Corporate sustainability and Generation Z
In the ever-evolving global economic landscape, the ascendancy of Generation Z as a pivotal consumer and influencer demographic signals a profound metamorphosis for businesses across the spectrum. Born amidst the digital revolution, between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s, this generation has been privy to the dizzying pace of technological advancements, juxtaposed with the mounting socio-environmental challenges that characterise the 21st century.
Their formative years, punctuated by global upheavals, from financial crises to environmental calamities, have imbued them with a distinctive worldview. This, combined with their unparalleled access to a deluge of information, has fostered an intrinsic sense of social responsibility, a globalised perspective, and an unyielding drive for sustainable transformation. As they transition into adulthood, their deeply-held values and stringent expectations are compelling businesses to undergo introspection, challenging long-standing paradigms and catalysing a shift towards a more integrative, sustainable, and ethically-grounded modus operandi.
This article endeavours to dissect the intricate interplay between corporate sustainability endeavours and the ethos of Generation Z, delving into the far-reaching ramifications this synergy portends for the trajectory of global commerce.
The Evolving Expectations of Generation Z
Historically, consumer expectations have been shaped by a myriad of factors ranging from socio-economic conditions to technological advancements. However, Generation Z presents a unique conundrum for businesses. Their formative years have been marked by global events, from economic downturns to climate crises, fostering a heightened sense of social responsibility. Coman, Yuan, and Tsai's comprehensive study (1) delves deep into this psyche, revealing a generation that not only expects but demands that companies take a proactive and genuine stance on public agendas. This shift in Corporate Social Advocacy (CSA) expectations is not merely a trend but a reflection of deeply ingrained values.
Example: The global climate strikes, initiated and led predominantly by young activists, serve as a testament to this generation's commitment. Their ability to mobilise millions and hold corporations accountable underscores their influence and the changing dynamics of corporate-stakeholder relationships.
While Generation Z's heightened sense of social responsibility is commendable, it's essential to question the depth and consistency of their commitment. Are their demands for corporate social advocacy driven by genuine concern or are they influenced by the viral nature of social media campaigns? Moreover, their digital nativity means they receive information rapidly, but it also raises concerns about the depth of their understanding and the potential for 'slacktivism' - showing support online without meaningful action.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the Willingness to Pay
CSR, once a peripheral corporate strategy, has now become central to a brand's identity, especially in the eyes of Generation Z. Thomas' research (2) offers a nuanced perspective, highlighting the intricate relationship between perceived CSR, a brand's environmental image, and Generation Z's purchasing decisions. It's not just about corporate goodwill; there's a tangible economic dimension. Generation Z is willing to invest in brands that resonate with their values, even if it comes at a premium.
Example: Luxury brands have historically been associated with exclusivity and opulence. However, brands like Stella McCartney and Patagonia have redefined luxury, intertwining it with sustainability. Their success among Generation Z consumers is a testament to the changing paradigms of luxury and value.
The willingness of Generation Z to pay a premium for brands that resonate with their values is a positive trend. However, it's crucial to scrutinise the authenticity of brands that claim to be sustainable. Are these brands genuinely committed to CSR, or are they merely capitalising on a trend? Furthermore, the emphasis on willingness to pay might exclude a significant portion of Generation Z who might not have the financial means, potentially creating a socio-economic divide in sustainable consumerism.
The Dichotomy of Environmental Responsibility
In the realm of corporate sustainability, intent and action must align. Zhao and An's seminal research (3) sheds light on this critical aspect, revealing that Generation Z can discern between genuine environmental initiatives and mere symbolic gestures. For businesses, this means that sustainability cannot be an afterthought or a marketing gimmick; it must be ingrained in the very fabric of their operations.
The global shift towards recyclable packaging is commendable, but brands like IKEA, with their commitment to sustainable forestry and holistic environmental practices, truly resonate with Generation Z. It's a testament to the depth and breadth of sustainability practices that this generation expects.
While it's heartening to see Generation Z discern between genuine and symbolic environmental gestures, one must question the metrics they use for this discernment. Is their judgement based on comprehensive research, or is it influenced by persuasive marketing campaigns? Additionally, the very definition of 'substantive environmental behaviours' can be subjective, leading to potential inconsistencies in how different segments of Generation Z evaluate corporate actions.
The Rise of Sustainable Consumerism in Emerging Markets
Emerging markets, with their unique socio-economic dynamics, offer both challenges and opportunities for sustainable consumerism. Khalil, Ismail, and Ghalwash's in-depth study on the Egyptian Generation Z (4) provides invaluable insights. Contrary to the often-held perception of emerging markets being less informed, the Egyptian Generation Z exhibits a keen awareness and commitment to sustainable consumerism, challenging global stereotypes.
Example: Egypt, with its rich history and diverse cultural tapestry, has seen a surge in local organic farming initiatives. Supported and driven by its youth, these initiatives not only promote sustainable agriculture but also challenge the traditional norms of consumption in the region.
The study on the Egyptian Generation Z provides a snapshot of sustainable consumerism in one emerging market, but can these findings be generalised across all emerging markets? Each country has its unique socio-cultural dynamics, and what holds true for Egypt might not necessarily apply to other countries. Moreover, while local organic farming initiatives are promising, they might not be scalable or economically viable in the long run, posing challenges for widespread sustainable practices.
The nexus between Generation Z's values and the imperatives of corporate sustainability is not merely a fleeting trend but signifies a tectonic shift in the world of business. As this demographic cohort burgeons in economic influence and decision-making prowess, their sway over business strategies, ethical considerations, and sustainability imperatives is set to amplify exponentially. The research underscores a salient paradigm: in the eyes of Generation Z, superficial sustainability gestures or mere tokenism is anathema. They demand unerring authenticity, unwavering transparency, and a demonstrable commitment to ethical and sustainable practices. In this context, businesses are presented with a clear mandate: to not merely adapt to these expectations but to champion and internalise the ethos of sustainability.
By doing so, they stand to forge deeper connections with this generation, ensuring their relevance in a rapidly changing world. Furthermore, in aligning with the values of Generation Z, businesses are not just securing their economic future but are also contributing to a more equitable, sustainable, and harmonious global ecosystem.
- Coman, I., Yuan, S., & Tsai, J. (2022). Toward an Audience-Centric Framework of Corporate Social Advocacy Strategy: An Exploratory Study of Young Consumers from Generation Z. (1)
- Thomas, G. (2022). Corporate Social Responsibility as a Sustainable Business Practice: A Study among Generation Z Customers of Indian Luxury Hotels. (2)
- Zhao, X., & An, H.-S. (2023). Research on the Mechanism of Heterogeneous Corporate (Environmental Responsibility in Z-Generation Consumers’ Sustainable Purchase Intention. (3)
- Khalil, S., Ismail, A., & Ghalwash, S. (2021). The Rise of Sustainable Consumerism: Evidence from the Egyptian Generation Z. (4)
Mojo is our online employee motivation platform that drives productivity, wellbeing and resilience
- Improved employee motivation, wellbeing and resilience
- Sustainable productivity growth
- Talent attraction & retention
- Better customer service
- The Human Energy Transition
(from Extrinsic to Intrinsic motivation)