Sustainability: do Gen Z practice what they preach?

Rich Fryzel
Making sustainability meaningful HERO 2

Paper straws are a curious thing.

We demanded them, and now we think they’re ruining iced beverages around the globe. This seemingly innocuous answer to plastic waste has unintentionally divided us and made average Jane and Joe question their commitment to the greater good.

The curious thing is that we didn’t actually demand paper straws. Around 2010, as the legend is told, a young and precocious Gen Z-er from Vermont challenged his local café’s plastic straw practices. Stuff happened, it went viral, and the mass-banning of plastic straws yelped into vogue. As global citizens, most would support this phenomenal example of altruism and productive whistle blowing. But, as global consumers, the paper straw stand-in has given few an easy go at it.

The moral of the story is simple: just because sustainability matters, it doesn’t mean that sustainable initiatives are ready-made to work. And, importantly, even though this plastic straw story is old, it doesn’t mean that we’ve learned from it, as the current frenzy of no-straw lids shows.

But enough about straws. If anyone’s asked you what the ROI is on your sustainability initiative, would you know exactly what they’re talking about? The extent to which organizations are willing to invest for the greater good is debatable. Yet, in the same breath, everyone accepts that sustainability is important and that we all have a responsibility to do more.

The challenge is that sustainability means different things to different people. How can marketers solve this tension? And what role should sustainability play in marketing? To successfully tap into this growing focus and vibrant energy, businesses must understand how consumers – our youth, in particular – see sustainability.

A familiar challenge

Check your labels – there’s a good chance you’re wearing something made of cotton. Cotton has filled closets around the globe and earned the goodwill of consumers for generations. And Cotton Incorporated (the research and promotion company for US cotton producers and importers) is proud to represent a responsibly produced alternative to synthetic fibers. But the company wasn’t sure if and how these two truths were connected.

So they posed a simple question: going forward, to appeal to Gen Z, should sustainability credentials play a more connected role in Cotton Incorporated’s strategy?

A curious expedition

In collaboration with Hall & Partners, a research strategy was developed using a combination of digital interviews, large-scale surveys and advanced analytics to explore this nebulous topic.

Contextually rich interviews through Gen Z’s smartphones established a youth-friendly lexicon of sustainability, and illuminated hypotheses around the impact of sustainability in their lives. Quantitative surveys tested those hypotheses, including a unique Choice Model to simulate the role of sustainability in decision-making.

Conundrum meets clarity

Gen Z believe that climate change and pollution are among the most important issues of their generation, with 83% saying sustainability is about addressing these issues in order to protect our environment. While nearly all of them actively recycle and use non-disposables, only 19% say that they research a brand’s sustainability credentials before buying.

For Gen Z, sustainability is experienced as a way of perceiving, not necessarily as a way of buying.

Buying sustainably is more nuanced. Given the myriad ethical issues sustainability can refer to, Gen Z choose to define it by what it’s not – wastefulness. As a consequence, sustainability lies somewhere between saving our planet and saving their money. This creates individual thresholds of conviction where buying sustainably may no longer be worth the potential inconvenience, or where their personal gain may not be meaningful enough. In other words, spending money to be ‘sustainable’ transforms the concept from a public issue into a private challenge.

By operating more sustainably, brands can help Gen Z consumers live more sustainably and stay true to their convictions

This is the rub for brands. If they are spending to be sustainable then it’s effectively their issue, not the consumer’s.

In essence, sustainable brands don’t make Gen Z sustainable people. But, by operating more sustainably, brands can help Gen Z consumers live more sustainably and stay true to their convictions.

For Cotton Incorporated, these insights validated the existence of sustainability in their strategy, but also suggested opportunity in refreshing their approach. Associating a brand with sustainability requires a unique focus on using products, not buying them, and on clarifying trade-offs, not avoiding them. There’s still work to be done, but a people-centric foundation has been set.

What now?

We all know what it’s like to be so close to something that you can’t actually see it? When confronting sustainability, such is the danger for marketers.

It’s easy to get caught up in the trades, weighing every hot topic equally and sparing no time to explore the specific relevance – especially when youth is your audience. For businesses, this can mean executing blindly against industry imperatives in the hope that your brand isn’t too late. Inevitably the outcome is skepticism about ROI, and consumer indifference towards an unequivocally good thought.

The lesson is clear: that marketers must deeply understand people before serving them. In sustainable terms, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Sustainability is an inherently durable concept, with the fate of tomorrow resting on actions taken today. In an exciting moment for marketers, what will define our future world isn’t just the actions businesses take, but the essential work marketers do to make those actions meaningful.