Green cities and ivory towers: how do higher education sustainability initiatives shape millennials’ consumption practices?
University of Michigan
College-educated millennials, motivated by a preference for vibrant, walkable neighborhoods with access to good public transportation, are helping to drive an economic resurgence in many American cities. At the same time, institutions of higher education (IHEs) are seeking to contribute to sustainable societies by encouraging students to incorporate principles of environmental responsibility into personal consumption practices. Popular writing on the urban migration of millennials—the generation born after 1982—has frequently celebrated the presumed environmental benefits of cities not designed around the automobile. Yet, little research has examined how, if at all, IHE efforts to shape student consumption practices may impact the sustainability of urban areas where many millennials are choosing to live and work. In this paper, we use survey and qualitative data on undergraduates at a large, public university to compare millennials’ commitment to different forms of sustainable consumption to their preference for particular urban forms. We find that student commitment to practicing sustainable consumption in their adult lives is weakest in an area crucial to the global ecological footprint of urban areas: how food is produced and consumed. We also find that evidence for IHE impact on student attitudes and practices related to any form of sustainable consumption is surprisingly lacking. We conclude by suggesting that IHEs have not yet realized their full potential to prepare millennials to be environmentally responsible citizens of sustainable cities, particularly where participation in food systems is concerned.