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A Student Challenge Suggests Millennials Could Save Us from Black Friday

Raz Godelnik headshotWords by Raz Godelnik
Leadership & Transparency
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As retailers debate whether to jumpstart holiday shopping by opening on Thanksgiving, 44 of my students have a new perspective on consumption – they just completed their first “Buy Nothing New” challenge.

For 30 days, the students did not buy anything new other than food and absolute necessities. As their professor, my intention wasn’t to torture them but to give them an opportunity to explore alternatives to consumption -- hoping that through their experiences I would have a better sense about their generation’s (aka Gen Y, or Millennials) actual willingness to consider alternatives to traditional retail channels. In other words, the question I had in mind was: Can Millennials significantly integrate sustainable consumption into their lifestyles?

The opinions about it seem to be mixed. While Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins Venture Capital describes this generation as transitioning from asset-heavy lifestyles into asset-light lifestyles, a BCG study found out that Millennials “continue to place a high importance on brands. And they do the same for consumerism: majorities of those surveyed said that buying makes them happy and that spending is good for the economy and society.”

So, which one is it?

The beginning of the challenge wasn’t that easy for some students. One student wrote on the project’s blog: “I was initially very wary when I first heard about this project because I LOVE to shop.” Another student wrote: “When I first heard that we had to go an entire month without making new purchases I was mortified and slightly put off by the project. Shopping is one of my favorite things to do, and I hate buying secondhand. I love new things.”

This wasn’t necessarily an easy ride for the students, but the search for sustainable alternatives that would make sense for them took them to some interesting places. One of my favorite stories was of a student who walked through SoHo and saw a leather jacket that she really liked. She tried it and it fit perfectly, but then on the way to buy it she wondered if there wasn’t another way to meet her needs. She asked her roommate, who has a nice leather jacket, if she wanted to swap her leather coat for one of hers. The roommate said yes, and my student wrote: “I’m really excited to be wearing a new leather jacket this weekend and I do think it’s a great alternative to be switching with a roommate instead of buying something new.”

Other examples included borrowing magazines from a neighbor, preparing food instead of ordering takeout, reusing old candle jars as vases, using sharing economy services like Airbnb and Citibike, making your own costumes for Halloween, buying a second-hand radio on eBay, and even a DIY haircut (five minutes, no cost and it actually ended well).

Still, no matter how satisfactory the alternatives were, at the end of the challenge students still agreed that shopping for new things makes them happy, though far less than before the challenge started (90 percent dropped to 72 percent).

Was Mary Meeker right, or BCG? Both are somewhat right. Millennials seems to enjoy shopping as much as any other generation, and often see buying new stuff as the default option. But when asked to shift to a more thoughtful mode -- where they start asking themselves questions not just about their purchasing decisions, but also about their lifestyle overall -- something interesting happens. As one student described it: “I believe that this has been a month of rethinking my consumption behavior. I have been trying to shift my consuming behaviors toward more sustainable ones. I really think that as the weeks passed, I started to fully be aware and conscious of every purchase I made. Or at least I really thought to myself: Do I really need this? Or is there any other possible solution?”

And this is not just about some fuzzy feeling that there’s a better way to live your life – students reported significant savings in their monthly expenses, making better use of what they already have and feeling gratified about creating something rather than buying it.

In the end, more than 8 in 10 students defined “consuming better” as consuming only what I truly need and consuming products with better quality/durability. Interestingly, consuming less was almost at the bottom of the list with 40 percent.

Based on the challenge, Millennials seem ready to orient their lives in a much more sustainable way, shifting from a wasteful culture that puts a lot of value on shopping to one that is more focused on relationships, community and creativity -- the elements that make us happy.

But don’t expect Millennials to do it without a nudge. As one student wrote: “I have to be honest that I would probably not have done the challenge had it not been a requirement for class.” Therefore, this is our critical challenge -- if we can’t nudge the Millennials, we’ll have to wait for the next generation (Gen Z). Can we really afford that? I doubt it.

* I'd like to thank Mitch Baranowksi of BBMG for his insightful comments on an earlier version of this post.

Image credit: Paul Hocksenar, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management in the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. 

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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