, low-water use washing machine or dishwasher is out of reach, for instance, you can still buy eco-friendly laundry and kitchen cleaners – and save packaging waste by refilling them at the local eco/bulk supplies store. Is your coffee and chocolate fair-trade or ethical? Often there’s no price difference between the naughty and nice – and buying local/in season usually pays off. 

There are plenty of online sources for information on how to go green economically. New Zealand’s Sustainable Business Network hosts a directory of member businesses on its website (sustainable.org.nz); you can make financial savings by being smarter with your energy use (check out the tools and information on energywise.govt.nz). Consumer NZ keeps a close watch on products and services’ “green” claims.

Youth-led organisations including Generation Zero and the Sustainable Business Network’s Now Crowd are nudging New Zealand businesses and consumers into eco-friendlier action. Paul Young, co-founder of Gen Zero says: “As younger generations move into positions of greater influence, they will challenge old ways of doing things and drive change towards sustainability. Similar to what we’ve seen with health and safety over the last few decades, people will look back at some current business practices and attitudes with disbelief.”

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.