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Gen Z, turning eco-anxiety into action?

Gen Z Eco Protest
By Honor Morel
01 August 2023
Green & Good (ESG and Impact)
gen z

Generation Z may well feel that the universe has thrown them a bit of a curve ball. Identified as those born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z (myself included) have grown up in an era of unprecedented societal shocks; living through the 2008 financial crisis, a global health pandemic, war in Europe and now amongst the first to experience the devastating effects of climate change.

Recent revelations that we are living in a new geological time (‘Anthropocene epoch’) defined by the severe impacts of human activity on the planet, only confirm the reality we find ourselves living in. Yet even now as heatwave Cerberus scorched through Europe and we face seemingly endless reminders that the world around us is changing, perhaps it is not all doom and gloom.

Instead of being paralysed by a sense of helplessness, Gen Z - generally speaking - are turning eco-anxiety into action. According to research from Bupa, 63% of Gen Z feel the burden of climate change compared to just 28% of Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). It is therefore perhaps no surprise that Gen Z has a greater sense of urgency to address one of the biggest threats to their future.

Beyond the activism of Greta Thunberg and youth-led organisation Zero Hour, Gen Z have put their money where their mouth is. They are using their purchasing power to demand change on sustainability by favouring businesses which operate ethically and with a climate conscience. Their commitment to the environment is such that, according to First Insight research, 63% of Gen Z prefer to buy from sustainable brands, and 73% are willing to pay more for sustainable products.

It seems that their influence is rubbing off, as Deloitte research points to Gen Z as the trend setters who have reduced the purchase of new goods amongst UK adults by 39% in the UK since 2020. At a business level, more than 2,000 companies have set a carbon target and more than one third of Europe’s largest public companies have pledged to reach net zero by 2050. Whilst such global advancements cannot be solely attributed to Gen Z, it is important to recognise that often it is the young consumer who has elevated the conversation, bringing a new lease of life to conscious consumerism, and placing pressure on others to follow suit.

By punishing those that fall short, Gen Z’s purchasing power acts as leverage to encourage businesses to implement ESG mandates and commit to net zero. As a cohort with a reported $140 billion worth of buying power and projected by Credit Suisse to form 69% of consumer spending by 2040, it is imperative that companies align themselves with the values of one of the fastest-growing consumer groups to remain competitive, protect profitability and their reputation.  

Despite the tendency to reduce Gen Z’s passions to ‘woke activism’ or ‘youthful exuberance’, they are making real strides in shaping the business landscape, leading the Bank of America to describe them as “the most disruptive generation ever”. A label that many members of Gen Z will consider a compliment.

As Gen Z comes of age and increasingly feeds into the labour market, their influence on the business landscape is only set to increase. Employers are facing mounting pressure to reinforce their net zero commitments or risk a ‘brain drain’ amongst younger workers.

The fact that, according to new Bupa research, 48% of Gen Z workers would consider quitting if their company didn’t take environmental action, and 66% would accept a lower-paid job at a more environmentally active organisation, even amidst a cost-of-living crisis, is testament to Gen Z’s commitment to see tangible action on net zero targets. It appears that companies are starting to feel the heat, with research revealing that two thirds of corporate executives already feel pressured by employees to deliver meaningful climate action. This increasing value-first workforce mentality is a powerful catalyst to encourage businesses to have climate action at the heart of their plans, which in turn should accelerate the path to net zero.

Perhaps the cumulative pressures from Gen Z have shifted corporate ESG mandates from exception to expectation, with companies moving from incremental improvements to bolder approaches that help to create a net positive environment impact. Ultimately change will be dependent on how business and individuals interact. After all, innovating green technologies, adopting conscious consumerism, and decarbonising business operations demands investment from both sides.

Whilst every generation has its protest movement, as Head of the Wildlife Trust, Craig Bennett suggests what sets Gen Z apart is that they not only bring a level of anger-fuelled energy to the net zero race, but they also see connections between issues on social justice, environment, and government, which the older generation sometimes views as separate.

It is important to remember however, that we are all on the same team, even if we sometimes struggle to stay on the same page. Gen Z alone is not the answer, but we need to capitalise on their ideas and energy. By presenting themselves as a force for driving net zero they have elevated the conversation and will no doubt continue to demand our attention.  Look at it this way, we are all in a race, the final leg of the relay is being reached and when Gen Z take the baton, we should all be cheering them on.