An Open Letter from Gen Z on Sustainability & Climate Action

When I was in elementary school, my best friend Ruby and I fancied ourselves proto-environmental activists. About as early as our childish tongues could form the word “campaign” we had launched one with a singular and realistic goal – saving the world. Our activism was boundless within our neighborhood in Burns Park, Michigan. We pasted posters about endangered pandas to the big, blue mailboxes on the corner – where ‘everyone’ could see them – inadvertently committing a felony all while wearing t-shirts from the zoo that read “Melt hearts, not ice caps.” Said posters hung until our alarmed parents marched us back to meticulously detach the duct-taped flyers, all while receiving a lecture about the pitfalls of defacing government property. 

My parents – in typical Gen-X-bordering-on-Millennial fashion – love to tell this story as an endearing tale about how Gen Z is going to save the world. I’m sure you’re familiar with the narrative. How our generation’s ever-present commitment to activism and awareness of the need for change is going to heal the ozone through the power of hope and sunshine and rainbows, or something. 

But here’s the thing – this isn’t a cute story. 

Ruby and I were around six years old, spending our weekends typing up flyers about the dying planet on her parents’ iMac instead of playing on Webkinz and meeting weird strangers on Omegle. This story shouldn’t sound cute, it should sound dystopian. The reality is, Gen Z grew up in a time where the planet is so irrevocably f-ed by older generations that even our childhoods weren’t safe from an acute awareness of the climate crisis and a gnawing sense of eco-anxiety that informed things as simple as our means of “play.” 

As our generation has grown older, our fears and anxieties haven’t changed. We still see the world through green-colored glasses; the only difference is our awareness of the nuances of the issue. 

This is where you come in – hi, Corporations. My name is Claire. Happy Earth Day. I’ll cut to the chase: Gen Z is angry – here’s what you can do. 

For Gen Z, climate change isn’t a crime without a perpetrator. In our survey of 529 Gen Zers, 56% of respondents said that governments had the most responsibility in climate change, and 44% of respondents said that large corporations were to blame. Only 15% said that the individual was to blame. Here, we’re not blaming the broken vase on our sibling; in truth, Gen Zers just understand what’s actually going on. Unlike prior generations, we’re not satisfied by a swap from a plastic to paper straw or a neighborhood compost pile. We understand that our current crisis is the product of both action and inaction from governments and corporations that prioritized short-term gains and profit over the wellbeing of the planet we call home. So sure, we’ll use a plastic water bottle from time to time – we’re far more worried about you treating the planet as disposable. 

What Gen Z really wants is a lofty goal. In our survey, 95% of respondents said that the best thing corporations could do to take action is reduce their CO2 emissions. If you’re willing to do that, you can stop reading here. Thank you for surprising me! But before you think we’re going to send the Lorax to bust through your door like the Kool Aid Man unless you lock the doors on all your factories, let me offer another solution. 

Ultimately, what Gen Z wants is transparency. 68% of surveyed Gen Zers say that one way they take action is by attempting to buy more sustainable products. So put the power in our hands to know what those choices mean. This is the dilemma that feeds our distaste with green-washing, where every corporation paints their packaging green and slaps a label on it with a little cartoon earth, leaf, or tree. When we’re trying to shop sustainably, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s a marketing ploy. Provide us with the data to know the choices we’re making. What’s the carbon footprint of the t-shirt in our shopping cart? How many trees were cut down to make our notebook? How much methane is being released by the cows that were farmed to get us this steak? 

Gen Z doesn’t want a lot. All we’re asking for is the ability to make choices we can feel proud of to mitigate the eco-anxiety that’s defined our lives. If telling us this information scares you, that means it’s time for real change. 

The truth, straight from a Gen Zers mouth, is this: if you’re constantly turning around to cover up your carbon footprints, maybe you should consider whether or not you’re walking away from a crime scene. 

Claire Fennell is a Senior Partner at JUV. She can most often be found reading in Central Park, listening to Elton John, or spending way too much money on iced oat lattes. Follow her on Instagram @clairemfennell!