Sustainability has been earmarked by the bookends of trending phrases like “greenwashing” and paper straws, without the nuance of understanding the implications of what sustainability means for the present moment, the future of our world, and the state of humanity—especially young people. Unlike other generations, Gen Z has had the unique upbringing of being supported by the social media revolution. Born out of unprecedented access to technology and social media finesse, Gen Z has used these implements to interrogate systems of change and reimagine what it looks like to create solutions for climate change and focus on not just reactive solutions, but proactive solutions.
As Gen Z gets older and starts to question the world around them, it’s essential to understand the relationship between this generation and sustainability. In collaboration with Vox Media, JUV Consulting, a Gen Z marketing company, dug deeper into the minds of Generation Z to determine what this cohort wants to see from brands, as taking action and being authentic may be the key to keeping Gen Zers brand loyal in the long run.
From posting content on social media to advocating in the streets around the world, it’s clear that Gen Z cares about helping the planet. Born into an environment that is rapidly declining, Gen Z wants a healthier planet for future generations and knows they can’t do it alone. In this piece, we will discuss how environmental sustainability has grown in popularity among Gen Z and examine who is most responsible for the climate crisis, as well as how brands can step up as industry changemakers in various ways.
Summary of Findings
Gen Z is passionate about reversing climate change through individual means, but more importantly, through collective action. Gen Z feels that larger entities like corporations have the most responsibility within the collective to make positive environmental changes. Through being authentic, embodying sustainable and ethical values throughout their brand, and implementing ways to educate both consumers and employees on sustainability, companies can better connect and market to Gen Z.
1. With 10.2M+ mentions, #sustainability can be seen all over Instagram. This common hashtag related to environmental sustainability has increased in popularity in recent years. Adopting sustainable practices like purchasing eco-friendly products (68%) or eating more plant-based foods (57%) are further encouraged through Gen Z trends like #thrifttok on popular social media platforms like TikTok. While sustainability trends can help spread awareness and get young people to take action at the moment, without access to proper tools and education, they aren’t set up for long-term success.
2. 15% of Gen Z respondents feel that individuals have a lot of responsibility when it comes to addressing environmental sustainability. Inversely, they say the Government has the most responsibility (56%) and for-profit/private companies are ranked 2nd for having the most responsibility (44%). Even though this cohort relies heavily on major entities to step up, they recognize that we ultimately need to act as a collective in order to save the planet.
3. For Gen Z, it isn’t only about environmental sustainability when it comes to companies they support, they want to see brands following ethical practices in every avenue of business just as much. Both elements go hand in hand with brand authenticity. Gen Z wants brands to show the receipts behind their actions. What does this mean? Showing positive change through data or sharing the behind the scenes of working conditions are just two ways brands can improve their transparency.
4. What does Gen Z want to see companies do the most? They say the most impactful action taken by a company or brand is reducing CO2 emissions (95%) and the least impactful is purchasing carbon credits (95%).
5. Among the Gen Z participants we interviewed, almost half of them say marketing can be tricky for companies when it comes to coming off as sincere. Gen Z is skeptical of the word sustainability being overused or flashy statements that aren’t directly backed by evidence.
6. Gen Z believes corporations can help individuals take action. Through hosting IRL and virtual workshops and providing necessary tools and resources, brands can encourage consumers and company employees to take action independently, ultimately aiding in collective action.
Sustainability Practices Gen Z Has Adopted
When asked which activities they have done in support of environmental sustainability in general, one answer stood out the most — purchasing environmentally sustainable products (68%).
These actions are beneficial to the environment, are convenient practices to follow, and tend to be more affordable. However, how can Gen Z take these actions to the next level? Hopping on a TikTok trend or sharing an infographic may not be getting the proper messages across.
“Environmental sustainability, in my mind, is a watered-down concept because of how we view it on social media platforms like TikTok. If you remember the summer of 2019, environmental sustainability was more portrayed as saving the turtles or using reusable straws. But I know it’s so much more.” – Caitlyn, 17, she/her
For many, they may not even be familiar with such efforts. 50% of respondents said they haven’t taken action in the past year because they don’t know how to. This may be linked to the rise in Eco-Influencers. Gen Zers who haven’t had proper access to environmental sustainability knowledge and are unfamiliar with ways to help, they’re more likely to seek information on the internet and gravitate towards influencers for guidance.
Who causes the greatest harm to the environment?
Gen Z places most of the responsibility for environmental sustainability on larger entities such as the government and companies/brands. While Gen Z recognizes that they are a part of the solution, they feel their actions are only relevant if these larger entities are contributing to the solution in a predominant way.
Is being eco-friendly enough to satisfy Gen Z?
Gen Z wants brands to show the receipts behind their actions. They want to see statements, transparent messaging, and undeniable evidence of their impact on the environment. They want to see corporations be as transparent as possible on social media, on their website, in their company statements. Actions like showing their factories or highlighting the farmers that grow the materials complement a company’s authenticity — posting about Earth day or an infographic here and there isn’t enough.
“More than just raising awareness about the environment, I think transparency is a lot more important. Like, ‘this is how much water we use when we are producing this product compared to all of these’ or ‘we have a company goal and did this, here’s our data from last year,’ or ‘Meet the environmentalists that we talked to,’ I think that’s a lot better than just an Earth Day post.” – Jessica, 20, she/her
Participants we interviewed mention companies needing to have sustainability and ethical practices spread throughout their company (i.e., have eco-friendly products but don’t support poor labor conditions or anti-LGBTQ communities). Their morals should be cohesive through their company (internally and externally).
“When they support a cause, not just making it a one-time benefit, but supporting it for many years and supporting it in many different ways. Not only through the products they’re releasing, but the organizations they’re supporting and the educational material they’re publishing online regarding their products, even if there’s a product they have that might not be the most sustainable. Being clear about it and being honest about it, I think just really showing that in every single different part of the company is what makes it sincere.” – Stan, 20, he/him
When asked which actions taken by a company they thought were most impactful vs. least impactful, respondents said the most impactful action taken by a company or brand is reducing CO2 emissions (95%), and least impactful is purchasing carbon credits (95%). Spreading awareness is the bare minimum a company can do. When asked which actions taken by a company they thought were most impactful vs. least impactful, raising awareness of environmental issues was also considered least impactful (76.72%).
Among the Gen Z participants we interviewed, almost half of them say marketing can be tricky for companies when it comes to coming off as sincere (i.e., companies overuse the word sustainability, a company can hype up the fact their products are eco friendly but not be authentic about their working conditions (e.g., if they use child labor or if other working or production conditions are poor).
Gen Z feels the word “sustainability” has been losing its valuable meaning over the years.
“The word sustainability has slowly become a marketing scheme like there’s nothing that’s actually sustainable. It’s just something that companies love to put on labels to entice consumers. Even if companies are slightly reusing something, they can be like, hey, this is sustainable.” – Andrew, 22, he/him.
Andrew also adds, “If it [being sustainable] was that easy, every company would be doing it and everyone would be on board with this. And that’s why I think that a lot of it is for marketing and campaigning and just selling to consumers in general.”
Brands may need to start steering away from buzzwords like sustainability because rather than attracting Gen Z, it makes the brand seem more suspicious and inauthentic. While Gen Z does want to support eco-friendlier companies, brands tacking on the word “sustainable” is not the key to obtaining this cohort. Brands should start focusing on stronger, more authentic messaging and ways to show just how sustainable their product is without relying solely on this term.
How Corporations Can Help Individuals Step Up
Corporations can take action in various ways and it’s crucial for them to be transparent with their Gen Z audience. Transparency not only reflects external actions taken by brands but even more so, how they directly communicate and interact with their consumers and employees. One of the most important ways a company can step up with their sustainability efforts is through helping the individuals they come in contact with most — those who purchase from the brand and those who work internally.
Educating the consumer on how they themselves impact the environment by purchasing from the company can lead to a more environmentally conscious shopping experience.
“I think making a consumer aware of the environmental effects of the choices they are making is good. Like, ‘we released 400 million tons of bad stuff into the air, your order cost 70 of whatever it is.’ That way you can be like, ‘maybe I actually don’t need this thing as much as I thought I did.” – Jessica, 20, she/her
Gen Z recognizes that a large carbon footprint is a negative thing, but they don’t know the direct impact of their purchases, like how large their personal carbon footprint is when they make a purchase.
Academic education and social media posts alone aren’t always enough in terms of helping individuals live a more sustainable life—people need access to necessary tools and resources. Hosting workshops (virtual and IRL) for both employees and consumers can help industry leaders play a bigger role in corporate and individual sustainability.
Among the Gen Z participants we interviewed, half of them say companies can offer workshops (for employees and consumers) to educate them on environmental sustainability.
“I think it would be interesting to see an educational program where people interested could join to learn more about a topic. The company could provide some in-depth insight into the issue and provide resources for individuals, helping them take on projects within their own local communities.” – Caitlyn, 17, she/her
Gen Z wants to see more
Gen Z recognizes Environmental Sustainability nonprofits that are already doing amazing work. They want to see these groups given a larger platform and an amplified voice. Who better amplify the work of a smaller organization than a large corporate entity with even larger platforms? Among the Gen Z participants we interviewed, half of them mention wanting companies to donate more to organizations already doing amazing work for the environment and partnering with those organizations to work on a campaign and/or give them publicity in some way.
“Making donations where they can and not just a quiet donation, but making a campaign out of it, do something that encourages other people in the community to get involved. They should help out the organization in some sort of way, either donating or getting them more publicity. Really just using their audience to help grow the initiatives of people who are already doing the work without taking credit from them.” – Clara, 21, she/her
Gen Zers are scared for the future and want to mitigate the effects of climate change, but know they can’t do it alone. For this generation to take action as individuals, they need to feel supported by the government and corporations. To appeal to Gen Z’s value of collective action, larger entities need to listen to what Gen Z has to say and create solutions that treat Gen Z as effective, true partners. This generation is so deeply concerned about the future of Earth and determining if we can do enough in the next few years to mitigate the lifelong effects we have done to the planet. We have to reconcile with the climate reality we have created not only for Gen Z but the generations to come afterward.
More and more young people are showing up to protests, participating in policy roundtables and discussions like the United Nations Climate Change Conference, changing purchase behaviors, but none of these actions exist in silos. Ultimately, Gen Z needs the support of brands, businesses, and governments to be the institutions that empower them, take accountability for their role in the climate state of the world, and build out solutions for transformative change.
We designed and fielded a survey in May 2021 to our Receipt Research Network, which includes Gen Zers aged 14 – 26 from around the United States; 529 respondents completed the survey. Additionally, we interviewed 10 Gen Zers from around the United States to get their insight on Environmental Sustainability.