What if Futures: Gen Z & Sustainability

Jack Fancy, Creative Lead

January 6, 2021

In 2021 the conversation around climate activism will continue to be an essential one, simultaneously empowering and causing anxiety in equal measures.

The events of 2020 have shown us how quickly issues facing society can escalate to global breaking point, and as sustainability truly enters the mainstream, for Gen Z the conversation has evolved to sit at the intersection of everything they do.

Children as young as 6 can grasp, formulate and educate their young millennial parents on recycling. Games like Sims are creating Eco Packs to inspire positive habits and gamify sustainability, and in fashion, the upcycling and DIY culture has taken hold on channels like depop and TikTok.

So as we continue to see the climate conversation extend past the boundaries prescribed to it, for real change, Gen Z will need to use their creativity, social reach and communities to affect the economic, societal, and educational systems around them.

It’s now that the mainstream are beginning to understand that race and the climate are intrinsically linked, that the same structures which hold up the climate crisis are directly connected to racial inequality, marginalised communities, a legacy of colonisation, environmental pollution and one of the biggest human rights issues today.

It’s because of this, that Climate Activism in such a young demographic comes with a price. Over the last few years, experts have seen the rise of eco-anxiety in Gen Z and Alpha. With access to an overwhelming amount of negative information, they’ve found as more young people engage with the issue, the more guilty and disempowered they can feel. Leading to a sense of apathy and helplessness, a recent study by Morning Consult found “49% of Generation Z members believe humans can slow down climate change but not stop it.”.

To explore this further, we’ll take a look at some of the innovations and trends predicted by LS:N Global in their latest futures report and explore some What if’s of how it will affect brands, businesses and surrounding cultures in 2021 and beyond.

Trend 1: Switch off for Sustainability

As we continue to reduce our carbon footprint in everyday life, there’s one channel which escapes our scrutiny. Our digital carbon footprint.

On average, a single website today uses 24 times the amount of data it did in 2003, and it’s easy to forget how the streaming of highly visual, mostly video content, has such a damaging effect on the environment. In fact, it’s estimated that in the US, ‘100m websites account for 9% of the total electricity consumption.’

To compensate for this, in 2021 and beyond we’ll see the rise of low impact interfaces, like UK design studio Normally’s ‘Post Abundance project’ which strips back Instagram so that users must tap to load images, viewing only those they’re interested in.

We’ll also see brands, if willing to put the planet before profits take action to reduce their digital carbon footprints online, like Organic Basics’ low-energy version of its online store, (which) reduces the amount of data transferred by up to 70%.

For Gen Z, what does it mean for their own behaviours? According to a recent 2020 study, ‘7 out of 10 teenage Gen Zers are watching more than three hours of mobile video a day.’ But let’s imagine in 2021, what if consuming less content became a form of environmental activism? What if Gen Z switched off for sustainability? How would this affect brands, advertising, the spread of information?

What would they do instead? How can brands facilitate this? What other platforms could be created as alternatives, what low impact ways of communicating, sharing and connecting would they create?

Trend 2: Sustainable Food Futures

Another future shift in the climate conversation is food. Throughout the events of 2020, there have been very few things offering the form of escapism, connection and ‘experience’ that food offers. The rise in supporting local, eating local and shopping local has reminded us about our everyday impact and the role food plays in sustainability.

As Gen-Z’s hyper-awareness for sustainability continues, the scrutiny on what goes into our bodies and the planet will continue to rise. LS:N Global states the ‘food-as-medicine movement’ is about tapping into ‘modern lifestyles, balancing flavour and function to shape our physical and psychological states’.

This movement resonates with Gen Z in particular in their bid to reduce anxiety, stress, and protect the planet. Concepts like Willo, a monthly subscription service that lets customers build their own farms demonstrates this. The CEO Samuel Bertram says ‘For the first time, fresh food will be grown specifically for the person consuming it’

But just like Gen Z’s often paradoxical and conflicting identities, when it comes to food and sustainability, 2021 and beyond will see the rise of ‘Imperfect Eating’. Imperfect Eating is the concept that modern wellness involves flexibility instead of the traditional extremes of diet culture and deprivation.

In Fact, ’Some 14% of Britons now identify as flexitarians – twice as many as pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans combined (Source: YouGov)’

What does this sustainable food future mean to our understanding of balance? What if our Flexi-nature continued to the way we shop, the way we drink, the way we use social media? What will we call these new terms?

What if the food as medicine trend grows to include other psychedelic infused foods, just like the uptake in CBD infused products over the last few years?

Trend 3: Anxiety Turned Activism, Turned Action

In a 2018 trend forecast, LS:N Global predicted the concept of Anxiety Rebellion, the process of Gen Z turning their anxiety into social and political movements for change.

Over the last few years, Gen Z has demonstrated how this couldn’t be truer. For the hyperconnected, socially charged audience, their ability to interrogate brands, businesses and themselves, will continue to create action at the intersectionality of the climate crisis.

Using the power of social media, we’ve seen communities like Pull up or Shut Up use cancel culture to challenge brands in their diversity, inclusion, and sustainability credentials. 

Because of this unified behaviour, moving forward we will see a further rise in the trend of Eco-Ambition rather than simply greenwashing, because Gen Z, the masters of crafting facades, demand more than words. 

Brands like Allbirds, who have created a self-imposing carbon tax that accounts for the CO2 produced across its supply chains, will resonate with the desire for Flexi-guilt-free purchasing and shared values of Gen Z.

And with industry disruptors like Doconomy using the humble credit card to curb carbon emissions and your purchases, it continues to show how sustainability will have a direct impact on our purchasing decisions.

So what does this mean for Gen Z’s view of brands?

What if Gen Z and Alpha created pages like ‘Pull up or Shut up’ to go after brands who were destroying the planet? What if credit cards warned you when purchasing from companies which caused environmental damage? Or what if brand social media pages had environmental warnings on them?

What if Gen Z took aim at your brand, business or service?
As we’ve briefly explored in these LS:N Global future trends and what if’s, the road for Gen Z in 2021 and beyond is a complicated one, but as we continue to see Gen Z move through society, the workplace, build their own businesses and command further influence, we’ll continue to see the tangible impact that their views have on sustainability and the planet.

This is part of an ongoing series exploring ‘what if futures’ and ‘Next Gen Futures’ Inspired by the recent LS:N Youth Futures virtual talk.

Thoughts and opinions of Jack Fancy, Creative Lead at Mc&T.