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Marketing Brand Purpose Climate Crisis

43% of millennials consider themselves to be eco-conscious – compared to 27% of Gen Z

By James Poletti | Head of strategy

33Seconds

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April 20, 2023 | 8 min read

Gen Z attitudes to sustainability may not be as straightforward as you thought. New research from 33Seconds’ TikTok-based eco-community reveals millennials might be leading the movement.

Fancy avocado on toast

Are Gen Z, the kids of the climate crisis, as environmentally ‘woke’ as we think? / Brenda Godinez

Gen Z is often depicted as the eco-activist generation; kids of the climate crisis, if you will. But according to our new research, it’s in fact millennial consumers, rather than the younger cohort, who appear to be leading the pack in terms of their emotional and financial commitment to sustainability.

According to 33Seconds’ survey, nearly half of millennials (43%) consider themselves to be ‘very engaged and active in climate change conversations’ and have made ‘substantial changes in their lifestyle’ due to this – compared to just 27% of Gen Z.

The ‘Window on Net Zero Culture’ report explores the attitudes and habits of 2,000 Gen Y and Z planet-conscious consumers across the UK and US, and also found that 41% of Millennials actively bought ‘fewer but higher quality items’ in a bid to be more sustainable, whereas only 31% of the gen Z respondents admitted to shopping in this manner.

Contrary to their image, Gen Z appears to be less engaged than their older counterparts in the fight against climate change, at least in terms of their consumer habits. But is it really as straightforward as that – and what does it mean for brands?

Is the cost of living crisis hitting the younger generation harder?

Although marketing experts love to talk about Gen Z’s purchasing power, this generation actually has 80% less than baby boomers did when they were in their 20s. Plus, it’s estimated they have more student debt than millennials and have been hit harder by inflation.

Gen Z also said they were living payday to payday, with 30% saying they don’t feel financially secure. With these mounting issues, it’s no wonder Gen Z is showing more caution when it comes to shopping sustainably – especially if it means spending more money in the short term.

Consumers can only be as sustainable as choices allow

So: do financial pressures explain the entire scope of the issue, or is there more to it than that?

A ‘lack of choice’ was also cited strongly by both millennials and Gen Z as a point of frustration when it comes to shopping sustainably (43% and 42% respectively).

As journalist Mark Kaufman notes, “critically, our voluntary, independent behaviors will pack a bigger climate punch if we have options to make significantly better choices.” A product such as an electric car is no doubt an improvement as far as the environment is concerned, but if consumers are limited by factors such as high prices and inadequate infrastructure, they will of course be hampered in their ability to make more eco-friendly decisions.

Sustainable shopping: a bit of a minefield?

But it’s not only a lack of options that could be deterring the younger generation; the options that are there are also perhaps not as clear-cut as we think.

In the category of fashion for example, although Gen Z shows enthusiasm for second-hand and vintage shopping (77% compared to 72% of millennials), it still comes with authenticity and environmental concerns.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents (77%) agreed that some popular online marketplaces were increasingly flooded with far more fast-fashion items from questionable retailers (often at marked-up prices) rather than vintage pieces, undermining the idea that using them is both more affordable and ethical.

What should brands know about Gen Z and sustainability?

To appeal to Gen Z audiences, brands need to prioritize affordability, choice and authenticity when it comes to developing and marketing sustainable products and services. However, if Gen Z has less purchasing clout and engagement in this area than millennials, should brands be focusing efforts elsewhere? Perhaps not so fast.

Despite their seemingly slower adoption of eco practices and shopping habits, Gen Z remains a highly influential generation of consumers rising up through the ranks, and it’s not so much what they’re doing right now but the attitude shifts they represent that’s likely to be most interesting to brands.

Comparing the overt eco-purchasing of millennials to the more naturalized approach of Gen Z consumers reminds us that sustainable change, which often begins in the margins through the actions of a small number of motivated individuals, eventually becomes normalized when driven by traditional mainstream motivators, alongside ethical ones.

Unlike millennials, Gen Z comes with less baggage as consumers – their thinking and behaviors are more flexible and not so ingrained – insight shows that they make choices for a wide variety of reasons in addition to sustainability: if it’s cheaper, easier, aspirational, accessible and their friends are doing it, etc. – together, these motivators will eventually lead to real and lasting cultural evolution.

If we dig a bit deeper for example, the attitudinal differences are more apparent: only 19% of Gen Z would find it ‘very desirable’ to own a nice car, compared to 35% of millennials, and just 34% of Gen Z say they think of ‘fast fashion’ brands positively, in comparison to a surprisingly high 47% of millennials.

While on the face of it, Gen Y appears to be leading the sustainability drive right now with regard to day-to-day purchasing decisions, Gen Z continues to define the consumer trends and perspectives of the future. Understanding how and why may not always be quite as straightforward as we imagine, but the brands who take the time to explore and respond to this will no doubt reap the benefits.

The full Earthtopia research report can be viewed here.

Marketing Brand Purpose Climate Crisis

Content by The Drum Network member:

33Seconds

33Seconds is an independent, award-winning communications agency, specialising in climate, technology and lifestyle.

As well as offering services across strategy, PR, social, content and influencer marketing, the agency also created Earthtopia, one of the largest eco-communities on TikTok and author of the upcoming book '100 Ways You Can Help Save the Planet'.

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