Gen Z is Hyperconscious of Greenwashing in Retail — Defining ‘True’ Sustainability for a Young Demographic

Gen Z has been shaped by a number of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn that followed. While sustainability and climate change were already topics of conversation, the pandemic put them into overdrive with more people thinking about where, how and why they purchase the consumer goods they use.

As true digital natives, Gen Z has proven to be more sophisticated, critical consumers of media than any generation before them. This group is hyper-aware of greenwashing and false company promises around sustainability and fair wages — and are not afraid to be vocal about the standards they uphold brands to. As a generation of advocates and free thinkers, Gen Z uses their own influence to impact older generations when it comes to sustainability.

Defining True Sustainability for Gen Z

According to a 2021 Deloitte study, climate change and protecting the environment was the number-one concern for Gen Z. However, for this young generation, sustainability doesn’t just stop at how apparel is made; to them, true sustainability extends far past the final product. They expect retailers to consider every part of their operation and demand fair, sustainable, ethical practices.

This group requires the companies they work for to have ESG initiatives in place and advocate for the environment, and they will make choices on where they buy from based on their personal values surrounding sustainability. And if any group is willing to go as far as never engaging with a retailer again due to a disagreement on values, it’s Gen Z. Nearly a third of this generation has ‘canceled’ a brand due to a recent marketing campaign, ad, or brand affiliation that doesn’t align with their values. 


Greenwashing Through the Lens of Gen Z

Greenwashing has become a far-too-prevalent marketing tactic to win favor with Gen Zers. A recent study from ICEPN indicates that 40% of companies making claims about being ‘green’ are misleading. The ultimate, and frequent, result is far from these companies’ intended goal. Authenticity is key to Gen Z, and when brands make empty promises or surface attempts to align with Gen Z values, these young shoppers will hold them accountable. Data from Knit suggests that only 25% of Gen Z believes brands are genuine in their efforts to make the world a better place. 

Something that sounds good but suffers from a serious execution problem is the widespread attempt to tap into Gen Z’s enthusiastic dedication to social causes — like climate change and an acceptance of LGBTQIA+ and underrepresented communities. A lot of what sounds like ‘wokeness’ to older generations is mere common sense to Gen Z. Unfortunately, attempts to tap into this particular set of values in order to sell a product tend to result in marketing missteps that feel to their audience like what they are: inauthentic and not trustworthy.

In contrast, authentic brand missions tend to lend more credibility and draw more interest from these impassioned consumers. Brands that home in on transparency and are willing to be vulnerable about areas they can improve are in a better position to win the trust of this group. Unfortunately, the “manufactured authenticity” leads Gen Z to call out false promises on a variety of social platforms, burning those brands for their peers to see. Their read on those efforts extends to brand partners too.

A Holistic Approach for Retailers

Gen Z has a buying power of $44B and influence up to $600B in spending power, so it is no surprise that retailers want to reach this significant audience. Appealing to this demographic comes with its challenges, though. The most successful brands take time to understand this younger generation and what motivates and inspires them to follow, engage and purchase. 

Speaking Gen Z slang or trying too hard to appear “woke” is not guaranteed to win favor because it only reinforces inauthenticity — perhaps the biggest turnoff for their generation. According to data from Knit, 44% of Gen Z will no longer even consider a brand that inauthentically partners with a celebrity or influencer to promote its products. Instead, brands should pause to reflect on their own values and beliefs and use these truths to build authentic empathy and connection with younger consumers. 

Gone are the days when a brand could simply put a label on their packaging using words like “natural” or “green.” Now, those same brands will have to back up their claims, from formulation and creation to packaging and distribution. When brands are genuine in their efforts to make the world a better place, Gen Z takes notice. Retailers that are looking to foster true connection with Gen Zers need to view sustainability as a holistic way of doing business. Implementing sustainable practices, diversity and inclusion initiatives and fair compensation policies will resonate more with this group of consumers who desire impactful change. 

Aneesh Dhawan is the CEO and Co-founder of Knit, the Gen Z insights platform. He launched his first company, a Gen Z agency called Feed A Friend, at the age of 16. A few years later, he started Knit, the platform helping brands like JBL, the WNBA and NASCAR understand the next generation of consumers. Dhawan is an avid traveler and triathlete and loves goldendoodles.

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