The Youth and Sustainability: a contradictory commitmentc

youth and sustainability


Corinne Ors

Corinne Ors

1st June 2017, an event triggered the youth around sustainability matters: the United States withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change.[1] That event marked the start of a strong mobilisation of the youth around the world.

In Europe and worldwide, the media coverage of the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg followed by a decisive vote for green political parties during the European elections made visible the collective commitment of the youth to sustainability. Their objective is twofold: to demonstrate that ecology is not the prerogative of a political party or a social class, but also to allow a renewal of the European Union around federative common values.

However, do these young people continue their commitment as individuals or do they sometimes find themselves in contradictions about what is or is not really ecological? So to say: is there really a committment of the youth with sustainability?

The relationship between the youth and sustainability: a renewal in the building of Europe?

The youth and sustainability; why are they committed?

Even when young people are under the legal voting age, they are committed to major issues related to the environment and the future of their planet.[2] Their favourite themes are the degradation of the biodiversity of the oceans, soils, air and climate, light pollution, plastic, deforestation.

The claims vary from one country to another, as progresses in environmental protection are marked by disparities among countries. For example, in the area of packaging deposit, Germany introduced a deposit system for reusable bottles in the 1990s, and for plastic cans and bottles in 2003.[3] Countries such as Denmark, Estonia, Iceland and Sweden have a high collection rate for glass, plastic and aluminium packaging. Other countries such as Finland, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands set up incentives for returnable glass, plastic and aluminium packaging. Last but not least, countries such as France, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Latvia are still considering setting up  a similar system. In terms of transport, the Netherlands, Denmark and Hungary are the European countries whose inhabitants use bicycles as a daily means of travel with 36%, 23% et 22% respectively.[4]

In both Southern and Eastern European Union, climate change is regarded as having an impact on daily life.[5] In Greece, Italia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia, more than 90% of citizens consider that climate change has an impact on their daily life, whereas the level rises to 80% among the French, the Polish, the Spanish or the Portuguese and falls to 60% in Sweden, Finland, Denmark or the United Kingdom.

What means do they use? Is there really a link between the youth and sutainability?

The connection between the youth ans sustainability is manifested through marches, student strikes, publications as well as exchanges and challenges on social networks such as the TrashTag Challenge, by posting photos before/after a clean-up of seas, beaches or forests.

Young people committed themselves without any tactical or strategic issues as can be done by political politics, where 51% accuse them of having responsibility for the environment protection. Moreover, 95% believe politicians are not doing “enough” about environmental issues and climate change and 57% say that they are not doing “anything at all”. [6]

You believe that environmental protection is a primary responsibility of…

youth behaviours and sustainability
"you think that the main responsible for environmental issues are: governments and public institutions (51%) citizens (34%) provate companies (15%)"

From an early age, young people are made aware of the need to protect nature and the environment and they have the will to act in the general interest, thinking about their future and future generations. They can then form associations in order to their claims can be heard. The Eurobarometer survey on European youth indicates that 53% of the age range 15 to 30 has joined an association during the year.[7]

This is the case in France with Le lobby de Poissy, a junior association created by Anaïs Willocq, teacher at Michel de Montaigne school in Poissy, and Elsa Grangier, journalist, producer and coordinator of this project[8]. This has been supported by Nicolas Hulot, journalist and former Minister of Ecology and Solidarity Transition and also Hubert Reeves, astrophysicist and ecologist.

Progressively, these actors have succeeded in mobilising 310 children aged 10 to 17 years old, attending school in ten European countries and 27 of their teachers.[9] The Kids for Planet’s Rights collective then formed,[10] every country participated in the drafting of the European Declaration of the Rights of the Planet and the Living, presented at the European Parliament in Strasbourg[11] on Wednesday 27 November 2019, then translated into the 27 languages of the European Union. Its article 18 takes up the concept of ecocide, brought in France by the lawyer Valérie Cabannes[12], stating that “the planet has the right to be represented to take legal actions against any person responsible for excessive pollution”[13].

Lobby Poissy, youth and sustainability
The Lobby of Poissy

The youth and sustainability on behaviours: an individual commitment sometimes contradictory

Ingrained customer habits

This relationship between the youth and sustainability could suggest that young people are also adopting benevolent gestures in their daily lives to protect and fight against climate change. However, a study carried out from 1 to 14 March 2019, involving 1678 young individuals aged 18 to 23, using the quota method, puts into relief that 83% of the Gen Z honestly thinks that they make daily efforts to limit their impact on the environment and 18% say they do a lot,[14] sometimes more than previous generations. In Europe, this is true in only two sectors: transports because they prefer walking, public transport, car-sharing, bicycle and scooters;  the purchasing alternatives of new products favouring the second-hand market, bartering, borrowing.[15]

However, this link between the youth and sustainability is not witnessed by their behaviour as it is not that eco-responsible as one may think. iIn some areas, they seem to make fewer efforts than previous generations.[16]

  • Systematic waste sorting (63%) ;
  • Reducing disposable products consumption (47%) ;
  • Reducing water and energy consumption (46%) ;
  • Systematic purchasing of local produce (25%) ;
  • Using a more ecological means of transport (23%) ;
  • The less frequent and more efficient use of their car (22%) ;
  • Avoid short-haul flights (9%).

Customer and hedonistic habits are still ingrained among young people. They buy new clothes, take advantage of sales to buy more,[17] they do not forgo air travels and do not have the reflex to turn off electronic devices on stand-by.

A lack of knowledge of what is really ecological.

With a great deal of goodwill and conviction, young people intend to adopt a virtuous ecological behaviour. Still, a lack of knowledge persists between what is really an ecological action and what just seems to be an ecological one. The “greenwashing”[18] communication and marketing techniques cloud the issue and do not allow young people to make appropriate and eco-responsible choices. Heeding the sirens call of marketing, they buy ecolabel or organic label products, with biodegradable instead of buying in bulk, or single-use products instead of sustainable containers. Computers are being used instead of television for streaming videos or films and listening to online music has replaced media used by previous generations (vinyl records, compact disc). Although these media seem “green” or “eco-friendly”, in reality, they consume a high quantity of data with a huge ecological impact in terms of CO2. Bicycles and scooters, which they particularly appreciate, may also appear like soft modes of transport, but they are not totally ecological, since they also work with batteries that contain lithium, whose extraction requires a lot of water.[19]

It is therefore necessary to ask which actions could be taken to encourage people to understand what is ecological and what is not really ecological in order to adopt behaviours that this connection between young people and ecology comes to realize. Mentalities are changing in a positive way at a collective and individual level, but what can young people do if they are not well-informed and if the available products are not planet-friendly?

Public policies for the environment protection must be stronger in terms of prevention and awareness-raising through information and communication campaigns targeted to schools, an eco-labelling for environment-friendly and recyclable products, subsidies for the renting or purchasing of goods such as non-electric bicycles and scooters and not only for those that are electric[20], the introduction of laws for manufacturers in order to stop their production of over-packaging products even if they are recyclable, etc..

The economic reason is also between young people and ecology. Organic and eco-responsible products cost is higher than other products and, for of them, their benefits are not significant enough to give-up their consumer trend.[21]   

The transition of mentalities and actions cannot be changed overnight. This could only be efficient and sustainable if it can be carried out smoothly over decades, in line with the principles of the ecological transition that is an evolution towards a new economic and social model and a sustainable development model. [22] The solutions advocated must be thought out, tempered and realistic in order to ensure the results are not the opposite of the expected effect or the decisions taken play into the hands of economic interests or make Europe dependent on world powers (Russia and China).

Thus the European Commission has presented a European Green Deal, a Green Pact for the environment, drawing together european measures to make Europe climate neutral in 2050. Voted by the European Parliament on 7 October 2020, the objective is to reduce 60% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990 level),[23] but also to reduce the use and risk of pesticides by 2030 in the fields of agriculture and food the “farm to fork” strategy[24] and the protection of biodiversity.

Corinne Ors 


Sources and reference


[2] Anne-Marie Dieu, research director at the Walloon Observatory of  Childhood, Youth and Assistance to Youth.



[5] européenne d’investissement According to a BVA institute survey carried out for the European Investment Bank published Monday 25 of November 2019.



[8] Elsa Grangier, Rêver Grand, Ces enfants qui s’engagent pour la planète, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, mars 2020.

[9] Poland, Finland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Czech Republic, Croatia, Sweden, France and its overseas departments such as Guyana, la Polynésie Française et la Réunion.



[12] Valérie Cabanes is a jurist in international law specialising in human rights and humanitarian law, ecologist and French essayist.

[13] This recognition of legal and fundamental rights was already adopted in the Constitution of  Ecuador in 2008 and in 2009, Bolivia adopted similar measures. Since 2010, the UN has been proclaiming that harmony with nature must be sought and must support human societies development.

[14] A survey about young people and ecology





[19] Lithium is a rare alkali metal produced in faraway countries (Australia, Chili, Argentina, China)





[24] “The Farm to Fork” strategy for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system constitutes one of the 11 components of the Green Deal. It sets out 5 priorities to be achieved : ensuring food safety, reducing the consumption of pesticides and fertilisers d’engrais, combating antibiotic resistance, supporting innovation and improving consumers’ information. The “Farm to Fork” strategy includes setting targets to reduce in the use of plant  health products, fertilizers and antibiotics, plans to develop organic farming, to combat food waste and fraud in the agri-food supply chain but also the reopening debates about the use of processed animal proteins, the adoption of new technologies for plant breeding or the animal welfare. Source :



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