Gen Z, Sustainability, and the Purpose Economy

Aisling Carlson
Chief Business Officer
December 17, 2021

For years, Millennials were the “it” generation. Marketers at the biggest corporations in the world invested millions of dollars to understand the nuances of their spending habits, pain points, and psychographics. In 2015, The New York Times even published an article titled “Oh, to Be Young, Millennial, and So Wanted by Marketers,” with writer Hilary Stout describing the tale of Tic Tac’s 18-month study into why the generation wasn’t satisfied with “a mere mint.” 

The verdict? Millennials wanted “entertainment, release from boredom, ‘emotional rescue’” — and soon after the Tic Tac Mixer, which changed flavors in the mouth, was born.

In recent years, the spotlight has shifted to Millennials’ successor: Gen Z (Centennials). Gen Z is the new digitally fluent cast of 18-24 year olds, the oldest of whom have already graduated from college and entered the workforce, wielding a unique spending power of their own. Though the Covid-19 pandemic upended what was once a prosperous, glinty road ahead, Gen Z is still poised to shape our economy in startling ways as its young cohort demands product transparency, sustainability, and quality from brands. But are Gen Z’s values stable in the long run? Or is their optimism, weaned on a multi-year bull run, liable to fold at the next economic crisis? Keep scrolling so we can share our three cents.

Gen Z: Green, Green, Green

Gen Zs may be young, but the world they’re growing up in is changing at breakneck speed. With the global climate crisis reaching a fever pitch (the UN issued a “code red” alert earlier this year), it’s no surprise that a recent Deloitte survey found that the environment was the primary concern of Gen Zs, followed by unemployment and health care/disease. A slew of other stats illuminates where this digitally native generation diverges from its predecessors, re: the environment and beyond:

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment opportunities for environmental scientists and related fields will grow by 8% over the next 10 years (faster than most other professions).
  • Gen Zs want their purchases to be environmentally sustainable — 57% said this was important to them in 2019. (In fact, 73% are willing to pay up to 10% more for sustainable products.)
  • Gen Zs listed quality as the most important factor driving their purchase decisions, as opposed to price for millennials.
  • Gen Zs are concerned about their personal health and wellness, and 71% look for natural or organic ingredients.
  • Gen Zs prefer experiences over material items, and 81% would switch brands for quality.

The Impact of the Gen Z Bull Run

But is Gen Z’s environmentalism simply a part of the zeitgeist? In an instance of another large-scale recession, would they still be willing to spend extra money on sustainable goods?

After all, though Gen Z doesn’t have it easy by any means, its members have enjoyed the longest bull market in history (almost 9.5 years, at the time of writing this). 

Some argue that this has led to a certain kind of Centennial optimism. MarketWatch released an op-ed last month sharing data on how wildly unrealistic Gen Zs are about how much money stocks and crypto will give them, with the subheading: “The future always looks bright in a bull market.”

Millennials — sometimes called the unluckiest generation in American history — still bear the scars of the Great Recession, and their obsession with price and affordable goods (as well as their hyper-cautious spending behavior) is a direct consequence of the 2008 crash and its aftermath.

Gen Z, on the other hand, hasn’t gone through a financial crisis of such scope. Though the pandemic certainly caused an economic downturn and millions to lose their jobs, its impact on Gen Z was arguably more psychological — the stress of physical isolation, online schooling, remote work, and an uncertain future leaving an indelible mark on a generation still in the process of its most formative years and neural development.

Still, data seems to suggest that the sustainability at the core of Gen Z’s values is here to stay, regardless of what happens with our economy. Investors are trying to get ahead of the trend, too, with Blackrock, Investec, and other groups declaring that sustainability is the future (and not a fad).

Greenwashing Needs to Go, But Sustainability Is Here to Stay

With Gen Z so adamant about buying eco-friendly products (and more eager than other generations to align their career with their values), brands have been quick to market their products in ways that, well, might be misleading. Some might even say that a crop of fast-fashion/insert-industry-here brands even seek to exploit the good intentions of Gen Z.

The caveat: Gen Z is way less likely to be fooled by brands’ greenwashing and vague, sanitized corporate jargon. Reared on the internet since they were kids, Gen Zs are technologically savvy, with the ability to detect B.S. like it’s malware. With their $143 billion spending power, Gen Z has the potential to apply pressure to businesses to be transparent about their practices or actually put their money where their mouth is.

What does this mean for brands? The purpose economy is thriving, and connecting with the next generation of shoppers (whose income is projected to rise more than fivefold by 2030, account for more than a quarter of global GDP, and exceed Millennials’ income) involves making tangible shifts toward sustainability, accountability, and honesty. 

(Since you love hearing our takes, you can read more about greenwashing and virtue signaling in our blog post, Hypocrisy in the Age of Social Justice.)

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