‘Young people’ – or perhaps, more precisely ‘millennials’ or ‘Gen Z’ – you will increasingly be told, are different. They really care about the environment and about where the food and drink they consume comes from and how it is made.
Usually, this assertion is made by a person to whom these demographics don’t personally apply and who has a story to spin about why their or their company’s sustainable or organic or locally-sourced product is sure to succeed.
And I’m sure they really want this to be true, and most of us listening to them share that wish.
Then you look at images of the mass of debris abandoned by attendees of almost any of this summer’s music festival sites. Which, as one festival-goer old enough to remember says, precisely resemble the state of these same sites after the same events 25 years ago. Except that now there are many more festivals, and much more debris. By the end of the 2023 festival season, around 250,000 pop-up tents will all have gone into landfill in the UK alone.
To be fair to the attendees, many of the people who abandon these serviceable shelters may imagine that, by some magical process, they are all collected and dispatched to parts of the world where victims of war and disaster would find them useful. But they are not. And, in any case, nobody can explain away the tons of rubbish that are strewn across the grounds that were briefly home to the festivals.
Fast-fashion not slowing
Look too at the clothes the festival-goers are wearing. Then read the Verified Fashion Fast Fashion report which suggests that the market for what some dismissively call ‘wear-and-throw-away’ clothing that was worth $122m in 2021 is set to grow at a compound rate of over 10% between 2023-2030.
Or consider the continued success of fast-food brands. Between 2017-2021, KFC managed to persuade 15m new British customers to eat its pieces of chicken. By the end of the first quarter of 2023, McDonalds globally had grown its turnover by more than 13% over the previous 12 months.
Of course, there are examples of trends that support the ‘young people care’ narrative. There’s a growing market for second-hand clothing, McDonalds serves organic milk, and the fast-food giants now offer salads and vegan options. But these are not what is driving their businesses, any more than small, energy-efficient electric cars are keeping the motor industry afloat. No, what most people want to drive today, including millennials, is the SUVs that now represent around one in every two new cars in Europe and the US.
The bigger the better
If your idea of a Porsche is a sleek sports car, think again. As long ago as 2017, seven out of every 10 vehicles bearing that badge was a Macan or a Cayenne. The German brand had officially become a predominantly SUV manufacturer.
A growing proportion of the SUVs, it is true, are now hybrids or fully electric, but there are still plenty of young drivers filling their gas-guzzlers.
In 2017, as we report elsewhere this week, 30% of French respondents wanted more organic options. Just four years later the same researchers found that the figure had dropped to 18%. Having less cash in one's pocket really does help to focus the mind; people buy what they like and can afford.
And that’s worth remembering when joining in a conversation about how ready the market is for featherweight wine bottles and how eager ‘young people’ are to drink lighter, fresher wines. My closest supermarket in the UK now sells four bourbon-barrel-aged red wines, none of which qualifies as light, fresh, organic or locally-sourced. And, by my estimation, plenty of the people buying them were born well after 1990.
I’m not saying that there isn’t greater environmental awareness today, or that anyone has imagined the existence of a growing taste for less oaky, less alcoholic wines. Just that these trends might be rather less powerful and vibrant than some would have you believe.
A few small small editorial corrections were made on September 5th to improve readability.