Environmental responsibility: millennial values and cultural dimensions

Nancy J. Hanson-Rasmussen (Department of Management and Marketing, University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, USA)
Kristy J. Lauver (Department of Management and Marketing, University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, USA)

Journal of Global Responsibility

ISSN: 2041-2568

Publication date: 5 February 2018

Abstract

Purpose

This study aims to examine how students in business colleges across three countries, the United States, India and China, interpret environmental sustainability. This study also explores where students from different cultures believe responsibility lies in caring for the environment and how these beliefs represent their cultural and millennial values. The purpose of this study, then, is to investigate millennial business students’ perspectives toward the environment across the three countries holding the largest ecological footprint.

Design/methodology/approach

College of business students from the United States, India and China were surveyed. Student responses regarding environmental sustainability were compared to values of the millennial generation and placement of responsibility compared to national culture dimensions.

Findings

An average of 66.3 per cent of the coded responses reflect the optimism of the generation. Concern for future generations was a frequent theme. Most responses assigned responsibility for environmental sustainability to “all”. Results support the work of Husted (2005) and Park et al. (2007) as well as the expectations of the millennial generation’s values related to environmental sustainability.

Originality/value

The authors connect national cultural research to environmental sustainability. This study explores where students from different cultures believe responsibility lies in caring for the environment and how these beliefs represent their cultural and millennial values. National cultural combined with millennial opinion is an important area of research for understanding the assignment of responsibility related to environmental sustainability.

Keywords

Citation

Hanson-Rasmussen, N. and Lauver, K. (2018), "Environmental responsibility: millennial values and cultural dimensions", Journal of Global Responsibility, Vol. 9 No. 1, pp. 6-20. https://doi.org/10.1108/JGR-06-2017-0039

Download as .RIS

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

The World Population Clock has calculated the global population to be 8.5 billion people (Worldometer, 2017), a populace putting pressure on deteriorating and fragile ecosystems. While the effects of humans on the environment are explored, there is an acknowledgement that global efforts are needed to increase environmental resiliency and sustain our earth systems (WWF, 2016). Defining who is responsible for these efforts is difficult and without consensus.

Most populations are cognizant of environmental issues, yet, there are different interpretations of environmental sustainability (Jandt, 2009), and the exploration of these interpretations across cultures and generations has been limited. Research has established that an individual’s education level is related to their environmental awareness (NEEF, 2015; Onder, 2006), and length of time in school results in increased knowledge about environmental issues (Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2002). More specifically, students in global business colleges tend to be a more educated population, aware of social and environmental issues that exist (Abbas and Singh, 2014). The student population is also typically from the millennial generation, a generation known for its optimism, engagement and willingness to take action (Howe and Strauss, 2000). It is also a generation that has the potential to make a large impact on environmental policies and practices. Therefore, this study explores how millennials interpret environmental sustainability and responsibility across the three countries with the largest combined ecological footprint the USA, India and China (Global Footprint Network, 2016; WWF, 2014).

Literature review

The following literature review frames the concept of responsibility for the earth, defines environmental sustainability and looks at the current environmental impact of the USA, India and China. The review next looks at millennial student values toward environmental sustainability and then uses Geert Hofstede’s national culture research and his identification of cultural dimensions (Hofstede, 1980, 1997, 2011) to explore millennial placement of environmental responsibility within each of the three countries.

Responsibility for the earth

Traditional ethics focused on the action of an individual and their immediate responses to concerns. Ethics did not have “to consider the global condition of human life and the far-off future, even existence of the race” (Jonas, 1984, p. 8), as these types of concerns were left for consideration by gods. Driven in part by technology, ethical thinking today holds that individuals must be concerned for the future and be held accountable to others. Technology has given humans the ability to “affect the environment, and thus in turn affect future generations” (Robinson, 2016, p. 107). Thus, views on responsibility for the environment have changed vastly in the twenty-first century, with responsibility being placed on humans.

Defining and measuring environmental sustainability

Researchers have struggled to find one clear, concise definition of environmental sustainability. The Brundtland Report introduced this widely used definition of environmental sustainability: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 41). While this definition frames the issue at hand, part of this research study will explore the ways that millennials articulate their thoughts and personally define environmental sustainability.

Several methods are used to measure a country’s status regarding their environmental sustainability. One common method, called the ecological footprint, is a calculation by the Global Footprint Network (2016) and the World Wildlife Fund (2016) of demand placed on the planet during consumption of land and water and the resulting production of waste. A second measurement used in determining a country’s status is biocapacity, which measures the earth’s ability to regenerate or renew the demanded resources (Global Footprint Network, 2016).

Table I shows a comparison of the USA, India and China’s population, footprint and biocapacity deficit. The per capita footprint represents the demands each person has on the planet, and the biocapacity deficit represents the extent to which the ecosystem cannot regenerate biological materials and absorb the waste generated by that person (WWF, 2016).

In total, these three countries account for 39.8 per cent of the world’s ecological footprint (WWF, 2014). In addition, these countries have the highest water footprint, a measure of water consumption and pollution (Joshi, 2012). Changes in sustainable practices by the USA, India and China could make a significant impact on global environmental sustainability.

Millennials and environmental sustainability

Millennials, defined as individuals who were born on or between 1982 and 2002 (Howe and Strauss, 2000), made up one-third of the American workforce in 2015 (Fry, 2015). As attention turns to the urgency of protecting natural resources, the importance of this generation of future business leaders and policymakers becomes increasingly apparent. Millennials are viewed as team players, well educated and as believing in the future (Howe and Strauss, 2000). Thiel’s (2017) research on the future of sustainability calls on collective action for the common good. Millennials would need to be part of the collective action, viewing themselves as accountable to future generations.

Not all characteristics describing millennials support a collective movement to improve the environment. Critics of millennials say their personal comfort and convenience are more important to them than the environment and that millennials do not feel they are personally responsible to change their habits or purchases to help the environment (Head, 2013). Researchers have found that millennials are more engaged in political and volunteer activities; yet, as a group, their energy conservation practices are not as strong as the conservation practices of baby boomers (NEEF, 2015).

The Pew Research Center (Fry, 2015) has looked at generational divides in America in respect to the environment. In their study, they found that 71 per cent of millennials prioritized the development of alternative sources of energy, yet 25 per cent of those surveyed prioritized the expansion of exploration and production of fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas (more than the next older generation, Gen X). Ottman (2011) looked at generational views of the environment within the USA, declaring that students today have lived through Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill and, therefore, are aware of damage being done to the environment. While the environment is important to this generation, she states they will not “sacrifice for the almighty dollar” and, in turn, want to balance “quality of life with the quest for wealth” (Ottman, 2011, p. 6).

Values of the millennial generation may be attributed to the global increase in awareness of both environmental and social responsibility issues. Previous scholars have begun investigating millennial values in different cultures. One study reported that American millennials tend to have more concern or reverence for the environment and less interest in acquiring things than other generations (Winograd and Hais, 2014). In respect to corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental sustainability, a study of Australian millennials explored which aspects of CSR were most important to them in their job choice (Leveson and Joiner, 2014), while a study in Canada explored how millennials ranked their affinity for five different components of CSR, one of which was environmental practices (Bednarz, 2006). A very large millennial study by the Higher Education Academy and National Student Union in the United Kingdom explored the extent to which millennials considering future work options would be willing to make a salary sacrifice to work for a company with a positive environmental and social record (Drayson, 2015).

There is limited business-specific literature relating the values of this generation to sustainability, especially in China and India. Therefore, this study provides additional value to the literature by examining the values of millennial business students in additional cultures and their focus on environmental responsibility.

Hofstede’s national culture dimensions

To understand how millennials perceive responsibility for the environment, it is important to understand how their placement of responsibility may vary across culture; therefore, a national or cultural framework is considered. Hofstede (2011, p. 3) defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others”. He has defined and classified national cultures by utilizing a large global database (50 countries and over 117,000 subjects) and, thus, creating a collection of Global Cultural Values (Hofstede, 1980; Hofstede et al., 2010). Analyzing by country, he observed emerging patterns and found correlations among the data (Hofstede, 2011). Cultural values researchers acknowledge Hofstede’s work as the standard by which to compare other cultural work (Triandis, 2004).

Hofstede utilized his data to categorize national culture into five initial and distinct dimensions: power/distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism/collectivism, masculinity/femininity and long-/short-term orientation (Hofstede, 2001). Researchers have specifically looked at connections between his dimensions, cultures and environmental sustainability. Husted’s (2005) research on global sustainability has utilized power/distance, individualism/collectivism and masculinity/femininity. Park et al.’s (2007) work on sustainabilty focused on two value dimensions: individualism/collectivism and masculinity/feminity. Thus, this current study focuses on the three cultural dimensions of Hofstede’s that have been most closely aligned to environmental sustainability by the Husted (2005) and Park et al. (2007) research studies: low power distance vs high power distance, individualism vs collectivism, and masculinity vs femininity.

Relationships between values and environmental sustainability

Hofstede considered cultural dimensions conducive to caring for the environment and Husted (2005) expanded on Hofstede’s work, comparing the cultural categories to the Social and Institutional Capacity index, a measurement of capacity for sustainability (World Economic Forum, 2016). In his work, Husted (2005, p. 363) found that egalitarian (low power distance), individualistic and feminine values are more likely to be associated with sustainable values and that countries with these values have a higher social and institutional capacity for environmental sustainability. He also found that economic development is “the main driver of social and institutional capacity for environmental sustainability”.

A similar study by Park et al. (2007) found a significant negative relationship between power distance and masculinity. They also found a positive relationship between education and scores on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which ranks a country’s performance on the protection of human health and ecosystems (Hsu, 2016).

Table II summarizes Hofstede et al.’s (2010) applicable dimension scores of the USA, India and China, as well as the EPI for 2016 (Hsu, 2016).

According to Husted (2005), the USA’s scores of low power and high individualism should correlate with a high level of concern for the environment. However, the relatively high score on masculinity would represent reduced concern for the environment. The EPI index placed the USA rather high, indicating progress toward sustainability.

When considering scores on the cultural dimensions, India is not a culture expected to emphasize environmental sustainability efforts. India falls in the center of individualism and collectivism, with relationships within groups being important as is taking personal responsibility for the greater good. Although India is in the midpoint of a continuum for femininity vs masculinity with a score of 56, it is the most feminine of the three cultures and may represent care and concern for the environment. However, Husted (2005) proposed that poorer countries are less likely to invest in environmental research and enforcement.

Cultural dimension scores for China suggest that it is less environmentally oriented than the other two countries. High power distance with collectivist views indicates less likelihood for individuals to view environmental sustainability as their personal responsibility. There is an expectation in China that the government will solve environmental issues (Wong, 2010). The score of 65.1 of 100 on the EPI (Hsu, 2016) indicates progress toward sustainability.

In combining this cultural framework with millennial characteristics, we explore how this generation will work to influence environmental sustainability.

Research purpose

There is a sense of urgency in understanding global views related to the care of the planet, as degradation of natural resources can result in permanent detrimental change affecting future generations. The ecological footprint and negative biocapacity found in the USA, India and China are of specific concern. With the populace of millennials making up one-third of the current work force, their impact on the future direction of the environment comes to the forefront (Fry, 2015).

Limited research examining the perspectives of millennial business leaders and their potential impact on the environment has been conducted. Additionally, while researchers have begun to look at potential relationships between Hofstede’s ratings and environmental sustainability (Husted, 2005; Park et al., 2007), studies exploring these relationships are limited. The purpose of this study, then, is to investigate millennial business students’ perspectives toward the environment and to understand where they place responsibility for protecting the environment and how these viewpoints differ across the three countries holding the largest ecological footprint. Millennial opinion combined with national culture is an important area of research for understanding future efforts toward environmental sustainability.

Research questions

Two primary research questions frame this research of national cultural dimensions related to millennial college students’ opinions regarding environmental sustainability and responsibility.

RQ1.

How do millennial business students in the USA, India and China perceive environmental sustainability?

RQ2.

Where do millennial business students in the USA, India and China place responsibility for the environment and does this placement fit within the framework of the Husted’s (2005) and Park et al.’s (2007) selection of Hofstede’s national cultural dimensions?

Methodology

Sample and survey

The 755 participants in this study were students in colleges of business or commerce in the USA, India and China. Each student was projected to graduate within 18 months. None of the three colleges offered a major degree or minor in sustainability. The students were all millennials, born on or between 1982 and 2002. Participation was voluntary and involved the completion of a survey developed in Qualtrics software and written in English (all three schools were English-speaking). Both the school in India and the school in China have international study programs with the school in the US Instructors at each school were helpful in encouraging current students to complete the surveys, but left participation voluntary. There were 338 surveys received from students in the USA with an average age of 22.86 years, 74 surveys from students in India with an average age of 21.9 years and 343 surveys from students in China with an average age of 20.2 years.

To investigate the two research questions, the survey instrument began with an open-ended question asking, “What do you think of when someone discusses environmental responsibility”. The other key open-ended question used in this research has two parts, “Who do you believe is responsible for environmental sustainability and what role should they play (e.g. individual, business and government)?”

Narrative coding process

Preliminary codes to narrative questions were developed from a pilot sample of surveys. The codes were established by recording themes as they emerged. Responses were divided into categories of meaning with each being internally consistent and distinct from the other categories (Marshall and Rossman, 1999). As more completed surveys were obtained, the codes were revised to include additional emerging themes. Once all of the codes were established, all surveys were re-coded.

The primary researchers trained three coders. These trainees were given sample surveys to code and were checked for decision errors as well as ambiguous coding rules (Fowler, 2002). Four coders were used, three trained by the researchers and one primary researcher.

Results

This study compares student responses regarding environmental sustainability to values of the millennial generation and national culture dimensions. The volume of responses (755) allowed for diversity in examples. The following provides a representation of student responses defining environmental sustainability and their thoughts on who is responsible for sustaining the environment.

Millennial values and environmental sustainability

This study sought to determine the understanding of millennials toward environmental sustainability across cultures. An open-ended question allowed participants to submit a narrative-style response with their thoughts on environmental sustainability. Although narratives varied, what emerged consistently was how students felt (positive versus negative) toward environmental sustainability. Thus, the coded responses were placed into categories as represented by percentage of responses in Table III.

The majority of responses from each country were positive or hopeful. Positive or hopeful responses in the USA included comments such as, “I think of someone altering their habits to help make the environment a better place to live” (USA respondent #37 or US37). A positive example from a student in India is, “Discussion about environmental sustainability is very important and taking steps is even more important” (India respondent #754 or In754). Student narratives from the university in China included, “I think he/she has great and correct attitude to the environment and has a strong sense of social obligation” (China respondent #381 or Ch381), and “They are kind of people who care about the whole society this can be helpful to publicize the notion of environmental sustainability to some extent” (Ch396). An additional optimistic example stated, “I think the environmental problem is becoming more and more popular. People have awarded the importance of environmental sustainability because it affects our health and has great influence on our daily life” (Ch370). This positivity aligns with Howe and Strauss’ (2000) contention that this generation is known for its optimism and belief in the future.

Neutral codes were assigned to responses that used catch phrases or jargon without additional descriptors. For example, a number of responses from the USA included the words “going green” and “eco-friendly.” Frequent jargon in responses from students in India included, “judicious” and “wastage”. Students from China often used the terms “this guy” or “this person” referencing the “someone” in the research question.

Twenty-six responses described feeling helpless in regards to the environment. Examples of these statements are, “Something really far away and it’s not directly related to my life. I don’t know how I can impact on this issue” (US3), “He or she is really conscious about our environment but actually what we can do is little” (Ch415), and “They are just talking about something which is the need of the hour but they are not or will not take any step towards it” (In715).

Additionally, there were a few responses to the question indicating disinterest or negative feelings. Examples of these include, “I usually tune out because I hear about it all the time” (US83) and “It’s good but who cares?” (Ch357). There were no responses from students in India that were coded as disinterested or negative.

A few students addressed the concern of finances as noted by Ottman (2011), saying, “In China, few people appear to care about environmental sustainability. In contrary, most of them concern about how much money they can obtain” (Ch406). A student from the USA mentioned a concern about consumer expenses, writing, “Going Green. I think this can be difficult for households to do because it can cost extra money to go green” (US212).

Developing alternative energies was seen as a priority for millennials (Fry, 2015). Alternative energy was addressed in several narratives, such as this one from a student in India when describing their concept of environmental sustainability, “Using methods that reduce wastage and ensure a usage by the future generations. Using alternative resources under stricter norms by the Environment Ministry” (In740). A student in the USA answered the same question with, “I think of using alternative energies in order to preserve the environment such as recycling, using natural lighting, and using highly technological forms of saving energy” (US97).

Although not often mentioned, a student from the USA took a very generational view when writing:

I believe that environmental sustainability is extremely important. I come from a very conservative family. My parents think it’s a big lie. I think of my future children’s lives and want to preserve the world the best way I can for them (US169).

Responsibility for and roles in environmental sustainability

Narrative responses to the open-ended question on the assignment of responsibility were coded by entity with results given by percentage of respondents in Table IV. The entity receiving the most responses in each country was “all”. The second highest response from US and Indian students was in the category of “individual”, while in China, it was the category of “government”. Many of the students in China (35.6 per cent) indicated that government (alone or in combination with business or individuals) is responsible, which is a higher percentage than given by US and Indian respondents. The assignment of responsibility for the environment to the entity of business was the lowest category for the USA and China and tied for the lowest in India (with the exception of “other” and “none”).

Many narrative comments were given in response to “what role should (the entity) play?” In the category of “all”, a US respondent said:

Everyone [….] Individuals and Businesses should limit their use of resources, and decrease the amount of waste and pollution. The government can help educate the people and support functions that are being more socially responsible (US23).

In the same category, a respondent from China said:

I think that individual business and government play an important role in environment. Especially the government because it’s the government’s responsibility to carry out laws to control the behavior of individual and business (Ch356).

A student in India wrote:

The responsibility to make the environment sustainable is of one and all - individuals, corporate houses, government, etc. the individuals can bring about a colossal change if they use resources judiciously, undertake activities that nourish the environment and propagate and motivate others to do the same (In690).

Some narratives, 11.4 per cent of those in the USA and 21.1 per cent of those in India identified individuals as having the largest role in responsibility for environmental sustainability. An example from a student in the USA is, “I think it all comes back to individuals. If individuals don’t want to take part in it, laws by business and government will not help” (US31). Also addressing individual responsibility, a student from India included this comment, “People who inhabit the planet. ‘Clean your own driveway and the world will be clean.’ - Ancient Proverb” (In725).

Twenty-two point eight per cent of the students in China listed the government as most responsible for sustainability. The following examples demonstrate typical responses to this question. “Government, because the government owns the largest number of resources” (Ch369). Another said, “Government. They play the role of the manager” (Ch380).

It is difficult to include the stories of so many students. However, this quote by a student in China reflects the “all” response of many students:

Actually everyone is responsible for environmental sustainability. 1. Individual: do their part and protect the environment from little things. 2. Business: work as a role model and put more money on supporting environmental sustainability. 3. Government: legislation. Penalties (Ch383).

Cultural dimensions and environmental sustainability

The narratives describing environmental sustainability and the assignment of responsibility were then coded and categorized by their fit with the three of Hofstede‘s national cultural dimensions most often associated with environmental sustainability.

Power distance

Because power distance is related to personal freedoms and hierarchy, the responses regarding the assignment of responsibility were found to be the most aligned to this national culture dimension.

Hofstede found that people living in countries with high power distance cultures not only expect that power will be distributed unequally, they also desire the inequity (Hofstede, 1997). Of note here is that individuals in high power distance countries are influenced by formal authority and sanctions. China’s score on power distance is considered high with a score of 80 of 100. Responses that are in line with the high score include, “[…] We are not the government, the enterprises we can’t do anything” (Ch384). “Government can make laws to protect the environment both business and individual should obey laws” (Ch398).

India’s score of 77 is very near China’s; yet, the high power distance was not emphasized in any of the narrative responses. Shared responsibility is a more frequent theme and is represented in the following comment from a student in India, “Environmental sustainability can only be achieved at a greater level, when it can be implemented by each of us as an individual” (In694).

The USA’s power distance score of 40 reflects low power distance. A response from a US student, which represents the more autonomous, egalitarian culture where hierarchy is not appreciated by everyone, is as follows:

If governments get involved they could increase regulations which could force business and individuals to change their ways but people often are unhappy when the government gets too involved in their lives (US48).

Individualism vs collectivism

As an individualistic culture, the USA’s very high score of 91 leads to the expectation that student narratives will express autonomy, personal goals, altruism and willingness to sacrifice as long as acting this way is a personal decision (Arrindell et al., 1997). In this culture, the expectation would be responses that frequently include the word “I”. A statement from a USA student indicating individualism is, “I believe individuals are responsible for environmental sustainability, because they are the ones who have to want change” (US149).

India’s midrange score of 48 signifies a culture with respect for hierarchy and acceptance of personal responsibility and autonomy as demonstrated in the following response:

I believe that it is important for every individual to play a vital role to protect the environment. An individual can create further awareness and involve family members, neighbors and colleagues to initiate a change in their outlook towards the nature. Since a corporate body has more resources which they can use to improve the conditions, business also has a major role to play in environment sustainability (In698).

China’s score of 20 indicates a collectivist culture, one in which individuals see themselves as members of groups, and assume the opinions of the groups (Arrindell et al., 1997). In this culture, the expectation would be responses to include the word “we” more than “I”. A response from a student in China representing collectivism is as follows:

There is no doubt that everyone in the world are responsible for environmental sustainability, because it is this earth where we live in and all of us should take actions to protect the only earth (Ch604).

Masculinity vs femininity

A culture that scores high on the dimension of masculinity focuses on achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success (Hofstede et al., 2010). Cultures high on masculinity are also considered competitive. On the other side of the dimension, femininity is characterized by a concern for quality of life, cooperation and caring for the weak. The countries investigated have similar scores on this dimension, with the USA scoring 62, India 56 and China 66. This dimension was most apparent in answers describing environmental sustainability. One student from the USA was competitive in saying, “America should be leading the way” (US294). A student from India responded by showing concern for quality of life with, “It shall not be included only for namesake but to make a meaningful contribution” (In690).

The cultural framework suggested by Husted (2005) and Park et al. (2007) created expectations that students in the USA would have a high level of concern for and interest in the environment because of the cultural scores of low power distance, high individualism and relatively high masculinity, as well as a rather high EPI. A majority of students in the USA (59.6 per cent) responded as positive or hopeful in their response to the question, but this percentage was lower than both India (67.9 per cent) and China (71.4 per cent). However, more of the US students (28.7 per cent) responded in a neutral/non-negative sense.

The framework also created expectations that the second most concerned and interested students would be from India. This is because of the high power distance, mid-range collectivism and lower masculinity scores assigned to India. No Indian students responded negatively to the question asking them to describe sustainability. The results from the Indian students were more positive than the expectations framed by the Husted (2005) and Park et al. (2007) studies.

With China scoring high on collectivism (20), very high on power distance (80) and the highest on the masculinity dimension (66), the expectation was that students in China would be the least environmentally oriented. However, students from China expressed the highest percentage of positive and hopeful responses toward the environment, with only 7.4 per cent of the students indicating feelings of helplessness regarding the subject.

Regarding the assignment of responsibility within the theories of Husted (2005) and Park et al. (2007), it was expected that the students from China would place the greatest responsibility for environmental sustainability on the government. It was also expected that the individual would be viewed as having the most responsibility in India. The national cultural value would not establish the expectation that students from all three countries would place their highest assignment of responsibility for the environment on “all” (a combination of government, business and the individual), but this is what happened.

The expectation that millennial respondents would not feel personally responsible is reflected in responses from the USA, India and China, which assigned responsibility to individuals only 11.4, 21.1 and 7.8 per cent, respectively. However, millennials from each of the three countries view their responsibility as shared with both government and business.

Discussion

Millennial students are both interested in and thoughtful of values and their relationship to environmental sustainability and responsibility for the environment. The voluntary contributions of 755 global students who were willing to express their opinions and concerns related to environmental sustainability indicate that this group of millennials is willing to contribute to the study of their environment.

Millennial perspectives

This study also confirmed that many of the previously found millennial values toward the environment were held consistently by students in business schools around the globe. Beyond being millennials, the commonalities between these students were the fact they were business/commerce students nearing graduation, and each lives in a country that is one of three comprising the largest ecological footprint (WWF, 2014).

The global business students in this study indicate an interest in environmental sustainability as would be expected (Abbas and Singh, 2014). The research subjects described sustainability through a majority of positive and/or hopeful responses in each of the three countries. Millennials believe in their future (Howe and Strauss, 2000) and understand the role of environmental sustainability. While they are aware of the urgency of taking action, the researchers noted the absence of any comments addressing knowledge of or concern over their country having one of the largest ecological footprints and biocapacity deficits. Only a small number of students indicated a feeling of helplessness when it comes to the environment. An interesting finding is that none of the students from India expressed disinterest or negative feelings about environmental sustainability.

Overall, findings were supportive of the literature on millennial values, indicating positive responses to the descriptions of environmental sustainability. An average of 66.3 per cent of the coded responses reflect the optimism of the generation and the positive responses were in the majority for each country, especially China. In fact, concern for future generations was a frequent theme in narratives as was the millennial priority to develop alternative energies (Fry, 2015). With “future generations” being the term used in the Brundtland definition of sustainable development and alternative energy alluding to the technical advances addressed by Jonas, we see members of this generation placing responsibility for the environment in a long-term more contemporary view. This aspect of being able to look forward and make changes draw from the ethical lens suggested by Jonas (1984) and Robinson (2016) that man now believes he can affect the environment.

Cultural differences/similarities in assigning responsibility

While students in each of the three countries completed the same survey, responses received from students in India had, in general, longer narratives that were thoughtful and described environmental sustainability in a holistic manner. A larger percentage of students in India assigned responsibility for the earth to individuals than did the students from the USA or China. Hofstede et al. (2010) may attribute this to the Hindu emphasis on how one lives their life, acting in the interest of the greater good, but critics cite his model as too simplistic (Signorini et al., 2009) and unable to capture the variety in values found within nations (Williamson, 2002). While Hofstede addressed the topic of religion, the cultural studies of Husted (2005) and Park et al. (2007) did not.

Alternative energy was listed in responses, as was autonomy and a sharing of responsibility. Head’s (2013) research on millennial disinterest in changing personal habits may contribute to the fact that students in all countries believe individuals, business and government should share responsibility for environmental sustainability.

Concerning the assignment of responsibility, the most popular response at every school was “all”, and the other responses differed most toward the role of government. The theories of Husted (2005) and Park et al. (2007) set the expectation that students in China would express a belief in the strong role of government, as they did. Students in India emphasized both the individual and “all” as well as a combination of “all” and government, which is surprising only because of the emphasis on the individual in a high power distance culture. The students from the USA answered the question in a more egalitarian manner distributing responsibility among the nine possible choices.

The country with the most feminine cultural dimension was India and, as expected, students spoke of the quality of life more than did students in the USA or China. Husted (2005) and Park et al. (2007) suggest the cultures of India and China will emphasize group decisions and harmony, while the USA culture takes an “I” tone, stressing personal freedom. The narratives in this study endorse this aspect of both theories.

The results of this investigation support the work of Husted (2005) and Park et al. (2007) as well as the expectations of the millennial generation’s values related to environmental sustainability. The one exception is that the students in India express more concern for the environment and the future than the national culture values would predict. With the students in India expressing concern for future generations, they hold potential to become leaders in India’s practices and policies supporting the global environment.

Limitations and opportunities

Although the sample for this study was large, as with most global studies, there could be hidden biases. For example, students could be exposed to school curriculum on sustainability that contributes to their opinion. Additionally, any time a survey is used, especially on a topic that is frequently discussed and has social implications, there may be a tendency to respond in a socially acceptable manner.

Although Hofstede’s national cultural values are accepted by many, this study would be remiss to not address his critics. McSweeney has declared numerous faults to Hofstede’s studies at IBM and his use of cultural dimensions. Among his many concerns, McSweeney warns us that Hofstede’s theory supports culture as being uniform when evidence points to variance, that an individual’s behavior is dependent upon their cultural background, and that using a measurement for culture scores is merely a means of measuring, not determining an objective cultural context (Williamson, 2002). Other critics have addressed Hofstede’s model saying it unsuccessfully attempts to compare culture to nation; it fails to account for the changing nature of culture, and does not address difficulties in attempting to quantify culture (Baskerville, 2003; Signorini et al., 2009). Researchers should continue to look at additional cultural frameworks and take into consideration continual changes in cultural contexts when looking at conclusions that can be drawn in environmental and cultural research.

Opportunities abound in research on generations, cultures and environmental sustainability. The issue is urgent, as care for the environment is dependent upon the actions of the millennials. Future studies should perhaps survey multiple generations so that comparisons between the millennials and other generations are possible. More work is also needed to see whether any of Hofstede’s dimensions have a stronger impact than others on sustainability perspectives. For example, if students find environmental sustainability very important, but live in a culture of high power distance, they may believe they are unable to make a difference and lose motivation. It is also important to continue exploring differences across even more cultures and contexts to determine differences in how environmental sustainability is valued.

Conclusion

This exploratory, qualitative study has laid some important groundwork in examining national culture and millennial perspectives of environmental sustainability and where responsibility is placed across cultures. By examining millennial responses across three countries within the context of Hofstede’s national culture and Husted (2005) and Park et al.’s (2007) selected dimensions, this study has provided a better understanding of the role of culture and generation in relation to environmental sustainability and how responsibility for the environment is assigned. Although cultural differences remain, it is heartening to see that the majority of millennials surveyed across the three countries with the largest combined ecological footprint view environmental sustainability as important and see themselves as partially responsible. Continued exploration of cultural and generational influences on environmental sustainability is important in understanding global perspectives in business and citizenship. With millennials’ positive perspective and optimism toward environmental sustainability, companies and policymakers may need to look to them to lead and influence needed change in environmental sustainability practices. Companies also need to be aware of the importance millennials place on environmental sustainability, as environmental friendly policies may both encourage millennials to work for them and attract consumers, as these consumers become primarily millennials as well. It is also important for companies to understand differences in cultures and adjust their environmentally sustainable practices and expectations by the various countries where they are based. The optimism, engagement and willingness of millennials across cultures to take action will contribute to the confidence of future generations to persist in making earth systems resilient and sustained.

Country footprint data

Country Population (million) Per Capita Footprint Biocapacity Deficit
USA 317.5 8.2 gha 4.5 gha
India 1,236.7 1.2 gha 0.7 gha
China 1,408.0 3.4 gha 2.4 gha
Note:

gha = global hectare or 2.35 acres

Source: Global Footprint Network (2016) using footprint and biocapacity data from 2012

National cultural dimension scores and EPI (of a possible 100)

Country Low power to high powera Collectivism to individualismb Femininity to masculinityc 2016 EPI scored
USA 40 91 62 85.72
India 77 48 56 53.58
China 80 20 66 65.10
Notes:
a

Larger # = Higher,

b

Larger # = Individualism,

c

Larger # = Masculine,

d

100 possible

Percentage of responses – thoughts when discussing environmental sustainability

USA (%) India (%) China (%) Response type
59.6 67.9 71.4 Response is either positive or hopeful
28.7 21.4 14.9 Response is neutral
3.6 7.1 7.4 Response indicates a feeling of helplessness
8.1 0.0 3.4 Response shows disinterest or negative feeling
0.0 3.6 2.9 Response is unrelated to the question

Assignment of responsibility by entity

USA (%) India (%) China (%)Entity
10.4 1.7 22.8 Government
1.0 1.7 4.1 Business
11.4 21.1 07.8 Individual
60.2 59.6 47.5 All
0.0 0.0 0.9 None
3.5 1.7 7.3 Government and business
7.3 11.0 5.5 Government and individuals
5.5 3.5 0.0 Business and individuals
0.7 0.0 2.3 Other
0.0 0.0 1.8 Confused by the question

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Further reading

Hofstede, G. (1998), “Attitudes, values, and organizational culture: disentangling the concepts”, Organization Studies, Vol. 19 No. 3, pp. 477-492.

SEDAC (2005), 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index, Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, London.

Supplementary materials

JGR_9_1.pdf (10.5 MB)

Corresponding author

Nancy J. Hanson-Rasmussen can be contacted at: hansonrn@uwec.edu