Sustainability Icons for Every Generation, and What This Means for Brands

What kind of images connect with baby boomers, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z?

Photo: Mike Harrington/Getty Images

The lone polar bear on the ice floe, smog billowing from smokestacks, forest fires devouring California—these visual icons, seen so often around us, have educated the public about the negative impacts of climate change. But when it comes to commercial imagery, consumers want to see a positive, hopeful message. Already, a new set of visual icons is emerging, such as hands holding a seedling, a green globe, a woman hugging a tree. While these icons are useful for bringing environmental issues instantly to mind, they also picture the issue as somewhat remote and even abstract. They lack an immediate call to action.

Which means there remains a genuine need to move the visual language forward. And to do that, we must center visuals on people, communities and action, clearly showing what companies and individuals can do to contribute to environmental sustainability, both now and in the years to come.

Last year, Greta Thunberg—now something of an icon herself—became the face of climate change activism, calling on businesses of all sizes to step up to the plate and do more to preserve our world for future generations. Her activism combined with popular sentiments might lead one to believe that environmental sustainability is most important to Gen Z consumers, but our Visual GPS research revealed that sustainability is actually important to consumers across generations. Baby boomers rank the most passionate, and Gen Z, surprisingly, the least. Across the globe, all four generations we surveyed—Gen Z, millennials, Gen X and baby boomers—were twice as likely to respond to visuals showing large-scale solutions such as renewable energy or reforestation, especially with a human touch. 

Our data shows that 81 percent of consumers expect companies to be environmentally aware in all of their visual communications—even when the visual storytelling is not directly related to the environment. Considering that nearly all (92 percent) consumers are concerned about the environment, sustainable lifestyle choices won't always look the same for the everyone. What this suggests is people fold sustainable choices into their daily lives based on a number of factors, and our research shows that generational values are among them. 

Baby Boomers

While the solar panel icon tested well with everyone, the recycling symbol tested particularly well with baby boomers and Gen X, leaving younger generations less impressed. Our research shows that baby boomers tend to favor imagery showing the direct impact of environmental issues on people, animals and nature. They have more faith in individual actions such as recycling and eliminating single-use plastics, and in nonprofits and community groups. So it's especially important to show these age groups directly involved in what we call personal environmental projects, including recycling, volunteering or using reusable products.

Gen X

Gen X is the most skeptical when it comes to any industry's ability to truly do good for the environment, but they are also the generation most committed to sustainable investing. This group is currently in a life phase in which many have children and/or professional leadership responsibilities, which means they are in a position to somewhat influence the future of sustainability. There is also an opportunity to show Gen X in both sustainable lifestyle and business imagery, whether it involves leading a team of renewable energy workers, teaching a child how to garden, or eco-proofing their own home.

Millennials 

Although recycling may inspire older generations, our data shows sustainable business is more likely to strike a chord with millennials. A 2017 Shelton Group study confirms that while millennials are less likely than baby boomers to engage in small individual actions such as recycling, they are more likely to buy from companies and businesses that adopt environmentally sustainable practices—and historically, they have also been the main drivers of sustainable consumption. Visuals showing millennials as sustainable small-business owners and customers will not only reflect their lifestyle choices, but draw them in.

Gen Z

Gen Z prefers visuals that tell a story associated with the environment, have a global feel and capture real human emotions. They place more responsibility on the media and believe in technology's potential to further encourage sustainable practices. They may not have as much spending power as the older generations, but they still see themselves as ethical influencers and catalysts for change. Protest signs are "fine and all," but to capture this growing demographic, it's also important to show the emotional gratification that this age group derives from coming together to do what they can for the environment.

Taken altogether, this suggests that while Covid-19 has not chased sustainability away, it has changed who cares most about it. The global pandemic and subsequent recession have hit younger generations particularly hard, and a Deloitte study confirms that although sustainability still matters a lot to them, older generations are currently leading the way as sustainable consumers. In our summer 2019 survey, Gen Z and millennials were the most passionate about sustainability, with more than half reporting that they only buy from eco-friendly brands. Our spring 2020 survey revealed the tables have turned: Now, baby boomers and Gen X are more passionate, and up to 10 percent more committed to buying from eco-friendly brands.

Assuming the economy will improve once the pandemic has subsided, it will be increasingly important to consider all generations when showing sustainability, as well as the visual icons which will resonate with each one.

Profile picture for user Rebecca Rom-Frank
Rebecca Rom-Frank
Rebecca Rom-Frank is creative researcher, creative content, at Getty Images.

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