At home, I have two really amazing, special edition Generation Z encyclopedias. Luca (born in 2000) and Milan (born in 1997). Need to know anything about climate change? Ask Milan. Looking for information about how pollution is causing havoc in the seas and skies? Luca knows it all. Creating a new world order? The two boys can give you a two-hour lecture about why the world leaders suck. Whilst I consider myself to be educated and well-read, I simply cannot win an argument with my two sons when it concerns the Millennial goals such as environmental sustainability, social inequality and eradication of poverty.
Which brings me to the point of this column. Often when thinking about the challenges of working with young consumers, one tends to focus only on the commercial questions, such as ‘What should I do to make money from this group?’ and, ‘What can I do to make them buy my product?’ The most important question — ‘What makes them tick?’ — is often brought up only in terms of how business can influence their buying behavior. But are we really interested in their concerns and beliefs as human beings? The more I engage with my own sons, the better I understand the challenges of understanding them.
From this mindset, I was really happy to read a column written by Clem Sunter, in my opinion one of the world’s greatest visionaries and scenario planners who formed my thinking. Sunter spent most of his working life at Anglo American’s Gold and Uranium Division, which was the world’s largest gold producer in the 1990s. In the early 1980s, he established a scenario planning function for Anglo American. A highlight of his life was a visit to Nelson Mandela in prison to discuss the future just before Mandela’s release. Sunter is an icon in his field and a model of mental litheness.
Sunter says his opening question on the course he teaches is for pupils to consider the three greatest drivers for change (he calls them ‘flags’) they have experienced in their lifetime. Once such flag often named (albeit unsurprisingly) is the invention of smartphones. The second and third flags named by the students surprised him greatly.
Sunter writes: ‘The second one was that global population had surpassed the milestone of seven billion, and we were now displacing millions of other species in the animal and plant kingdoms critical to the Earth’s future wellbeing. The third was climate change leading to extreme weather conditions, rising sea levels through the melting of ice in Antarctica and Greenland, and drought causing parts of the planet to become uninhabitable.’
Sunter then records an insightful discussion which he had with a young person about these flags. He calls her ‘GZ’.
CS: I find it very interesting that two of the three flags relate to the environment. In my generation, very few people would have chosen them.
GZ: That is because your generation will have departed from this planet when life starts getting really hectic as a result of those flags. We are already experiencing tomorrow today with record temperatures being set around the world. It is ironic that we are called Generation Z because we may actually be the last generation to grace the history of humankind. After a few hundred thousand years, we become victims of the sixth extinction that is taking place around us.
CS: Population growth is falling with urbanization and higher living standards. The latest UN projection is that population will be tailing off to a total figure of just more than 11 billion at the turn of this century. Perhaps the world can accommodate that.
GZ: How can you say that when seven billion inhabitants are already causing such widespread destruction? Nobody knows what the maximum number of people this planet can bear for it to survive indefinitely. I was told the other day that if Chinese people had the same standard of living as Americans, you would need four planets similar to the size of Earth to sustain their consumption.
CS: Do you think it is possible for rich nations to persuade poor nations to lower their carbon footprint by using energy systems which do not involve fossil fuels, even if it is more expensive to make the switch?
GZ: No, especially when the rich nations were responsible for the problem in the first place with their industrial revolutions; and especially when the principal measure of international success is the performance of your economy and being more competitive than your neighbor. Equally, developing countries are obliged to provide the cheapest form of energy to all their citizens.
CS: Yet the whole issue of climate change is becoming more publicized.
GZ: The pathetic thing about most major media outlets is they reinforce the view of business as usual by spending most of their time covering political and money matters. Even my dad says the environment comes a very poor second with just the occasional article or program to maintain political correctness on green issues. On top of that you have the climate change denialists saying we are all crazy when it is genuine scientists providing the information. Would you contradict a cardiologist about matters of the heart?
Of his discussion with GZ, Sunter says the following: ‘We parted company having exchanged a high five. At least, I had given her the power of debating the future in an imaginative way. Statistically, she has more of it ahead of her than I do. And maybe she’s right to put forward such a negative scenario. Al Gore’s inconvenient truth is now screaming at us from all quarters of the globe.’
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
For more information on Clem Sunter please visit www.clemsunter.co.za
Nic Jooste is the director of marketing and CSR at Cool Fresh International, a Rotterdam-based global marketing organization for fresh produce.