How Can Sustainable Brands Win Over Gen-Z Activists?

The climate emergency is the defining challenge of our time. It can be easy to forget that temperatures are rising. The ice is melting, trees are burning and our oceans, packed with plastic. Gen-Z are remarkably aware of this reality: growing up with the existential risk to humanity on their Instagram feeds. Young activists are no longer waiting for global leaders to take action. Instead, they are leading the fight against climate change.  

Activists are now the most important group for brands, even if they don’t buy your product or service. Because a handful of digital activists can bring down share prices by convincing existing customers to boycott your brand. Historically, activism was viewed as something radical, often on the fringes of society. Today, activism is mainstream, further accelerated by the pandemic. In 2021, companies can no longer afford to stay silent on important social and environmental issues. Put simply, not taking a stand makes you complicit in maintaining the status quo. But greenwashing doesn’t cut it either. Consumers are more informed and empowered than ever before. They can check if your words are backed by action via a quick google search.

Across the globe, young activists are demanding immediate action from companies. The brands that don’t listen will lose all credibility. Here are three ways you can future-proof your business by joining the climate movement.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

Contrary to popular opinion, most Gen-Z activists don’t blame ordinary consumers for their individual lifestyles. Many believe companies are shifting the blame to the end consumer instead of taking responsibility for their own supply chain. While we are all contributing to the climate emergency. The impacts of most of the world’s people are minimal. Whereas multinational corporations are the biggest contributors to global greenhouse emissions. In fact, 100 companies are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions.

Yet most sustainability reports or marketing campaigns focus on marginal topics like plastic straws, reusable bags and recycling – rather than addressing the root cause of the problem: overconsumption. If brands want to be seen as credible, dependable and responsible, they need to reshape all future brand communications and commitments to focus on their own responsibilities. Any attempt to shift responsibility to consumers will be called out and met with instant backlash, especially if contradictory to their own internal practices. Companies should accept their social and environmental footprint. Once this has been established, they can leverage social media to report progress, gain external feedback and build partnerships with grassroots organizations.

Develop An Intersectional Approach

For young activists, climate justice is inseparable from social justice. In other words, we can’t achieve climate justice without addressing historical and structural inequalities. Without adopting an intersectional approach to the climate emergency, brands risk excluding the experiences of the global majority. Global inequality is baked into every aspect of modern society, including carbon emissions. The richest 1% of the world’s population – mostly in developed countries—are responsible for more than twice the carbon pollution as the 3.1 billion people who make up the poorest 50% of humanity.

As a new generation of diverse activists takes center stage, the climate movement has already become more intersectional. It would be unwise for mission-led companies to address environmental concerns while ignoring corresponding social issues. Brands can’t claim to be sustainable if they’re not equally invested in people. Activism means personal sacrifice. Many Gen-Z activists exchange financial gain, leisure time and even personal safety to improve the lives of others. Therefore, they expect global brands with enormous scale and resources to play their part too. And if they don’t pay attention, they risk being canceled. Progressive brands have the opportunity to set up a dedicated fund to accelerate the impact of young activists already doing important work on the ground. But the program needs to be co-created, not performative. It needs to go beyond eurocentrism and include the unheard voices of indigenous communities and leaders.

Explore New Growth Opportunities

Unlike previous generations, Gen-Z demonstrate their activism through the medium of consumption. Young activists are fighting the system from within using their purchasing power. Often, this requires a level of personal sacrifice like not eating meat, sourcing eco-friendly alternatives and abandoning some of their favorite products. It reveals an unmet consumer demand for more sustainable products and services. Brands should view this as an unparalleled business opportunity, not a threat to their current profit and loss sheet.

But redirecting consumer spending is part of a wider strategy. Many young activists use social media to share their views and influence their network of friends, family and total strangers. This includes calling out brands that don’t act responsibly and championing sustainable alternatives. However, the internet is not a one-way street, but a rich source of newfound knowledge and much-needed inspiration. Unlike the physical world, the internet is an oasis for like-minded consumer activists. A place for digital communities to connect, collaborate and challenge the status quo. Sustainable brands have the opportunity to equip young activists with the digital tools to divert attention, consumer spending and market share from less sustainable competitors.

With less than 100 days left until COP26, arguably, the most important summit ever. We have a historic opportunity to build a more sustainable future for all. This is not only about doing the right thing but a business imperative. To quote Mark Carney, ex-Governor of the Bank of England: “companies that fail to adapt to climate change will go bankrupt.” Which side of history will your company be on?

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