Dairy’s Sustainability Story Can Give Gen Z Consumers What They Seek

  • 4 min read March 19, 2021
  • Marilyn Hershey
  • DMI Chair

I had a great honor recently when I was asked to be a guest speaker for a class taught at the University of Notre Dame.

The class couldn’t have covered a more appropriate subject – sustainability – and it couldn’t have been a more appropriate audience – Gen Z.

Gen Z grew up very differently than I did. Technology literally has been at their fingertips almost their entire lives. They don’t know a world without cellphones or the internet. Instant access to information is a way of life.

And like many Americans, they also are removed from farming and the work we do every day to provide nutritious food that is produced in a sustainable manner.

I shared our farm’s story, from start to finish, and I then took questions. The students were very inquisitive, asking more about our cow care and sustainability practices. They were especially interested in our digester and asked about its economic aspects.

I walked away feeling that they truly care about where their food comes from and that they are open to listening to farmers.

The dairy checkoff understands the need to reach this audience and for good reason. Gen Z represents 20% of the U.S. population and spends an estimated $143 billion annually. This is why they are front and center in the checkoff’s consumer communications efforts.

Gen Z also expects companies and industries that they support to align with their values. If not, it may result in harsh feedback through their social media channels; this is a generation that will say what they think – and will say it publicly and with enough force to take down a brand.

To this generation, brands and industries – including dairy – should be sustainable to earn their business:

  • 77% care about sustainability as a value.
  • 41% are willing to change their lifestyle to live in a more environmentally friendly way.
  • 67% already have changed their purchase behaviors.

Relative to that last point, here’s one more to know:

  • 36% indicate they are trying to reduce their meat consumption to be more environmentally friendly.​

So, they feel by taking matters into their own hands, such as what they eat and drink, they can lead change.

This mindset accelerated during the COVID-19 crisis. As people were forced into quarantine, we saw a global decrease in carbon emissions that no war, pandemic or recession had caused before. Gen Z saw studies showing people exposed to air pollution were more vulnerable and at risk of getting COVID. The link between environmental health and personal health was underscored and realized by Gen Z, who became even more aware of the environment. ​

Before the crisis, 82% of Gen Z agreed that sustainability was important to them. However, 44% now state it is even more important, showing their passion and urgency around climate issues is not going away.

The good news for dairy is that our sustainability story is one that stretches back for many decades. We’re not starting from scratch, though I think we can agree we haven’t always told it as loudly as we should.

This is why efforts such as the industrywide 2050 stewardship goals and Net Zero Initiative are so important. These are our vehicles to show our proof points and commitment that dairy has been doing the right thing through generations of family farming and that we’re constantly looking to do more.

It’s not just dairy. Seemingly, everybody is getting on board with their own goals and programs. You’d be hard-pressed to scour the headlines and not see something related to the environment or sustainability. A recent story reported more than 50 of the country’s largest companies have announced some aspect of being carbon neutral by 2040.

The checkoff follows a framework put in place by DMI and our 16 state and regional teams that focuses on accelerating sales, building trust with consumers and positioning U.S. dairy in a global food system. It’s about making sure people understand how farmers contribute to the health of the community, through the milk we produce and the care we take with our land and animals.

Gen Z and millennial parents are the top priorities of these efforts that we call “sustainable nutrition” – the concept that everyone can enjoy and advocate for dairy knowing it is good for them, good for the community and good for the planet.

We’ll engage with consumers through Undeniably Dairy content and leverage Fuel Up to Play 60 to discuss how dairy can contribute to youth wellness. Some of that has begun with the recent launch of Undeniably Dairy’s “Farming to the Future” Virtual Field Trip, created through the checkoff’s partnership with Discovery Education.

We’ll also build upon one of our biggest breakthrough moments from last year, our partnership with some of the world’s most influential gamers, such as “Mr. Beast.” He and others conducted virtual dairy farm tours and incorporated their learnings into their games that were seen by millions in this crucial generation.

This is just some of what is planned to help us reach Gen Z and the expectations they have for the products they choose to support. Fortunately, dairy can deliver what they’re looking for.