Gen Z’s Critique of Millennial Environmentalism

The Gen Z generation is fed up with lukewarm millennial activism around climate change and wants to turn up the heat around corporate greenwashing and government policies.

Environmentalism is personal to members of the Gen Z generation. After all, they’ve grown up with climate change and are more aware of its impact than any previous generation.

Gen Z’s Critique of Millennial Environmentalism

“I’m from an outdoorsy family and we’ve seen the landscape around us changing for the negative as fast as within four or five years,” says Victoria Muharsky, a 24-year-old ESG Specialist with Green Builder Media who lives in Grand Junction, Colorado. “We’ve always gone to the Acadia National Park in Maine, and we’ve seen the leaves change color more quickly in recent years. That’s a catalyst for a lot of people in my generation. First there’s a personal impact, and then they want to advocate for change.”

More than one-third (37%) of Gen Zers say that addressing climate change is their top personal concern, the highest percentage of any generation, according to Pew Research. In addition, 32% of members of this generation say they personally took action to help address climate change in the past year.

While 71% of millennials in the Pew survey said climate change should be the top priority to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations and 67% of Gen Zers agreed, there’s a divide between these two cohorts. Mostly, that’s because members of the Gen Z generation are skeptical that earlier generations–especially political and corporate leaders–have done enough.

Members of the Gen Z generation are ahead of millennials when it comes to embracing the future: 100% of the Gen Zers in COGNITION Smart Data market insights from Green Builder Media said they would buy an all-electric home. That compares to just 64% of millennials who said they would cut their connection to fossil fuels in their homes. Gen Zers prioritize Net Zero, all-electric, healthy and smart homes, according to COGNITION data.

Who’s to Blame for Damaging the Planet?

The Gen Z generation is considered to be the most vocal about environmentalism. They’re way ahead of other generations, particularly in the use of TikTok and other social media, in demanding change. More than half (67%) of members of the Gen Z generation said they talked about the need for action on climate change at least once or twice in the few weeks leading up to the Pew survey, while 56% said they had seen content on the topic on social media and 47% said they’d engaged with social media on the topic during that time frame. Again, that’s more than any other generation.

When Pew looked at people who use social media from every generation, they found that 69% of Gen Zers say they felt anxious about the future the most recent time they saw content about addressing climate change. That compared to 59% of millennials, 46% of Gen Xers and 41% of baby boomers and older social media users.

Gen Zers vocalizing their strong opinions includes calling out previous generations and even their employers about their commitment to environmentalism and other issues. More than half (61%) of Gen Zers said they want climate action to be as urgent as the Covid response, according to COGNITION data, and 73% support public protests to raise awareness about climate issues.

While many Gen Zers criticize previous generations for ignoring the looming climate crisis, Muharsky credits millennials with jump starting climate activism and serving as the “Founding Fathers” of the movement.

“They did an amazing job of making people aware of how dangerous climate change is, but they didn’t get policies in place to make a difference,” she says. “My generation is more likely to follow through and won’t let politicians off the hook.”

Still, she says, “Pointing fingers at other generations doesn’t do anything. I love my grandparents and I don’t blame them for climate issues.”

Others in her generation are less forgiving of previous generations.

Crushing Corporate Greenwashing

While Greta Thunberg and an array of climate activists around the globe criticize political leaders for the lack of progress on climate issues, many members of the Gen Z generation are particularly skeptical of corporate promises to do better.

In a 2021 report by IBM, 56% of Gen Zers said they think businesses should take responsibility for environmental issues, and 72% said they believe companies should be held accountable for their environmental impact.

Part of Muharsky’s job is reading corporate ESG reports, so she’s pretty savvy about which companies are truly driven by an environmental mission and which make blanket statements without substantive action.

“When companies get specific about their progress towards their targets and are transparent, it’s easier to trust them,” Muharsky says.

Within the building industry, Muharsky says manufacturers are “lightyears” ahead of builders in their sustainability goals.

“Manufacturers typically share their targets and progress, such as explaining how they’ve achieved 60% of their 2030 decarbonization goal,” she says. “For big builders, ESG is in its infancy. For little companies, ESG isn’t prevalent at all.”

Most members of the Gen Z generation see ESG as a “meaningless slap-on sticker”, Muharsky says. In a 2021 McKinsey survey, 88% of Gen Z consumers said they don’t trust the ESG claims of corporations and brands.

“My mindset is that doing individual things such as recycling and grassroots efforts can catalyze change, but many people in my generation think that since corporations do more damage, we should all protest against corporations, Muharsky says. “I think we should do both.”

Gen Z Generation Consumerism

The youngest generation of spenders tends to shop with their values in mind. According to a 2020 study, 66% of Gen Zers will pay more for sustainable or environmentally friendly products, and 73% will pay more for ethically sourced products.

The majority (75%) of Gen Z consumers say that sustainability is more important than brand name when making a purchasing decision, according to a November 2021 study by First Insight and the Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. 

According to a report by Deloitte, 50% of Gen Z consumers reduced how much they buy, and 45% stopped buying specific brands because of sustainability or ethics concerns.

“If something’s in their budget and is also sustainable, I think everyone in Gen Z will make the sustainable choice,” Muharsky says. “But some things, like living without a car or in a tiny house, just aren’t practical depending on where you live.”

Muharsky says the political divide also influences consumer behavior among the Gen Z generation.

“Banning plastic bags or charging money for them to encourage the use of reusable bags is definitely a liberal state thing,” she says. “It’s just not a priority in South Carolina where my parents live.”

Muharsky says she’s more of an optimist, but she knows that a lot of people in her generation are both angry and discouraged about how previous generations, corporations and politicians have addressed climate change.

“It’s unfortunate that climate change and ESG have been politicized like everything else because these should be about humanity, not politics,” Muharsky says.

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