An eco-aware lifestyle is an ideal that over 60 percent of Gen Z reported that they adhere to as a rule, per a recent survey of 16,000 Gen Z consumers, and it’s driving their purchasing decisions, even when it costs more.  In this post, we’ll look at how brands translate old themes for a new generation of consumers who actively seek opportunities to express their values through their purchasing decisions.

Promoting Authentic Change As The New Brand Differentiator

Gas-guzzling muscle cars don’t usually appear in ads targeting Gen Z, especially when they’re talking about sustainability—but as manufacturing brands like BF Goodrich target the next generation of consumers, they are focusing on ways that products can blend in with a sustainability-driven lifestyle. And that might mean highlighting how their brand works for electronic vehicles or how Gen Z car enthusiasts who rebuild muscle cars piece by piece rather than purchasing new ones off the lot are practicing a form of upcycling, as BF Goodrich does in its campaign promo short, “Your Next Starts Now.” 

That marketing push is rooted in a meaningful shift in how and why Gen Z and millennials purchase today. Unlike a generation ago, three-quarters of younger consumers care more about what a brand represents and does than the brand itself, per Nielsen. According to a recent report by Credit Suisse, Gen Z consumers in the world’s two largest consumer markets, India and China, are even more concerned about purchasing sustainable products than American and UK shoppers in the same demographic.

That kind of values-driven consumption has sparked new language in many brand campaigns and new public initiatives by brands to integrate sustainability programs into their branding narratives. Brands like Kering, Adidas, McCormick and Microsoft’s Xbox have woven details about their sustainability initiatives into their ad and PR campaigns, even when those efforts are well behind the scenes. For example, McCormick announced its 54th place on Barron’s 100 Most Sustainable Companies List and Fortune’s 2022 Change the World list of 50 global companies in a press release, even though many of their achievements have to do with backend work—like increasing the financial resilience of small hold farmers—that can’t fit neatly on a label. Microsoft’s Xbox, the first console to offer carbon-aware downloads and updates, followed a similar tactic, promoting its sustainability efforts with content that included video activations across social platforms.

It’s Not Easy Being (Or Claiming To Be) Green

There’s good reason for brands to trumpet their sustainability cred: Products that placed ESG-related claims in their branding or advertising averaged 28 percent cumulative growth over the past five-year period, compared to 20 percent for products that made no such claims, according to McKinsey. But there’s also the matter of authenticity to consider. With 78 percent of all consumers stating that sustainability is important to them, Gen Z is among the most sensitive to greenwashing—the practice of saying but not necessarily doing anything about sustainability. 

According to Deloitte, nearly 30 percent of Gen Z consumers have “canceled” a brand when claims in an ad campaign or a brand affiliation contradicted the company’s actions. As approximately 88 percent of Gen Z consumers in a recent survey stated that they don’t trust most brands’ claims regarding sustainability, a branding or campaign misstep that could be interpreted as greenwashing could be a costly mistake. With 40 percent of many brands’ sustainability claims likely to be exaggerated at best, per The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN), brand marketers representing a company that can back up its green-leaning marketing themes with actions may find an edge in gaining Gen Z trust.

One way brands can connect with Gen Z and maintain a patina of trustworthiness as they begin the process of evolving towards greener operations or practices is to work with influencers. A survey by Unilever and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) of 6,000 consumers across the US, UK and Canada showed that 78% of consumers cited influencers as the most important reason why they made sustainable choices when shopping. That’s far more influential on buying choices than news reports touting green messaging (37 percent) or government campaigns (20 percent) doing the same.

The Takeaway: Influencers are the translators of Gen Z’s purchasing intent. While brands launch new sustainable products and many fail—research shows it’s not consumers who don’t want to purchase—it’s likely a marketing (or cost) issue. As savvy brands develop new lines and court Gen Z, marketers should be mindful not to overstate their brand’s commitment to sustainability and make sure that changes are meaningful, not cosmetic.