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Pleasing the Socially Conscious Consumer

A shift in Gen Y customers' expectations mean businesses need to do more than just make money. Or does it?

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A few weeks ago when I was speaking to young entrepreneurs who are building businesses around the idea of combining traditionally crafted goods with cutting-edge business tech, several mentioned what first appeared to be a strange paradox. The recent recession may have caused American consumers to tighten their purse strings, these entrepreneurs said, but the tough times also made people think more carefully about each dollar they spend, focusing interest on the true value of a good, how it was produced, and how long it would last.

"For a long time, because there was so much money flying around, people didn't care, and I think with the financial crisis, the younger generation really started to look at the way things are made, what they are made of and how that would affect us going forward," said Mike Maher, co-founder of Taylor Stitch, a custom shirt manufacturer, in a typical expression of this idea.

But what the young entrepreneurs I talked to see as a business opportunity, a niche to be mined for profit (though, to be fair, they may be passionate about their products as well), others see as a generation-wide challenge or movement. Take a recent post in blog Under30CEO, for example. Written by Kristin Glenn and Shannon Whitehead, the co-founders of {r}evolution apparel, the piece argues that a general shift has occurred in what young customers expect from businesses, forcing Gen Y entrepreneurs to rise to the occasion:

Entrepreneurs in the 90s had it easy. No one flinched at cheap production in China. Free trade was a hot topic, but fair trade was rarely discussed. America at large was feeding kids, like us, purple ketchup--and making billions from the consumption of poorly made, unhealthy, and even toxic products.

Fast forward a generation, and Gen Y is a big part of the movement towards more responsible business…. This generation of entrepreneurs will not have it so easy — because this generation of consumers is not turning a blind eye. The evidence is in the products: organic clothing, recycled notebooks, eco-friendly cars, preservative-free foods. Even the most irresponsible companies are trying to clean up their "green" image.

It's true that Gen Y did grow up with a growing sense of alarm about the environment as a series of looming disasters from acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer to global warming made headlines, and we were raised in a time when "Don't be evil" was the corporate motto getting the most press. But there’s also plenty of evidence that Gen Y doesn’t live up to the green hype it espouses when it actually comes down to real world decisions like what to consume and where to work.

What do you think, do companies wooing Gen Y need to actually have some social utility, or just appear like they do?

Last updated: Dec 30, 2011

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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