How to Sell Sustainable Commercial Design to Baby Boomers and Millennials

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I was speaking with my father about the economic incentives given to buyers of electric cars when I realized there was a generation gap in our environmental views. His perspective of sustainability, though concerned about Global Warming and leaving a “greener world” legacy to his grandchildren, is what the money savings are going to be.

This is completely justifiable. It’s what drives many MBA programs to add environmental classes to their curriculum, and it drives why many multi-million dollar companies are “concerned” with sustainability.

Thank goodness.

But, it’s not just savings that matter. People in my generation invest in electrical cars because we grew up in a world dependent on oil – a resource that we believe isn’t as sustainable or environmentally friendly as newer alternative energies. So, from that perspective, cars operating on oil aren’t worth investing in.

But beyond cars, how do different generations perceive sustainability? And how can we as designers use these perceptions to help our clients become more sustainable?

My father grew up in a time when the perception of the environment changed drastically. He is a Baby Boomer, born in a time when preserving the forests was the strongest message of sustainability. But during the 1960s and 70s, an entire generation started acknowledging humans’ costly effects on the environment:

And, to an extent, Boomers embraced that by spearheading Earth Day, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act. All of these laws were created by and for the Boomer population. (The Seventies)

1970 Earth Day
1970 Earth Day

But the Baby Boomers also were told this Democratic era they were born into gave them a heavy responsibility. They were to demonstrate how successful democracy in a post-industrial world could be.

And that they did; today, Boomers have decades of experience running multi-million- and billion-dollar companies. They have proven to their parents, themselves, and the world that production can be cheap and efficient – whether it’s sustainable or not.

Companies like Walmart, who, in many ways, define the Boomer’s astonishing growth, have just recently turned back towards environmentalism. But not for the hippy values of saving the Earth and keeping the skies groovy; these seasoned professionals also “go green” for the money. If Walmart can cut waste, cut transportation, and cut hours of running their company, then they have saved money – and these kinds of measures just happen to be sustainable, too.

The priority for these Boomer CEOs and CFOs, right or wrong, often is the economics.

In comparison, the Millennials have grown up with Earth Day and recycling. Their understanding of being good to the planet in many ways has been with them since birth.

Seeing extreme weather patterns and learning about numerous oil spills, the human population explosion, and animal extinction has kept us not jaded, but proactive in finding solutions to keeping the earth sustainable.

With the advancement of immediate communication from around the world, we’ve grown to understand that these are real-world-wide problems, and we need to fix them now for our own survival; the monetary expense of keeping our working environments green comes second.

One review by Cornell researchers states, “Millennials consider environmental sustainability, corporate social responsibility, and ethical financial behavior to be important characteristics of an employer.”

We not only support environmentalism, we expect it of others. We also don’t feel like it’s a matter of one or two laws to be passed – sustainability affects everything.

As one Gen Y writer noted, “Millennials view environmental protection more as a value to be incorporated into all policy making than as its own, isolated discipline. We are concerned with economic growth, job creation, enhancing public health, bolstering educational achievement, and national security and diplomacy. Young people recognize that each of these concerns is inextricably tied to the environment and see environmental health and protection as a means to arriving at any of these outcomes.” (Millennials are Committed to a Multidimensional Approach to Saving the Environment)

Therefore, Millennials’ priority is environmentalism for environmentalism’s sake.

So how do we incorporate these generational priorities into our design work?

As designers, our clients want sustainable offices no matter what generation they’re from. But the key is to figure out what is the reasoning behind their choice to be sustainable.

An older, more traditional corporation with a very fixed hierarchy is most likely run by Baby Boomers. They are looking for the monetary reason the sustainable solutions make sense in their office.

  • Do they get monthly credits towards rent for their energy savings?
  • Is it cheaper to replace a portion of the carpet a few times, instead of the entire roll once or twice?
  • Do their employees really work more effectively when they aren’t boxed in by walls of gypsum board, but when they can easily see the sunshine outside?

These are the boomers’ thoughts. Show them the bottom line – how is your sustainable specifications and designs going to lower it?

Conversely, the Millennials are much more likely to first consider, “How can I make this a very functional, friendly office with the least amount of resources used?” And by “resources,” I mean materials, not just dollar bills.

They are more easily sold on how they are directly affecting the greater good through their commercial space. They should be showered with praise on how their location and adjustable furniture and 80 percent recycled carpet will help save the world, one environment “moment” at a time. They want to be a part of something bigger, show them how they will be with your design.

Both generations in the workforce today want to be sustainable, but knowing why each wants to be can give us a leg up in commercial design.

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