Sustainability and ethical consumerism are important for millennials globally

Global Differences in Millennial Ethical Consumerism

Millennial ethical consumerism is a global phenomenon. 20-35 year-olds in lower-income countries are willing to pay more for sustainability than their richer counterparts. Cultural differences explain what and why they deem morally important.

Sustainability is high on agenda for millennial consumers in low-income countiries

In a previous blog post I discussed the ethical consumerism of millennials. This post garnered a lot of interest from readers wanting more insight. So much so that I’ve decided to write a two-part blog post to answer questions that have been sent in by readers.

Part 1 is written in response to a question posed by a Management Consultant in Southern Sweden regarding the global distribution of millennial interest in sustainability. Part 2 will attempt to put a figure on the difference between actual and potential sustainable spending among millennials. Hint: it’s a lot!

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Our first question (originally asked in Swedish), was:

“Is ethical consumerism a global character-trait of millennials, or does it just occur in developed nations?”


In the original blog I quoted a statistic which claimed that 73% of millennials are more willing to spend more for sustainability. This statistic came from a global survey of 60 countries. So, the short answer is that ethical consumerism is a global phenomenon. Then again, with emerging and developing nations being home to 86% of millennials, this is hardly surprising.

Millennial Income USA, China, India

Lower-income Millennials Consume More Ethically

Interestingly, the study also found that millennials in Latin America, Middle East and Africa are 23-29% more willing to spend more on sustainability than their counterparts in high-income countries. The author of the report makes an attempt to explain why this is. He claims this is because millennials in high-income countries expect products to be sustainable – they shouldn’t have to pay more for them to be so. In contrast, he argues, millennials in lower-income countries see sustainability as a value-added aspect of a product.

Now, I couldn’t find any research to support this claim which leads me to think it’s based on an assumption about consumer behaviours. At Danji we strongly believe that making assumptions about consumer behaviour can lead to poor decision-making and business practices. So, I decided to look into this topic a bit more to see if there was any research that could support/challenge his claim.

Research Backs up the Data

Overall, there seems to be a general consensus across the research that millennials worldwide share an active interest in sustainability and civic-mindedness in general. The data supports the claim that millennials in lower-income countries prioritise sustainability more. One global study compared interest in sustainability among millennials across USA, India and China. It found a relatively similar level of interest across all three countries, with USA quoting the lowest.

China and India's Millennials are more ethical consumers than USA
Cultural Reasons for Buying Sustainably

But an important finding coming out of all of the research is that there is a difference across countries in why millennials are motivated to buy sustainably. Cultural differences drive the specific motivations of millennials; what they label as ‘sustainable’ and how much they are willing to spend depends on their gender, religion, norms and values. Motivations are also heavily influenced by situation. Environmental issues that directly impact a specific group of millennials are more likely to drive their consumer practices. E.g. deforestation would be a pressing concern for Brazilians.

Millennial reasons for ethical consumerism vary culturally between Indonesia and Australia

Globalisation Changing Demographics

Moreover, in a globalised world, national identity is becoming less important in explaining cultural trends in consumer behaviour. So, trying to understand millennial consumption practices by country income may not be the best way to go. Research shows that it is better to categorise millennial sustainability motivations by their level of engagement in ethical consumerism. Establishing three levels of engagement – unengaged, indifferent, committed– may be a more effective way of understanding global differences in consumption. This has consequences for marketing strategies. Marketing should be targeted at these millennial submarkets and adapted according to how engaged they are. For instance, marketing to the most committed does not need to waste time explaining why sustainability is important. These millennials are already convinced.

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