To say that 2020 has been a strange year would be the understatement of the decade. But, time goes on and with it the introduction of the class of 2020 into the workforce. As the earliest cohort of Gen Z enters the world of working nine to five, the youngest members of their generation still affect their households’ purchase dynamic — up to $148 billion by some estimates — and wield an influence that will continue to expand rapidly.

This is also the generation that has grown up with technology (unlike Gen Xers and Millennials who had technology advance as they were growing up), making two key behaviors unique to them. First, Gen Zers are more informed than any other consumer, and second, they’re unafraid to use the technology at their fingertips to speak their mind in a way that can be amplified across the vast social landscape. 

For example, when it comes to racial justice, a poll conducted after the killing of George Floyd in May of this year found that 88 percent of Gen Zers feel that Black Americans are treated differently than others, and 78 percent have used social media to express support for the equality of Black Americans. Given that 90 percent of this demographic support Black Lives Matter, this generation is making their voices heard collectively and effecting change not only with their actions but also with their wallets.

With this in mind, it’s clear that the conscious consumer is no longer a rarity — awareness is the norm, and quickly becoming the standard for the “average” consumer.

Younger consumers are looking for sustainable brands

Sustainability is defined as using or drawing on a resource without permanently damaging or depleting it. This applies equally to both people and the planet — from equality to the climate — but it’s not always practiced this way. And despite the rise of sustainable brands, marketers have also seen the rise of greenwashing — when a brand makes claims about sustainability that it can’t back up — as well as an increasing amount of whitewashing unjust actions, as evidenced by the semi-recent negative reports that certain reportedly sustainable brands have mistreated BIPOC customers and employees. Again, it’s protecting the planet and the people that account for sustainable practices.

On the other hand, when challenged with the social-media hashtag #PullUpOrShutUp, many companies — including retail giants West Elm, Sephora and Rent the Runway — committed to the “fifteen percent pledge” as a result of consumer pressure.

Meanwhile, according to proprietary consumer research and insights focused on natural and sustainable skincare conducted in late 2019, 82 percent of Millennial and Gen Z consumers said they would switch to a natural product with comparable results. Furthermore, 77 percent would switch to a sustainable product when the product efficacy was the same. 

Similarly, our latest report studying brand loyalty and preferences found that 40 percent of Millennial and Gen Z consumers that identified as females said they are always on the lookout for new fashion and beauty brands to discover, and 76 percent said that they would pay more for a sustainable product when they discover it.

It’s not always easy to do the right thing, but today, with the above findings in mind, it is essential. Sustainability has moved from an altruistic idea to becoming a good business decision. The push toward a stakeholder economy is quickly becoming apparent as the way businesses need to move or grow if they are going to be relevant to this unabashedly activist generation.

Sustainability and fair practices represent learning curves for brands

Learning is often the first step to meeting the expectations of younger generations with active demands for all the aspects of sustainability from the businesses and brands they choose.

Sustainable companies like Patagonia, Athleta and Eileen Fisher operate with an economic model that focuses not just on shareholders but also on stakeholders equally, including employees, customers, suppliers, local communities and society at large. Beyond sustainability, it’s also critical to focus on the values of the company. The commitments it makes must permeate throughout the boardroom stakeholders to the employees in the breakroom — entry-level associates need to have a strong understanding of the company’s values, not just the head of sustainability.

Interestingly, companies that adopted this way of business before the start of 2020 are seldom finding themselves caught up in controversy or suffering from the most devastating economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Certification highlights brands that stand for sustainability

Many sustainable brands are also Certified B Corps and have undergone a very labor-intensive B Impact Assessment. They have not only made changes to obtain their qualifying score but now have a roadmap that sets them up for success moving forward. They stand to be best prepared as a business to keep ahead of challenges to come. 

Certified B Corps is a certification that, as a business owner, companies are proud to have received and allows them to effectively communicate the genuine actions they’re taking are, in fact, in line with Gen Z’s values.

The future of business security is sustainability 

For brands, embracing sustainability is quickly proving to be critical, now more than ever, and as Gen Z continues to age, move into the workforce and reach higher levels of income with even more purchasing power, the importance of these efforts will grow exponentially. 

It’s not outrageous to predict that, in the next three years, the brands that have not made an effort to become sustainable are going to suffer the same fate as brands that didn’t embrace the internet during the dot-com heyday. Slow movers will spend a lot more time and money playing catch-up, and their business will suffer or go under as a result. But for those that achieve the genuine sustainability model, security locks into place and consumers — especially the younger generations that look for justice and inclusion from the brands to which they bring their spend — the future looks bright indeed.