Will Millennials Give Up Their Burgers to Save the Planet?

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Need proof millennials love burgers? Look no further than Shake Shack. Chef Danny Meyer opened the burger stand in New York City’s Madison Square Park in 2004, and within a decade, it became an international success, with more than 100 locations worldwide and a publicly traded company. Why? In large part because of millennials. A 2015 Goldman Sachs report found that the burger chain “does essentially no traditional marketing” and instead relies on its strong presence on social media, where it is 100 times more successful than McDonald’s on Instagram. The report also noted the chain’s dedication to service, better ingredients, and a modern interior helped it gain crucial popularity with 18- to 32-year-olds.

Shake Shack and its other “fast casual” cousins often promise to use locally sourced, higher-quality ingredients. Shake Shack, for example, provides 100 percent all-natural Angus beef made with no hormones or antibiotics. Chipotle has a local grower initiative to make it easier for it to buy local produce. Millennials seem willing to pay a bit more for food that makes them feel better about their lifestyle choices. It also helps that it looks better on social media than eating McDonald’s. Millennials make up more than half of the customers eating at fast-casual restaurants, although they represent only 25 percent of the US population.

It’s more responsible to eat just about anything from halfway around the world than red meat from a farm next door.

There’s an argument to be made that millennials are the most food-obsessed generation, Instagramming our farm-to-table plates before we take our first bites. Based on numerous surveys, we also know that young people care more about climate change than older generations. Yet the “buy local” movement might not actually be enough to impact the impending environmental crisis. Studies show that food production — not transportation — causes the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions. And certain foods, specifically red meat, create orders of magnitude more emissions during the production stage than pork or chicken, regardless of whether the cows are grass fed or raised without antibiotics. It’s what you eat, not how it gets there, that matters most. If you’re really serious about reducing your emissions footprint, it’s more responsible to eat just about anything from halfway around the world than red meat from a farm next door.

With the recent news of President Donald Trump backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, many everyday Americans are more motivated than ever to do something if our leaders won’t. But will millennials actually be able to walk the walk when it comes to our ethical stances? Will we give up our burgers to save the planet?

Mounting Evidence That Millennials Care

You won’t find many 20-something climate-change deniers in America. According to a 2016 survey from the University of Texas, more than nine out of 10 people under age 35 say climate change is occurring, compared with 74 percent of those age 65 or older. Another recent Gallup poll found most Americans (65 percent) believe that human behavior, and not natural factors, causes rising temperatures. Whether we’re willing to change that behavior is a different question.

Chef Andrea Reusing, a James Beard Award winner for best chef in the Southeast, is dedicated to sustainable food practices, like working with local farms and sourcing ecologically responsible seafood. She has restaurants in both Durham and Chapel Hill, NC, two college towns. In the 20 years she’s been in the area, she’s seen young people become increasingly tuned in to how their food choices impact the environment. When I asked her what motivates her millennial customers to pay more for quality ingredients — how they taste vs. how they’re helping the environment — Reusing says she’s not sure they see the difference. “Food that tastes good is good for the environment. For younger people, it’s much more holistic.”

If millennials have good intentions, like Reusing believes, maybe we just need to get more informed about the best way to make an impact. Naomi Pirmero, 21, thinks that’s the case. As the incoming board chair for the Berkeley Student Food Collective, an educational nonprofit and natural food store in Northern California, Pirmero finds that young people are willing to change in order to help the environment. Unfortunately, she says, many “are either uninformed or not plugged into the right communities to make those relevant personal sacrifices.”

A Closer Look at Why Red Meat Is a Problem

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Swapping beef for eggs once a week has more impact than eating local for a year. Image Source: Stocksnap/Tookapic

Images of coal plants or jet planes might come to mind when you think about what is causing climate change. But let’s add red meat to the list, too. Meat from ruminant animals — aka cows, sheep, and goats — are a major driver of climate pollution, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). There are various factors at play: Grazing animals require a lot of pasture land, which in turn cannot be used as carbon-reducing forests. In addition, these animals have multichambered digestive systems, which produce a significant amount of methane. Since dairy comes from these same animals, that means your brie cheese and Greek yogurt are problematic, too.

The global food system accounts for between 19 to 29 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions, as Naomi Klein explains in her 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. If you’re taking inventory of how your lifestyle choices influence climate change, considering your food habits like red meat consumption is a smart place to start. The good news, according to Klein, is that the…

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