Will Millennials Give Up Their Burgers to Save the Planet?

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.

You won't find many 20-something climate-change deniers in America.

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 Primero, 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, Primero 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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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 everyday actions of the average consumer can have a massive impact at scale. She uses World War Two as an example to assert that "human nature" isn't what holds us back. We've been able to change our habits for a greater cause before. She writes:

Indeed to support fuel conservation during World War II, pleasure driving was virtually eliminated in the UK, and between 1938 and 1944, use of public transit went up by 87 percent in the US and by 95 percent in Canada. Twenty million US households — representing three fifths of the population — were growing victory gardens in 1943, and their yields accounted for 42 percent of fresh vegetables consumed that year. Interestingly, all of these activities together dramatically reduce emissions.

It's yet to be determined if the millennial generation will be able to match the Greatest Generation when it comes to making sacrifices. But reducing red meat and dairy consumption could help. As The New York Times declared in a 2015 piece now gaining traction again, you're "better off eating vegetables from Argentina than red meat from a local farm" because of how carbon-intensive red meat production is. Of course, it would be best to eat both locally grown vegetables and alternative proteins. But the trap is to think local beef is better than imported chicken.

Practicing Meatless Mondays has a greater impact than shopping exclusively at the farmers market.

We must change our thinking and move away from only focusing on "food miles," or the cost of transporting food. If we more seriously consider the types of foods we eat, we could have a more serious impact. A study from Carnegie Mellon concluded that a dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household's food-related climate footprint than buying local. "Shifting less than one day per week's worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG (greenhouse gas) reduction than buying all locally sourced food." In other words, practicing Meatless Mondays has a greater impact than shopping exclusively at the farmers market.

Why We Should Be Hopeful

As we wait, perhaps futilely, for political and business leaders to act, we must start consuming less and doing more. If you already do Meatless Monday, tack on a Meatless Tuesday. Order the chicken tacos instead of the beef burrito. And make it your mission to find the best veggie burger your city has to offer.

Seventeen-year-old Clara Nevins is one young person who has found a way to combine large-scale action with personal change. She founded Change Climate Change when she was 13 to serve as the youth voice in climate-change conversations. She's lobbied her local LA city council to enact energy report cards for buildings and even served as a youth delegate in Paris for negotiations on the climate pact the US eventually pulled out of. In addition to political change, Nevins also thinks it's up to her generation to look at their lifestyle choices. "Every single action that we do is meaningful," she told us. For her, that means committing to composting, shopping locally, buying fewer and better things, and cutting back on red meat. "I have red meat once a week. I honestly don't even miss it that much and believe it makes a difference."

There's never been a better time for people like Nevins to be "vegetarian curious." Gracias Madre is an Instagrammable Mexican restaurant with locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco that also happens to be vegan. Restaurants like these are an attractive option for millennials looking to cut back on red meat and dairy consumption. Chandra Gilbert serves as the executive chef for the West Hollywood outpost and estimates that 90 percent of her diners are not practicing vegans. "Today, you might say, 'Hey, do you want to go out and have some Chinese food? Or do you want to get some vegan food?' It's not a weird and abstract thing," Gilbert explained. She says the rise of chain restaurants like Veggie Grill show vegetable-driven meals are becoming more normalized.

"Today, you might say, 'Hey, do you want to go out and have some Chinese food? Or do you want to get some vegan food?'"

Sascha Weiss, a veteran pastry chef and plant-based food expert, has also found creative ways to get millennials to favor plant-based foods. Weiss currently leads product development for California-based Project Juice and was the executive chef at The Plant Café Organic chain in Northern California, which doesn't offer any red meat on its menu. Weiss notes that food choices are personal and influenced by what we ate growing up: "We've had success with plant-based dishes that are riffs on classics. Cleaned-up versions of things like a Caesar salad, kelp noodles with basil pesto, or apple-pie-inspired chia seed pudding." A little nostalgia can go a long way with our generation.

Weiss thinks the rise in demand he's witnessed for sustainable, plant-based foods shows that consumers want to be proud of their food choices. Social media plays into that. "A photo can tell a great story, as the old cliché tells us," he explained. "It also helps drive trends, and right now the trend is toward sustainability, toward eliminating or lessening food waste." The fact that millennials want to be on the cutting edge could help drive productive change. Nevins agrees that the power of social media is important, and she's betting that personal efforts to cut back on high-emission foods will spread online and turn into a mass movement.

At the Berkeley Student Food Collective, students are helping drive change in a positive direction from the ground up. Allegra Saggese, 21, another student leader with the group, explained, "We made an active choice in our organization a few years back to not sell meat in the store. Along the entire supply chain of meat, there's a lot of injustice in terms of how labor workers are treated in slaughterhouses, to the methane emissions from cows, to the water consumption." By creating more access and knowledge around plant-based foods, the 150 UC Berkeley students who volunteer at the Food Collective hope to make a collective difference.

Then there are food trends that work against the need to cut back on red meat. The Paleo diet, a meal plan based on the dietary habits of our cave-dwelling ancestors, has gained popularity this decade. It emphasizes protein, vegetables, and nuts instead of processed carbs. A new study from delivery service Grubhub found that the Paleo diet is now the most popular healthy eating choice across the country. In 2016, Paleo orders via Grubhub increased by 370 percent. Sure, the Paleo diet is not exclusively about red meat. But since a nice, juicy steak does fit within the requirements, millennials who choose this diet are likely to consume more of it. Meat-focused delivery boxes, like Butcher Box, confuse the issue too. Butcher Box promises to deliver 100 percent grass-fed, grass-finished, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef, which is undoubtedly better than the alternative. Unfortunately, it also makes it easier to eat more red meat.

"They're less likely to expect 'center of the plate' items. It used to be, if it's not 10 ounces of protein, then you're not eating in a restaurant."

Despite these red-meat-friendly trends, chef Reusing is hopeful that the simultaneous disruption of traditional food culture will be an overall positive for the environment, even if it possibly hurts the bottom line for fine-dining restaurants like hers. Thanks to food delivery boxes and the access to recipes online, young people are more willing to cook at home in a relaxed environment. Reusing believes protein portion control will come more easily to millennials who often favor food trucks to restaurants with white tablecloths. "They're less likely to expect 'center of the plate' items. It used to be, if it's not 10 ounces of protein, then you're not eating in a restaurant." Since millennials aren't that hung up on eating in traditional restaurants, perhaps we'll be naturally guided to more balanced food options.

"Meat consumption is going down, though certainly not as much as it needs to in order to stay focused on climate goals," Reusing concluded. Personally, she has found the chaos of the Trump presidency very distracting. "We have to hope that the galvanization will outweigh the distraction." She believes young people will lead the charge in turning outrage into action on climate change. "I see some really amazing things happening that wouldn't be happening without millennials." She points to New York City's new and ambitious composting effort as one example. "Young people are more accepting of things people 20 years older than them would not have accepted, like a stinky bin of food in your kitchen." Perhaps giving up a cheeseburger or two won't be too big of a jump after all.