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From Profit to Purpose: Why Brands Need to Stop Capitalising on Gen Z’s Sustainability Initiatives

From Profit to Purpose: Why Brands Need to Stop Capitalising on Gen Z’s Sustainability Initiatives

Having come of age in the shadow of the climate crisis, we know Gen Z is serious about the environment. They have set the pace for climate action in recent years: organising protests, promoting sustainable brands and pressuring governments to do better. Given that their future is on the line, this commitment is anything but casual. 

A quick scroll through social media shows that Gen Z not only views an environmentally-conscious lifestyle as an ideal but also as a moral imperative. As thrift flips flood TikTok and second-hand shopping apps dominate the App Store, it’s clear that this demographic has embraced social media as a valuable source of inspiration and information on the topic. In fact, the most climate-engaged internet users are part of Gen Z— proven to be the group most likely to encounter climate-related content and the most proactive in engaging with it on social media.

With this, brands have refocused over the past few years— capitalising on Gen Z’s penchant for sustainability by promoting climate-centric ideas, strategies and business practices. 

At first glance, it may seem like genuine progress. But something must be said about how and why such brands platform climate action. When the primary goal is tapping Gen Z, environmentally-centred campaigns often become performative, failing to meaningfully engage with the issue at hand. 

Whether you have realised it or not, we’ve all witnessed instances of greenwashing— when a supposedly ethically-minded company over-represents the extent to which their practices or products are sustainable and environmentally friendly. Fast fashion companies like Shein, are notorious for misleading young consumers when it comes to their environmental credentials. 

Perhaps Shein’s most egregious attempt at greenwashing was the infamous influencer trip earlier this year. As a company best known for violating labour laws and operating under an unsustainable production model, Shein attempted to tackle the allegations head-on, sponsoring a brand trip to China. 

@shein_us

Get a glimpse of the process of how your purchases are packaged directly from our facility and delivered to your doorstep. Watch as our partners discover the cutting-edge tech that streamlines our operations and receive a hands-on experience in packaging. Stay tuned to the #SHEIN101 series to learn more of what goes on behind the scenes at #SHEIN #SHEINOnTheRoad

♬ original sound – SHEINUS

The invited creators visited a Shein factory in Guangzhou and the company’s “innovation centre”— all while speaking with several managers, employees, and factory workers. The attendees seemingly had a similar perception of the brand, with many impressed by Shein’s high-tech infrastructure and “commitment” to the environment.

If we take the creators at their word, Shein’s practices look perfectly sustainable. However, the influencer accounts from the trip stand in stark contrast with multiple investigations into company policies— many of which claim Shein clothing contains hazardous chemicals, amongst other allegations, including that the company is responsible for producing 6.3 million tons of carbon emissions annually

This type of greenwashing, combined with rampant consumerism on social media, can have dire consequences when left unchecked. 

Advertisements are everywhere— arriving on our screens through personalised pop-ups, influencer collaborations and just about anything in between. As this content encroaches on almost all social media platforms, overconsumption is being built into the very fabric of the digital space. 

Whether it’s the latest Apple product or a new TikTok fave, we’re conditioned to believe that only the trendiest products hold value. Affiliate links and tools like Amazon Storefront have only made matters worse. With nearly everything accessible at the click of a button, we tend to waste many of the things we buy— it has reached the point where the average person’s consumption has doubled in the United States over the past 50 years. 

@delilah_isabel

breaking news on the biggest fast fashion brand on earth. where do you stand on this? #shein #fastfashion #waste #shoppinghaul #sheincares

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That said, many Gen Zs struggle to purchase sustainably while feeling pressure to keep up with the fast-paced trend cycle. 

A similar contradiction becomes evident when brands promise to be eco-friendly. These companies often portray themselves as ethically minded, aiming to ease the burden on Gen Z and capitalise on their spending power. Yet, at the same time, many of them remain major contributors to the climate crisis. 

Given these circumstances, when brands are trying to appeal to Gen Z, they should, at the very least, actively work to protect their future.

Take HP, for example. They have maintained a longstanding commitment to prioritise sustainability, focusing on reusing materials through recycling and responsible product design. HP has recently reaffirmed its dedication to climate action by partnering with reputable environmental organisation, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

HP and WWF-Australia are collaborating in an attempt to combat deforestation, paving the way for other tech companies to follow suit. Forests are one of the best nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, and the Australian partnership represents just one aspect of a broader joint initiative aimed at conserving forest landscapes worldwide.

All that to say, the profit-driven mindset of many companies raises questions about the level of social responsibility we should expect from brands in the digital space. Instead of exploiting the fears and interests of Gen Z for financial gain and content, if these companies genuinely aim to engage with this demographic, they must dedicate themselves to securing a promising future for the upcoming generation.

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