Guest column: A millennial reports on sustainability

Today, I'm featuring a guest column by Sara Allan, a sophomore at Penn, majoring in environmental studies. I've heard from her a few times over the past year -- she originally was trying to drum up support for Earth Hour -- and the word energy comes to mind.

She's also the founder and director of SparkBox, a website that's supposed to "facilitate friendly conversation" among nonprofits. And she's the founder and principal of Allan Clout Consulting, a social media consulting firm for non-profits.

She writes on her blog profile, "Stimulated by some amazing elementary school teachers, a vacation to the Galapagos Islands, and an obsession with the National Geographic Channel, I have been researching the environment and greening my home, school, family, and friends for as long as I can remember."

Recently, Allan went to SB12, a sustainable brands conference in San Diego.  My eyes are glazing over at half the words on their website -- stuff like "leveraging" and "innovation professionals" and "stakeholders" and "amplify current leadership." Aieee! 

But apparently it was much better than it sounds. So here's the perspective and report from Allan, probably the youngest person there.


As the youngest participant at SB’12, I had a unique millennial perspective. Yes, that includes being vivacious, altruistic, excited, and somewhat star-struck, but also particularly aware of the apathy of my generation and the cataclysm we’ll have to deal with (to put it lightly). One of the most common icebreakers floating around the conference went something like “So how did YOU get involved in environmental sustainability?” It’s one I had to answer frequently because of my overflowing enthusiasm and age, and a toughie because it’s somewhat of a mystery where my passion came from.

I grew up in Manhattan with parents who have always lived in NYC. They still believe that garbage can be thrown “away,” and on a recent trip home I discovered they had gotten rid of our recycling bin (I’m a failure…). They refused my bids to install a wormed compost bin under our sink, so I green-stormed my school instead – installing a composter on the terrace and imposing Meatless Monday, PowerDown hours, and Xlerators. The environmental blog I took on for my senior independent project led to Experts’ Opinions on Sustainability and Allan Clout Consulting (a social media consultancy) and catapulted me down a road of endless projects. The more I learn, the more passionate I become - and that’s the cycle that leaves me bubbling with excitement when I meet others interested in sustainability and fizzing at conferences like SB.

As part of the first generation that won’t live longer than our parents, I acknowledge that we’re on a downward slope but am still optimistic that we can reverse the course with dramatic changes to business and policy. I’m also a member of what I would call the ‘Hippie 2.0’ movement – a distinct subculture of the millennial generation deeply involved in social justice and grassroots organizing and enchanted by “the simple life” of our great-grandparents. We canvas, march, lobby, and organize; plant urban gardens and work on farms; and actually care. In general, we believe in the power of the constituent to affect change in policy and business but are all too familiar with the apathy of our “I don’t give a damn because I’m just too cool” contemporaries.

On the flip side, our generation has grown up with the word ‘sustainability’ actually in the dictionary. Even though most aren’t actively involved in the environmental movement, I believe it registers via the osmosis method (the same concept behind the sleep-with-the-book-under-your-pillow trick).

Similarly, my generation has grown up embedded in social media – coming of age during the Crackberry, smart phone, and Facebook revolutions. I, particularly, believe in the power of social media to communicate, organize, and collaborate and am attune to its integral role in our lives (and I might just base my self-worth off my Klout score…@SaraBAllan). The information age that put a googol of facts and figures into cyberspace has led to web 2.0 that can actually make use of it. This is where our generation can come in handy – we created SM etiquette and understand better than anyone how to pull our friends in by making the tidbits of our life seem note-worthy. Crossing over, we intuitively understand the best ways to use social media to engage customers, constituents, and especially the rest of our millennial generation. Two of the biggest themes at SB’12 were millennial engagement and social media best practices, and the Gen-Yers in the room had unique insights on both.

Although I do my best to remain realistic, I face a passion fueled by my altruistic vision. I am optimistic about the effect corporate sustainability can have and the amount they’ll be willing to do because, although grassroots organizing is crucial, it can only provide the pressure through which businesses and government realize change. So, unlike many of my hippie counterparts, I want to work in corporate sustainability. (This would be the star-struck part because almost every attendee of SB has my dream job….) For me, living the crunchy life isn’t enough – I want to go bigger – to the top of the chain that actually creates and shapes U.S. consumerism.

All of this has led to my specific passion for collaboration in the environmental movement that I believe is necessary to prevent our imminent doom (to draw from my emotions after getting through the first 50 pages of Eaarth). This is also why I was so set on traveling from Philadelphia to Sustainable Brands and was behind the co-create I pitched, called Spark[!]Box – a platform to facilitate project-based collaboration among small environmental organizations. Moving forward, I will continue to develop SparkBox with the inspiration and empowerment I gained at SB’12.

I do have to say…the party scene did almost rival that of college – good job staying young at heart!