Young people and the sustainability agenda: Three avenues for impact

Today’s youth population is larger than ever, with 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24, and approximately 90 percent are living in less developed countries¹. The 2030 Agenda recognises that young people have a strong ability to drive change, and more than one-third of the SDG’s targets involve youth explicitly or implicitly. Also, young people are often the group most affected by changes within their communities. However, they are rarely offered a seat at the table and, consequently, left out of the decision-making processes about their future. Given that young people are the guardians of the planet’s future, the WBA believes it is imperative to listen closely to their concerns and take heed of what they have to say. During the consultation phase, the general public survey offered young people a platform to express their concerns and ensure that they have a voice – one that is genuinely heard. Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 represented 66 percent of respondents globally and 78 percent of respondents in China alone (see Figure 1).


When asked “What do you feel is the number one priority to make the world a better place in 2030?”, a majority of respondents aged 15-24 said “a sustainable environment” (see Figure 2). Around one-third of youth believed that “a sustainable society” would make the world a better place, and only 17 percent prioritised “a sustainable economy”. In China, a majority of young people prioritised “a sustainable environment” (see Figure 3), while those living in other parts of the world were almost equally split between “a sustainable environment” and “a sustainable society” as their top priority (see Figure 4).


Respondents across all age groups in Asia, Europe and North America reflected similar beliefs as the young people from those regions did, prioritising “a sustainable environment” first, then “a sustainable society”, followed by “a sustainable economy.” In the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Oceania, nearly half of respondents aged 15-34 said that “a sustainable society” was their number one priority, while those 35 years and older were more likely to choose “a sustainable environment.” In sub-Saharan Africa, intergenerational differences were less pronounced; most age groups tended to prioritise “a sustainable environment”, with the exception of those between 35-44 years old, who said “a sustainable society” was their top priority.

The general public online survey was complemented by the WBA’s youth consultation, which consisted of two youth-led WBA roundtables. This consultation was held on the margins of the UN SDG Action Campaign’s ‘Global Festival of Action for Sustainable Development’ in Bonn earlier this year, where the WBA was also invited to host a booth during the Festival’s Knowledge and Innovation Fair. These activities introduced participants to the WBA’s work and vision, as well as challenged them to consider which SDG-industry intersections would be the most influential.

The youth consultation demonstrated the WBA’s ability to give young people a voice and a platform to address the world’s greatest challenges and opportunities for change between now and 2030, and beyond. It also confirmed that youth today have the tools and skills to influence their peers not just locally, but also across towns, cities, countries and cultures. In harnessing the great power and reach of social media, young people are enthusiastically reaching out and building like-minded communities that know no borders. Although separated by long distances and cultural differences, they embrace common, heartfelt desires in wanting to see and build fairer, more just and more sustainable environments in which they and future generations can flourish. Though the SDGs are focusing the world’s attention towards 2030, the youth consultation highlighted that today’s young people are already taking immediate action to emphasise the urgency of ensuring a better tomorrow.

Young people as consumers
Millennials are arguably considered the world’s most powerful consumers². As young people look to digital platforms to expand their knowledge of consumer trends, the market responds with ever-evolving products and services. Participants at the WBA youth consultation in Bonn highlighted the fact that while the consumer landscape is very crowded, the desire to buy sustainably has continued to last. Participants believed that companies should find genuine ways to show that sustainability is an integrated part of their mission and business, rather than just an add-on or afterthought. Participants saw a strong link between the WBA benchmarks and what young consumers want. One participant noted, “if the WBA is able to present itself as something credible, a lot of people will rely on it and use it as a tool.” As mobile technology is central to many young people’s consumer habits across the world, participants felt that the WBA could harness the power of digital platforms to create real-world impact out of their quantitative rankings. According to participants, in order to increase the data’s relevance and consumer usage, it will be essential that the information is accessible and easy to use, for example, by integrating the data into a mobile application.

Young people as employees
According to a Deloitte survey, millennials feel a greater sense of control and influence in the workplace than they do in the wider society. The survey uses the term “the ripple effect” to illustrate how local, small-scale actions of individuals within a workplace can collectively impact broader societal issues. Participants discussed how employment provides another avenue through which young people can have an impact on the sustainability agenda, from keeping companies accountable to innovating internal business practices. In addition to transforming the way a company functions internally, millennials are also interested in their company’s external impact, looking at how the company works with and brings value to the wider community. Participants felt that companies should leverage young people’s expertise on community issues to drive impact, for example, by holding community consultations facilitated by young people. The WBA can play an important role in defining and shaping the conversation around a company’s internal and external impact by communicating what companies are doing, what they could be doing and what the potential impacts of these activities might be. Participants noted that by focusing on their overall impact, companies could retain talent and expand the pool of employment prospects.

Participants at the youth consultation spoke about the need to also engage younger employees who might not have received a university education and felt that the WBA offered an opportunity to include this category of low-skilled workers in the conversation. “How can you use bench – marking to engage young factory workers?” asked one participant. Another commented that “if you only use the SDGs as your vehicle, you end up with a specific demographic.” Participants believed that if the WBA wanted to drive a grass-roots approach to corporate sustainability, engagement with these groups of youth would be indispensable. “These issues may be more relatable to non-university graduates and blue-collar workers,” commented one participant, with another adding that “these goals are their shot to improve their lives.”

Young people as influencers
Another key insight from the youth consultation was that social media can accelerate change and amplify peer influence. “[Social media] influencers have a huge role to play in using their platforms for building accountability.,” noted one participant. In today’s digital world, young people can utilise their online networks to reflect how their own actions and the actions of those around them can affect the broader community. Participants discussed how more and more companies are looking at things like media reach and social media engagement as key performance indicators. One participant recommended that the WBA provide not only free and publicly available information, but also in a format that people can easily share on social media. To tap into this opportunity, the WBA partnered with a number of social media influencers during its consultation phase to encourage youth participation in the general public survey.


This article was part of the final publication we published in September 2018, prior to our launch. You can read the entire publication below, to find out what we have learned, what insights people gave us and how we experienced our consultation phase. 


1: UNFPA. (2014). The Power of 1.8 Billion: Adolescents, Youth and the Transformation of the Future.New York: United Nations Population Fund.UNFPA Retrieved from:

2: Mettler, P., & Destraz, S. (2018). Sustainable Investment Spotlight: Millennials are the world’s most powerfulconsumers. Basel: Sustainable Investment Research, Bank J. Safra Sarasin.


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