Green cities and ivory towers: how do higher education sustainability initiatives shape millennials’ consumption practices?

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Notes

  1. 1.

    All research discussed in this paper was approved by the U-M Institutional Review Board.

  2. 2.

    A full description of survey methodology is available on the SCIP website: http://graham.umich.edu/leadership/scip

  3. 3.

    This definition of “sustainable food” was adopted from U-M procurement guidelines.

  4. 4.

    Measuring whether different conceptions of sustainability emerged at all during each focus group session was deemed the most useful quantitative representation of the qualitative data. Alternative statistics, such as how often different conceptions were mentioned, were potentially misleading, as unusually talkative individual participants can quickly “run up the count” of how often their preferred conception is mentioned during a single session.

  5. 5.

    Parenthetical letters next to the first student speaker in each passage denote the student year for the focus group: F = freshmen; So = sophomores; J = juniors; Se = seniors; and A = athletes (all years).

  6. 6.

    Other tests of the relationship between two variables, such as Pearson’s correlation, would not have supported the use of sample weights.

References

  1. Alberti M (1996) Measuring urban sustainability. Environ Impact Assess Rev 16:381–424

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Alberti M (1999) Urban patterns and environmental performance: what do we know? J Plan Educ Res 19:151–163

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. American Public Transportation Association (2014) Millennials and mobility: understanding the millennial mindset.

  4. Bannister D, Watson S, Wood C (1997) Sustainable cities: transport, energy, and urban form. Environ Plan B Plan Des 24:125–143

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Barth M, Godemann J, Rieckmann M, Stoltenberg U (2007) Developing key competencies for sustainable development in higher education. Int J Sustain High Educ 8:416–430

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Berger M (2014) The unsustainable city. Sustain 6:365–374

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Burnstein E, Gallagher M (2014) The revitalization of American central cities: fact or fiction?

  8. Camagni R, Gibelli MC, Rigamonti P (2002) Urban mobility and urban form: the social and environmental costs of different patterns of urban expansion. Ecol Econ 40:199–216

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Carew AL, Mitchell CA (2002) Characterizing undergraduate engineering students’ understanding of sustainability. Eur J Eng Educ 27:349–362

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Cassie R (2014) Baltimore 2.0: How the millennial generation and a new “sharing economy” are transforming the way cities function. Baltim Mag.

  11. Castellani V, Sala S (2013) Sustainability indicators integrating consumption patterns in strategic environmental assessment for urban planning. Sustain 5:3426–3446

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Clarke A (2006) The campus environmental management system cycle in practice: 15 years of environmental management, education and research at Dalhousie University. Int J Sustain High Educ 7:374–389

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Compton J, Pollak RA (2007) Why are power couples increasingly concentrated in large metropolitan areas? J Labor Econ 25:475–512

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Costa DL, Kahn ME (2000) Power couples: changes in the locational choice of the college educated, 1940–1990. Q J Econ 115:1287–1315

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Davies SA, Edmister JH, Sullivan K, West CK (2003) Educating sustainable societies for the twenty-first century. Int J Sustain High Educ 4:169–179

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Dickerson CA, Thibodeau R, Aronson E, Miller D (1992) Using cognitive dissonance to encourage water conservation. J Appl Soc Psychol 22:841–854

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Doughty MRC, Hammond GP (2004) Sustainability and the built environment at and beyond the city scale. Build Environ 39:1223–1233

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Earl C, Lawrence A (2003) The campus community and the concept of sustainability: an assessment of college of Charleston student perceptions. Chrestomathy Annu Rev Undergrad Res Coll Charlest 2:85–102

    Google Scholar 

  19. Echenique MH, Hargreaves AJ, Mitchell G, Namdeo A (2012) Growing cities sustainably. J Am Plann Assoc 78:121–137

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Emanuel R, Adams JN (2011) College students’ perceptions of campus sustainability. Int J Sustain High Educ 12:79–92

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Flint A (2014) What millennials want—and why cities are right to pay them so much attention.

  22. Grimm NB, Faeth SH, Golubiewski NE, Redman CL, Wu J, Bai X, Briggs JM (2008) Global change and the ecology of cities. Science 319:756–760

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Habron G (2012) Competency-based sustainability specialization at Michigan State University. Sustain J Rec 5:379–385

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Hansen SS, Bucki J, Lee J (2011) Engaging the campus community through participatory sustainability strategic planning. Sustain J Rec 4:75–79

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Haraldsson HV, Ranhagen U, Sverdrup H (2001) Is eco-living more sustainable than conventional living? Comparing sustainability performances between two townships in southern Sweden. J Environ Plan Manag 44:663–679

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Hendee C (2014) Millennials’ desires are reshaping Denver development plans.

  27. Kagawa F (2007) Dissonance in students’ perceptions of sustainable development and sustainability: implications for curriculum change. Int J Sustain High Educ 8:317–338

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Mallach A (2014) The march of the millennial generation to the cities is real.

  29. Marans RW, Edelstein JY (2010) The human dimension of energy conservation and sustainability: a case study of the University of Michigan’s energy conservation program. Int J Sustain High Educ 11:6–18

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. McGranahan G, Satterthwaite D (2003) Urban centers: an assessment of sustainability. Annu Rev Environ Resour 28:243–274

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. McMillan EE, Wright T, Beazley K (2004) Impact of a university-level environmental studies class on students’ values. J Environ Educ 35:19–28

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Muñiz I, Galindo A (2005) Urban form and the ecological footprint of commuting. The case of Barcelona. Ecol Econ 55:499–514

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Neilson (2014) Millennials: breaking the myths.

  34. Newman PWG (1999) Sustainability and cities: extending the metabolism model. Landsc Urban Plan 44:219–226

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Newman P (2006) The environmental impact of cities. Environ Urban 18:275–295

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Orr D (1991) What is education for? Six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them. Context 27:52–55

    Google Scholar 

  37. Peri G (2002) Young workers, learning, and agglomerations. J Urban Econ 52:582–607

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Pike L, Shannon T, Lawrimore K, McGee A et al (2003) Science education and sustainability initiatives: a campus recycling case study shows the importance of opportunity. Int J Sustain High Educ 4:218

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Press M, Caires M, Patton T (2010) Campus sustainability through civic engagement at the University of Wyoming. Sustain 3:115–118

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Rees WE (1992) Ecological footprints and appropriated carrying capacity: what urban economics leaves out. Environ Urban 4:121–130

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Rees W, Wackernagel M (1996) Urban ecological footprints: why cities cannot be sustainable—and why they are a key to sustainability. Environ Impact Assess Rev 16:223–248

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Rockefeller Foundation (2014) Rockefeller millennials survey (New York, NY)

  43. Sander W (2006) Educational attainment and residential location. Educ Urban Soc 38:307–326

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Satterthwaite D (2008) Cities’ contribution to global warming: notes on the allocation of greenhouse gas emissions. Environ Urban 20:539–549

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Sharp L (2009) Higher education: the quest for the sustainable campus. Sustain Sci Pract Policy 5:1–8

    Google Scholar 

  46. Shelby J, Tregoning H, Ways H (2014) How are millennials changing planning? (Atlanta, GA)

  47. University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (1990) Report and declaration of the Presidents Conference (1990)

  48. van Weenen H (2000) Towards a vision of a sustainable university. Int J Sustain High Educ 1:20

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Woodhouse K (2013) Find out where they go: University of Michigan graduates leaving tree city for the big city. Ann Arbor News

  50. World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our common future: report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (United Nations)

  51. Wu J (2010) Urban sustainability: an inevitable goal of landscape research. Landsc Ecol 25:1–4

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Zeev S, Meidad K, Avinoam M (2014) A multi-spatial scale approach to urban sustainability—an illustration of the domestic and global hinterlands of the city of Beer-Sheva. Land Use Policy

  53. Zsóka Á, Szerényi ZM, Széchy A, Kocsis T (2013) Greening due to environmental education? Environmental knowledge, attitudes, consumer behavior and everyday pro-environmental activities of Hungarian high school and university students. J Clean Prod 48:126–138

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

The authors wish to acknowledge the Graham Sustainability Institute and the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan for their financial and in-kind contributions to this study. The Dow Sustainability Fellows Program and the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise supported the postdoctoral fellowship of the lead author. John Callewaert and Robert Marans provided valuable input and are the lead researchers for the Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program. The 2011–2012 University of Michigan Planet Blue Student Leaders facilitated the focus groups analyzed in this paper with enthusiasm and dedication.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ethan D. Schoolman.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Schoolman, E.D., Shriberg, M., Schwimmer, S. et al. Green cities and ivory towers: how do higher education sustainability initiatives shape millennials’ consumption practices?. J Environ Stud Sci 6, 490–502 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-014-0190-z

Download citation

Keywords

  • Sustainable consumption
  • Millennials
  • Higher education
  • Cities
  • Sustainability