Research for our latest report “Regeneration Rising: Sustainability Futures” reveals that it is generation Z that is putting the most pressure on brands to act on environmental and social issues.

Gen Z driving change

While all generations care about the planet, generation Z is most vocal about driving change. Let’s not forget, this is the cohort that skipped school to protest and sued the United Nations for failing to protect people from climate change. Outspoken and exasperated with the world they will inherit, they are the leading change-makers when it comes to sustainability.

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Original data by Wunderman Thompson. Infographic by Footprint

The majority are more radical in their attitudes and behaviors than older generations. Not only are 71% willing to protest for the climate compared to 48% across all generations, but 52% are even willing to get arrested for it, compared to 36% total. 73% are also willing to make dramatic changes to their lifestyle if it protects the planet, and 57% say they would forego having children. Highly intentional in the way they spend, they will push brands out of their comfort zone: 64% say they will actively boycott brands if they are doing nothing to help reverse climate change.

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Zero Hour, courtesy of Ivy Jaguzny

Ivy Jaguzny, youth activist and press lead at Zero Hour, explains to Wunderman Thompson Intelligence that many businesses have yet to recognize that inaction on climate is a dealbreaker for her generation: “There’s a difference between mentioning climate change and acting like our lives and our futures depend on it, because they do.”

Jaguzny points to Patagonia as a brand she feels comfortable supporting, a view echoed by other gen Zers in our research. The brand’s bold leadership sets a high bar and reflects the commitment of gen Z activists. Prior actions include closing stores and offices on the days of youth climate protests and suing the Trump administration to protect public lands. Patagonia also funds climate justice groups – an issue that resonates most strongly with this cohort. 82% of gen Z recognize that sustainability is inextricably linked to other problems we face, like poverty, equality and social justice.

Brands that hope to woo this generation must show leadership on the climate crisis (and other global challenges like social injustice and inequality) or forfeit their custom. Extinction Rebellion activist Will Skeaping tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence that time is running out: “If companies think gen Z audiences will give a flying sh*t about anything they’ve ever done, if they drop the ball on this, they’re over. That’s it.”

Soothing Gen Z’s Eco-Anxiety

Generation Z’s calls for change are in part propelled by genuine fears for their future.

“Climate change is honestly scary,” Jaguzny says. “Realistically, I’m not materially impacted. It’s just the stress of growing up with so much uncertainty and always feeling this looming threat over your head.”

For many like Jaguzny, eco-anxiety is real. 66% of all respondents express some anxiety about how climate change will affect them personally, rising to 72% of gen Z.

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Gen Dread
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Author, broadcaster and researcher Britt Wray is on a mission to soothe anxieties. She is the creator of Gen Dread, a newsletter and podcast series that aims to help the eco-anxious navigate this stressful topic, develop coping mechanisms and build existential resilience. In her introduction to the series, Wray evokes the trauma, asking “Have you ever cried upon reading that a species you love is going extinct? Have you ever lost a coastline you call home to the sea?”

Brands are now stepping in, acknowledging distress and offering practical tools and support. European energy company Vattenfall aims to soothe fears with its Spotify playlist of positive stories on the progress towards a fossil fuel-free future.

Technology giant Samsung is taking an action-oriented approach. They’re partnering with Not a School on a self-learning course called Turn Climate Anxiety into Positive Action: How can technology unlock activism in everyone?

Danone’s plant-based drink brand Silk also took the practical route, launching a campaign for Earth Day which aimed to turn “climate worriers” into “climate warriors” by offering them a free 45-minute virtual eco-counseling discussion with a trained counselor. The sessions allowed participants to share personal experiences and provided advice on how to take action to address eco-anxiety.

Gen Zers Solving Plastic

From scientific innovation to entrepreneurship to political lobbying, generation Z is getting hands-on to help solve the plastic pollution problem.

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Dyson Chee speaking at a climate strike
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Fionn Ferreria winning the Google Science Prize

20-year-old inventor Fionn Ferreria was inspired to tackle the plastic issue when the pollution washing up on beaches in his native Ireland began to concern him. His prototype magnetic device to remove microplastics from water won the 2019 Google Science Prize. His start-up Fionn & Co. LLC is now collaborating with the engineering design and consulting firm Stress Engineering to test and refine the device.

A group of teens from Wimbledon High School in London are also hoping to solve the microplastics problem. Their innovation robotic device Bioclear, which uses infrared sensors to clear microplastics from the ocean, has just been shortlisted for the 2021 Amazon Longitude Explorer Prize.

Conscious that regulation is sometimes the only way to enforce change, other gen Zers are honing their political influence. 19-year-old Dyson Chee, founder of Project OCEAN Hawaii, was the driving force behind the Hawaiian island of O’ahu passing Bill 40 to phase out disposable plastics across the island.

18-year-old Hannah Testa went straight to the US congress to call for action. In 2020 she presented the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, calling for an end to single use plastics. Testa has been selected as one of the leading young voices of Global Plastic Action Partnership’s, Plastic Action Champions, which is led by The World Economic Forum.

Generation Z is a demanding and savvy audience with high expectations, and they are putting brands under unprecedented scrutiny. Brands that hope to resonate with this cohort must align with their values on environmental and social issues, presenting as allies for a better future.

For more on sustainability futures, read our latest trends report: “Regeneration Rising: Sustainability Futures.”

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