How Gen-Z and Millennial Consumers Are Driving Brands Toward Sustainability

There is little doubt that the up-and-coming generations—specifically Millennials and Gen-Z—are changing the way we look at sustainability practices. From the food they eat to the way they shop, brands must begin to take a closer look at how they can reach these eco-conscious consumers.

While Millennials and Gen-Z consumers are influencing a multitude of industries, there are four primary sectors where brands must commit to deliberate change in order to meet the needs of a buying segment that takes a serious view on sustainability—and has serious buying power.

Clean Household Products and Features

Though it’s reported that Millennials aren’t buying homes at the same frequency as their parents, younger generations are proving that they don’t need homeownership in order to take ownership of the future. 

Since renters are more limited in their options to redesign their spaces, they're focusing on the environmental decisions that their landlords are making. Millennial renters are specifically seeking eco-friendly features like paperless leases, energy-efficient appliances and lighting, and the use of smart thermostats.

They’re also implementing their own sustainable choices, including decorating with pieces purchased second-hand, or even furniture they’ve found for free, as promoted in the quickly popular @stoopingnyc Instagram.

Millennials and Gen-Z are also changing their household products to greener options to cut down their plastic waste and use of toxic chemicals. Companies like Blueland are gaining popularity with household cleaners for kitchens and bathrooms that feature glass containers and refill pouches, all at a cost that’s accessible to both renters and homeowners alike.

Going Green by Eating Green

Millennials are called the “Green Generation” for a reason: green lifestyles are at the forefront of their choices, as they not only seek ways to reduce their spending, but also cut down their waste and energy footprint. As we’ve seen in many supermarkets, reusable bags and plastic-free produce vessels have entered the market at lightning speed.

By taking steps to reducing plastics, that eco-focus has an impact on Millennials’ purchases of everyday items. It has also created a market for items specifically tailored to sustainable lifestyles.

One example is subscription meal kit boxes, a trend that launched in the US in 2012 with brands like Blue Apron, Plated, and Hello Fresh. While convenient, excessive and unnecessary packaging in these boxes eventually emerged as a major concern. This has led to the launch of meal kit brands like Everyplate, which uses its limited packaging as a selling point to market to younger consumer who want less waste materials from their boxes.

In addition to plastic waste, Millennials and Gen-Z consumers are also concerned with food waste, specifically that of grocery stores, which throw away 43 billion pounds of food every year. The result has been the launch of subscriptions like Hungry Harvest, Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods, which sends consumers fresh produce that wasn’t attractive enough to be on store shelves.

Sustainable Fashion Statements

In early October, global fashion retailer Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy. Founded in 1984, the company was popular for having trends available on a fast rotation, using cheaper materials sold at a low cost.

Forever 21’s bankruptcy has been attributed to a variety of reasons, from giant retailers taking over to the rise of direct-to-consumer e-tailers. But one of the primary reasons—which brands must not ignore—has centered on the impact of Millennial and Gen-Z buying habits, who are more focused on eco-shopping than previous generations.

When making purchases, younger consumers are looking for brands with transparent, ethical, and sustainable practices and products. Research also shows they take a brand’s commitment to social good into consideration.

This has not only led to the decrease in sales for “fast fashion,” but has contributed to a rise of “remerch malls and re-tail" like ThredUp and Poshmark, as well as clothing recycling programs from companies like Eileen Fisher and H&M. By embracing these consumer preferences, brands like The Oversize Store restores and repairs vintage pieces—in this case, oversized blazers. Released in one-of-a-kind capsule collections, vintage is the new premium.

Eco-Conscious Beauty

Gen-Z and Millennial consumers are greatly concerned with reducing waste and early disposal; both areas in which the beauty industry is challenged. Younger generations are willing to spend more on green products—placing a higher value on brands whose messaging aligns with their own.

This attitude applies to both the ingredients as well as the packaging. Regarding ingredients, younger consumers see clean beauty as part of their green lifestyles, seeking products that contain only natural, sustainable, cruelty-free, and vegan formulas. Even established brands are taking note of the green shift. L'Oréal launched its first vegan hair color range, and Unilever created a vegan-friendly eco-conscious brand called Love Beauty and Planet which uses bottles made from recycled plastics.

In terms of packaging, the issue in the beaty industry is two-fold: the materials and the lifecycle. Millennials and Gen-Z want green packaging materials that have long-term usage. According to Mintel, 80% of consumers are interested in packaging made from recycled materials and 56% are interested in beauty products with packaging made from plant waste. There has been some notable response from the industry, from smaller brands like Ethique using compostable packaging, to well-known companies like Kiehl’s or Aveda providing incentives for recycling beauty packaging.

Gen-Z and Millennials will account for 40% of consumers and influence nearly $4 billion of discretionary spending by 2020, and their values are clear: green, sustainable, eco-friendly choices. Therefore, brands of all sizes must work to shift their focus and increase their sustainability practices to stand out, stand up, and reach this powerful consumer demographic.