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Oct 11 2019
Why did the Greta effect start in Sweden and how should companies react to it?

Not much more than a year has passed since the then-15 year old Swedish girl Greta Thunberg began spending her school days outside Sweden’s parliament. Holding a sign saying “School strike for climate”, she called for stronger action on global warming.

Her journey since then – made mainly on trains and sailing boats – has been remarkable.

It has taken Greta from Stockholm to the covers of Time magazine, GQ and Vogue. She had lunch with the Financial Times and lectured global leaders on hypocrisy at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Her initiative went global when young people engaged in a school climate strike movement under the name Fridays for Future. Millions of people took to the streets to demand change, even in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Democratic Republic of the Congo. On September 20, protests took place in 160 countries in all continents including Antarctica, according to Fridays for Future’s website.

Greta is currently touring North America. She started in New York, where political grandees such as Barack Obama and Angela Merkel tweeted pictures from meetings with her. Her angry face upon encountering President Trump at the United Nations 2019 climate action summit quickly went viral.

The crescendo of her visit so far was her speech at the summit. The speech was immensely blunt, telling governments that “you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you.”

A schoolgirl became the icon for a renewed climate activism. Why did this happen specifically in Sweden?

The opinions of young citizens matter

The first part of the answer is probably to be found in Sweden’s modern attitude to children, parenting and education.

As Swedish society developed over the second half of the 20th century, Swedes developed a very empathetic view on children as independent individuals. In Sweden, children are treated as rational human beings from an early age. It is understood that they have the rights and needs to be respected in the same way as adults.

In 1979, Sweden became the first nation in the world to explicitly ban corporal punishment of children, and 1993 it was one of the first to establish an Ombudsman for children. All things considered, it is actually surprising that demands for a lowered voting age to 15 or 16 years have not met more support.

Swedish schools focus on training pupils to be constructive team players, teaching them the values of dialogue and consensus. By the time they leave school they are trained for a democratic society where they respect the views, rights and integrity of others.

This has created a climate where the opinions of young citizens are treated with interest and respect, and sometimes get a comparatively large amount of airtime.  

Greta’s age made her protest stand out, drawing interest from the Swedish media. But despite her age, media and politicians treated her initiative as a credible contribution to the climate debate.

Crisis mentality within Sweden’s smartphone generation

The second part of the answer links to the mindset among Swedes in Greta Thunberg’s generation, which was recently analyzed by research company Kairos Future.

A paper released by Kairos Future in August had a fascinating conclusion: The Swedish Smartphone generation, a.k.a. Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2005), is shaped by a crisis mentality and new kind of activism.

Greta’s generation is the first with no direct recollection of 9/11, generally perceived to be the era-defining event of the early 21st century.

Instead, it has been fed with reports of constant economic and political turmoil, and the growing burden of climate change.

The last five years have been fairly traumatic in Sweden, with a clear reemergence of alarmist reporting.  

For example, Russia’s renewed aggression made the Swedish Armed Forces change their policy to “not rule out” an armed attack on Sweden. The refugee crisis in 2015 put hard social pressures on Sweden. More broadly, the likelihood of a global trade war and Brexit have caused uncertainty in an economy heavily dependent on global economy.

In reality, the Swedish economy is faring fairly well, and surveys show that the population is reasonably well off. It appears it more of a mental change that led to Greta’s pessimism resonating within her age group and beyond.

Kairos Future’s research showed that Swedes aged 16-24 years appear to be moody both at micro and macro level.

Of those surveyed, 73% stated they have felt “agony” in the last half year, which they put down to pressures in school or tougher requirements to “succeed in life”. In 2000, the figure was 28% for the people in the same age bracket.

Only one in three of Swedes in the same generation are optimists when it comes to the future of society, while 40% believe they will be worse off than previous generations.

A majority also think their generation is going to struggle larger common challenges than the previous generation.

Of those not agreeing that technology change will solve the climate challenge, 44% think there will be a major “collapse of society” during their lifetime. 22% even predict the downfall of humanity to take place during that time.

While general negative sentiment is nothing new, it is manifesting itself in different ways to previous generations. While older generations claim terrorism to be the main threat, the report shows that Millennials (born between 1985 and 1994) and Generation Z see climate change as the main threat.

However, the negative outlook is accompanied with a sense of urgency for collective action. A majority of Swedes aged 16-24 (51%) stated that their “dreams are large scale and ambitious”. In contrast, only 25% said that the dreams are “down to earth”.

Earlier in the decade, the division between “large scale” and “down to earth” dreams was much more equal. There is a much stronger commitment to common societal challenges within this generation compared to previous ones. 67% agrees that ”society needs a common goal to work for”.

Putting all this together, it’s no surprise that they are flocking to Greta’s cause.

This generation also appears to value higher moral standards in their private lives more than previous generations ever did.  It’s clear to see that young people are demanding greater abstention when it comes to the climate debate. 

Take aviation as an example. Sweden has had a heated debate on the use of aviation, coming down to private responsibility. It is logical that Greta’s rhetoric on personal sacrifices and harder commitments resonates.

The Kairos Future report shows that one third of Generation Z considers moral aspects when consuming food, one quarter when consuming fashion, and one fifth when consuming travel and housing.

How should companies communicate with consumers of the Greta generation?

The Greta effect is obviously reflecting a mindset shift in Swedish society, but this development should be interesting to consider in all societies. Keep in mind how rapidly Greta went from being one girl demonstrating into leading a faceted movement spreading all over the world.

This is the way attitudes are changing in other Western societies as well. Every company must consider how to meet this generation of future consumers. And they have to start preparing immediately.

The straight no-nonsense approach among this generation makes assets such as corporate mission and vision statements less viable than they once were. Companies will be measured on what they do rather than on what they say.

Therefore, it is much more important to commit to a responsibility for the solution than to acknowledging a responsibility for the problem. This is promising. The common climate challenge will be a fantastic opportunity for companies to develop and display the potentials within innovation and technology development.

Greta Thunberg, in her speech at the United Nations ruled out the possibilities to combine serious actions on the climate effect with long term economic growth. Industry will have a crucial mission to prove her wrong. This will require companies to raise the bar in how they prioritize and describe their sustainability efforts.

Just an example: Skipping air travel to and from meetings is now the new normal in many corporate environments, given the advantages of video conferencing and other digital tools. However, companies heavily reliant on research and technical collaboration need to make clear that in-person communication between R&D experts and engineers, and therefore travel is often crucial in the process of developing products for the consumer market. There is certainly a paradox in travelling in order to develop more energy and CO2 efficient products – but is something companies must own and communicate.

Any company today must ask where it has the main positive and negative environmental and climate footprint and keep both business and communication in line with that reality.

As many have already said: Talking about doing good is not enough anymore. Companies being serious in their efforts must be prepared to stand above the discussion. Being part in setting the premises for the discussion will become a way of leading it.

Catch a flight if you need to, but don’t try to hide it. Talk about how your business is an important link in solving the climate challenge, and be proud of it. Even if it is the same thing that constitutes your growth and yield. It most often is. And therefore, going forward, the industry will become the most important ally to Greta and her followers.