Personal finance

From inventing ocean-cleaning ships to calling on businesses to change, U.S. teens are tackling climate change

When Haaziq Kazi was in the fourth grade, he was rocked to the core when he found out about the impact of plastic waste on marine life.

He decided to do something about it, designing a prototype of a ship that sucks the waste from the ocean.

“There’s this saying that we haven’t inherited this planet from our grandparents, rather borrowed it from our grandchildren,” said Kazi, now 15. He hails from Pune, India, and is now a student at a Connecticut boarding school.

“We as … human beings really need to do something about the problem,” he added.

Kazi is like many other teenagers when it comes to concern over the environment.

Nearly 70% of U.S. teens believe fixing climate change and global warming is the responsibility of everyone, as individuals, according to a recent survey by Junior Achievement. While they don’t see businesses as having the greatest responsibility, they do believe business innovation is required to slow or stop climate change from getting worse.

Those issues, among others, were addressed during Thursday’s CNBC and Junior Achievement Summit for a More Sustainable Tomorrow, hosted by CNBC’s senior personal finance correspondent Sharon Epperson. Teens from around the country weighed in with their questions about how to effect change, both personally and through businesses.

The panel of experts urged the younger generation to speak up, be leaders and recognize their role as consumers to impact companies’ sustainability efforts.

“The greatest power out there is yours,” said Avi Garbow, environmental advocate at Ventura, California-based Patagonia, an outdoor clothing and gear company.

“It’s the power of the consumer that’s truly unmatched,” he added. “How they choose to spend their money and which companies they reward with their purchases is entirely up to them.”

Public companies also feel the pressure from shareholders, who look at short-term gains in quarterly reports. Yet, there have already been examples of shareholder revolts when it comes to the issue of sustainability, said investor Tom Soto, founder and managing partner of Santa Monica, California-based Diverse Communities Impact Fund.

Just this spring, activist firm Engine No. 1 secured three board seats at Exxon after campaigning for the oil company to shift its operations and significantly reduce emissions.

“That was a significant shift in the ability of shareholders to profoundly affect their rights and get representation on a fossil-fuel company board to change the way they behave,” Soto said. “So it’s not as though it can’t be done; it certainly could.”

When it comes to starting their own businesses, teen entrepreneurs — much like their elders — should focus on how to make sustainability a center point of their business model.

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That’s something Carolyn Aronson, 54, said she chose to do when she started her Miami-based company, It’s a 10 Haircare.

“When I actually work with manufacturers, I challenge them to be green,” she said. “I inspire them to be creative in how they’re actually manufacturing for me.”

She suggests starting with tiny choices about sustainability when the business is still small, and tackling bigger challenges as it expands.

Meanwhile, consumers may want to buy sustainable products but just can’t afford them.

“If they’re not affordable, and they’re not accessible, then we’ve actually failed,” said Sarah Bloom Raskin, former deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

“We need to be inclusive when we think about what we’re going to be selling and marketing if we’re going to succeed in actually dealing with the big challenge of climate.”

— CNBC’s Emily Lorsch contributed to this report.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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