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Sustainability Drives Consumer Behavior, Career Choices Among Young People

Categories: Industry Insights
sustainability drives consumer behavior and career choices

Sustainability is top of mind for many people, but perhaps none more so than Millennials and Generation Z (Gen Z). As they enter the workforce, settle into their careers and begin their families, they are spending more time than previous generations thinking about sustainability — both in the products they buy and the places they work.

How do consumer behavior and career choice impact the paper industry? We spoke with three Domtar leaders to learn more about the impact of sustainability trends among younger generations.

Consumer Behavior Reflects Demand for Sustainable Products

Paige Goff on consumer behavior Paige Goff, vice president of sustainability at Domtar, knows a lot about generational differences when it comes to sustainability. In fact, she has seen a shift in consumer behavior during her 16 years with Domtar, and it has informed the company’s sustainability policies and messaging.

“Maybe 10–15 years ago people thought sustainability was going to be a fad that was going to go away,” Goff says. But in reality, sustainability is one of the leading concerns of consumers. The 2019 Retail and Sustainability Survey showed that two-thirds of Americans prefer using sustainable products, with 68 percent of Gen Z shoppers committed to making eco-friendly purchases as part of their consumer behavior.

As a result, businesses feel greater pressure to become more sustainable. The Environmental Defense Fund’s 2019 Fourth Wave Adoption Benchmark Survey found that 7 in 10 CEOs and vice presidents feel compelled by customers and investors to make sustainability a strategic priority for their organization, and 8 in 10 say regulators are also pushing the issue.

This is especially true for the paper products industry, which makes many of the products consumers use every day. Manufacturers have to convince consumers, especially younger generations, that these products are sustainably produced.

“A lot of people think that because forest companies cut down trees, that’s a bad thing. But we replant them, and we make sure forests stay forests. It’s actually essential that we do that,” says Goff. “The paper industry is a very old industry, and we always assumed people understood what we were doing. But within the last 7–10 years, we’ve done a better job educating folks about why we are sustainable and some opportunities that we have to grow.”

It’s one thing to say something is eco-friendly, and quite another to actually prove it. Many companies offer claims on their packaging that attempt to convince consumers that a product is sustainable. This so-called “greenwashing” is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound.

“Nowadays companies aren’t able to get away with greenwashing as they were in the past because younger consumers are much more dedicated to doing the research behind it and not just taking it at face value,” Goff says.

McKinsey and Company calls Gen Z ‘True Gen,’ and they may be right. The research firm found that 65 percent of Gen Z consumers try to learn the true sustainability of any product they buy — including whether it’s sustainably sourced, what it is made from and how it is made. In addition, 70 percent of these consumers try to buy products from companies that they consider ethical.

Goff says such consumer behavior is part of the reason companies like Domtar are focusing on certification. “We need to make sure that we continue to dot our Is and cross our Ts,” she says. “Third-party certification, such as the FSC, SFI, and PEFC certifications you see on many products made with our fiber, helps make sure that we are walking the walk and talking the talk.”

Domtar has a long history of sustainable and eco-friendly operations. Learn more about our environmental policies and practices.

Sustainability Drives Career Decisions for Younger Generations

Talia Massey on employment trends among young people
Sustainability is making a difference in what people buy, but it’s also affecting how people select their careers. Talia Massey, a campus recruiter at Domtar, sees this trend increasing each year, particularly as the forest products industry’s workforce continues to age.

“I think each year we’re losing more Baby Boomers than we can imagine,” Massey says. In fact, nearly 47 percent of Domtar employees are at or near retirement age.

“We intern and hire as many replacement workers as we can, but we’re losing 40 years plus of experience and replacing that with someone with a few years of experience,” Massey says.

Domtar isn’t the only company having this issue. A report from Pew Research in the third quarter of 2020 found that about 28.6 million Baby Boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — reported that they were out of the labor force due to retirement. This is 3.2 million more Boomers than the same quarter of 2019.

As Baby Boomers continue to retire at record rates, companies all around the United States must find new ways to attract younger generations, such as Millennials or Gen Z, who may be less open to and more critical of careers in manufacturing.

“As far as challenges go, for the industry, it’s all about ‘going paperless’ for consumers, but for us specifically, it’s students’ rising concerns about sustainability,” says Massey, who meets with students regularly at college career fairs and other recruiting events.

According to a Fast Company survey, nearly 70 percent of Millennials agreed that if a company had a strong sustainability plan, it would affect their decision to stay with that company long term. And 40 percent said that they would take a pay cut if it meant they would be helping improve sustainability.

Most Millennials agree that they want to go into something that improves the environment and continues to help the world. This is important information for companies because Millennials, currently ages 25-40, are the largest working generation.

Smart employers are embracing the potential of Gen Z or Millennials to make significant contributions to the success of their organizations, whether as short-term interns or as permanent employees. But they have to appeal to a desire for meaningful work that makes a difference on many levels.

“One of the biggest values of interning with Domtar is that this is not a “getting coffee, pushing paper” type of internship. You’re actually getting real hands-on experience. Every day, you’re in the process,” Massey says. “Interns also learn that we’re not wasteful; we find ways to reuse our end products, reduce waste, make our own electricity … we’re sustainable in so many ways other industries aren’t.”

Stephanie Stoughton is a Millennial who spoke with us about employment trends Stephanie Stoughton is an environmental engineer at Domtar’s Johnsonburg Mill who also happens to be a Millennial. She made it her mission to find a career that would enable her to help protect the environment. That mission led her to Domtar two years ago.

“It was important to me to work for a company with a good reputation, to work for a company that gives back to their community and that really puts sustainable efforts first,” she says.

Today, Stoughton monitors the mill’s wastewater quality and ensures that any solid waste is disposed of properly — tasks that build on her prior experience studying aquatic ecology and working for Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department and the Elk County, Penn., Conservation District.

“Sustainability was very important when choosing my career path, and I think it all stems from how I grew up,” she says. “I learned at a very young age that if you don’t take care of the landscape and the earth, it’s not going to be able to take care of you. Here at Domtar, because we sustainably harvest from forests, because we release clean wastewater, because we have to be good environmental stewards and take care of the earth — we can keep making paper.”

Jamilah Bracely, a sophomore at The Innovation High School in Missouri’s Ferguson-Florissant School District, wrote this article as part of her communications internship with the Domtar Newsroom team.