How Gen-Z is Demanding Sustainability in Retail

    By Claire Judkins, Business Consultant

    Claire Judkins

    In 2020, the Bank of America boldly branded the newly emerging ‘Generation-Z’ as ‘the most disruptive generation ever’. Born between 1997 and 2012, Gen-Z are the world’s first ‘digital natives’, growing up in a world where smartphones and social media seamlessly integrate with everyday life, and two thirds of the group identify as ‘constantly connected online’.

    Over time, the cultural and societal significance of this emerging group has proven more profound. Gen-Z have harnessed their interconnectivity and influence to demand a dialogue on numerous social and political causes, particularly environmental sustainability. Those born into the reality of the climate crisis are devoted to tackling it, and influencing the rest of the world to do the same. With Gen-Z rapidly overtaking Millennials and Boomers as the largest consumer group (worth $150bn in the US alone), retailers must adapt their approach to sustainability accordingly.

    Gen-Z consumer behaviour and the retailer sustainability gap

    Gen Z will make consumer choices in the name of climate activism: a report by Kings College London found that 70% of Gen-Zs were willing to make significant lifestyle changes to fight climate change, whilst the World Economic Forum reported that three-quarters of the age group prioritise purchasing sustainably over brand names. And, according to research, the majority of Gen-Z consumers would look for a different retailer in the future if packaging wasn’t sustainable or resourceful.

    Gen-Z are adopting a pragmatic approach in the fight against climate change: seeking those who follow suit and rejecting those who don’t. In the face of this, retailers have realised the need to prove themselves as credibly sustainable businesses. For example, Unilever boss Alan Jope previously referenced Gen-Z appeal as the basis for strategic plans to reduce plastic usage across its brands, as ‘part of responding to society, but also remaining relevant for years to come in the market’.

    However, a recent World Retail Congress report found a ‘clear disconnect’ between retailers’ sustainability ambitions and their measurable progress. Of 37 retail businesses, more than 50% had not set any sustainability KPIs, despite 60% believing that their company goals were ‘bold and differentiated’. Gen-Z are demanding substance behind retailers’ sustainability goals – alignment with values alone is not enough. To be sustainable in the eyes of Gen-Z consumers requires tangible, authentic, demonstrable environmental action. Consumers are more informed than ever before: they can verify sustainability credentials at the click of a mouse, and they’re not afraid to act accordingly.

    What does this mean for the future of sustainability in retail?

    Understand your impact. Consumers are becoming increasingly attuned to sustainability issues and are demanding retailers take action. Understanding your carbon footprint is at the start of every sustainability journey, and retailers need to identify their priority target areas to build a roadmap to becoming more sustainable.

    Don’t just state, demonstrate. Retailers must be true environmental activists, view sustainability as a core element of the wider business strategy, and demonstrate measurable environmental progression goals.

    Understand the value in investing in the future of sustainability. Retailers shouldn’t just prioritise sustainability in response to consumer trends. The stark reality is that, whilst Gen-Z are changing the definition of what it means to be ‘sustainable’, the climate crisis is changing the world in a way which will go far beyond the existence of any consumer group. Businesses across all industries must take notice.

    BJSS is proud to be a certified carbon neutral company with ambitions to be net zero by 2025.

    We can partner with you to strategise, design and deliver a future proof and sustainable company that will be resilient and efficient. We embed sustainability into the core of what we do, and we can help you do the same.