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Teens try to change the world, one purchase at a time

Youths 'vote' for fair trade, conservation, and natural foods with their dollars - but convenience is also a consideration

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Wanting to ameliorate the world's big problems can be frustrating, especially for those who feel ineffective because they're young. Marketers are figuring out that teenagers resent this feeling of powerlessness and are pushing products that make young buyers feel as though they're making a difference, says Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a market-research firm in Northbrook, Ill. His example: Ethos Water from Starbucks, which contributes five cents from every bottle sold to water-purification centers in developing countries.

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"This is a very easy way for young people to contribute.... All they have to do is buy a bottled water," Mr. Wood says. "Buying products or supporting companies that give them ways to support global issues is one way for them to get involved, and they really appreciate that."

Convenience is also driving consumer activism. Joe Curnow, national coordinator of United Students for Fair Trade, says she first got involved about five years ago as a high schooler when she spent time hanging out in cafes. Buying coffee with an eco-friendly label "was a very easy way for me to express what I believed in," she says.

For young teens, consumption is their first foray into activism. At the Fayerweather Street School, Emma Lewis teamed up with classmates Kayla Kleinman and Therese LaRue to sell Fair Trade chocolate, cocoa, and other products at a school fundraiser in November. When the tally reached $8,000, they realized they were striking a chord.

"It's maybe not making as much of a difference as it would if we were adults," Kayla says. "But it is doing something."

Some adults hasten to point out the limitations of ethical consumption as a tool for doing good deeds and personal growth. Gary Lindsay, director of Children's Ministries at Grace Baptist Church in Hudson, Mass., encourages Fair Trade purchases, but he also organizes children to collect toys for foster children and save coins for a playground-construction project in Tanzania. He says it helps them learn to enjoy helping others even when they're not getting anything tangible in return.

"When we're benefiting, how much are we really giving? Is it really sacrifice?" Mr. Lindsay asks. Of Fair Trade products, he says: "Those things are great when we're given opportunities like that once in a while. But I think for us to expect that we should get something out of everything we do is a very selfish attitude to have."

Others say that the Millennial generation was destined to bring their concerns to bear on food products as a result of the way they grew up. And justice in the fields isn't always the foremost concern.

Through child safety seats and other protective products, "this generation has been made to feel so special and so important that they are very concerned with themselves and what goes into their bodies," Bon Appétit's Ms. Ganzler says. "They believe, 'I'm unique, and I deserve to have food that is good for me.' ... I'd venture to guess [concerns about farm workers are] lower on the priority list than what actually impacts themselves."

Although Equal Exchange prices its products competitively with other premium brands, the ethical consumption trend is most visible among the financially comfortable. Bon Appétit doesn't serve public college campuses, she says, because they don't provide enough latitude for the firm's teaching mission. Even on private campuses, many students don't seem motivated to advance a cause.

"The number of students who care about these issues is certainly growing, but it does remain a vocal minority," Ganzler says. "It is not the majority of students that are engaged in related issues.... Most students are going about their business worrying about finals."

Apathy and finances aside, image still matters in junior high and beyond. And in some circles, food is a big part of it.

"If I were to come into school with a Coke, I wouldn't feel as cool as if I came in with a mango-tango smoothie," Emma says. "Looking healthy and being healthy makes you, like, feel good and feel like you look good."