How to Help Gen Z Turn Climate Anxiety Into Action

This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum on November 10th, 2022. 

As parents of Generation Z youngsters, we’ve witnessed this generation’s idealism, creativity and angst firsthand. Like all of us, they have experienced a lifetime’s worth of upheaval – pandemic, political unrest and social change – in just the last few years. But because Gen Z is so young, comprising people born between 1997 and 2012, the tumult has shaped their lives disproportionately.

For them, this is the era of anxiety. The phones and computers that provide a constant stream of social posts and news also leave them more anxious and aware of social issues than previous generations were at their age. The vast majority worry about the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change – and many say they are committed to finding solutions by speaking up, changing their diet and altering their vacation plans, according to survey research conducted by the Oliver Wyman Forum.

But the research also shows that there is a significant gap between the anxiety Gen Z feels about climate change and the actions they take to reduce their emissions. Despite their fears and good intentions, most members of Gen Z don’t take simple actions like minimizing waste, opting for sustainable products or limiting consumption. Cost is often an issue, since sustainable products are frequently much more expensive.

Business and government leaders hoping to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will need to mobilize Gen Z to make it happen. Gen Z, for its part, needs better information and encouragement now.

Climate-concerned

Make no mistake: Gen Z already understands the importance of protecting the environment. The vast majority of these young adults, including 93% in the United States and 84% in the United Kingdom, say addressing climate change is critical for the future of the planet.

But there’s a disconnect between concern and action. In the United States, more than 40% of Gen Z members rank climate change as one of the top three issues facing the world – but only 20% say they minimize their waste, compared with 45% of the overall population. Similarly, only 37% say they reduce their energy and utility usage, compared with 43% of the overall population. Of those trying to reduce their energy use, fewer than half of Gen Z respondents say they turn off lights or decrease their heating or cooling use, compared with nearly 70% of non-Gen Z adults.

Fast fashionistas

One of the biggest climate inconsistencies among members of Gen Z is in their shopping decisions. A whopping 95% say they are willing to pay more for sustainable products, compared with about a third of the overall population. Yet when it comes to purchasing clothing, Gen Z overwhelmingly prioritizes price and comfort.

Cost is a factor, but the constant pressure of social media and availability of easy online shopping keeps Gen Z loyal to “fast fashion” – cheap, super-trendy clothing – despite their climate concerns. More than half of them say they purchase clothing at least monthly. Fewer than half of respondents use an outfit for more than two seasons, and almost a quarter wear different clothes each time they post on social media. But they’re also more likely to purchase used garments than other generations. More than 70% say they purchase some second-hand clothing, while the majority of those older than 25 purchase only new clothing.

Linking labels to impact

Members of Gen Z say they are eager to make a difference, but they need better information in easily digestible formats. More than three-quarters say a better understanding of specific climate actions would help drive a sustainable future.

Better labelling and transparency of sustainable products also would improve their perception and likelihood to purchase these products. Nearly one in five members of Gen Z say they are sceptical about the climate impact of products labelled as sustainable. Almost a third say they would purchase them if they had clearer labels, and 29% say they would buy these items if there were more information about the product’s climate impact.

Consumers of all ages say they would buy more sustainable products if the prices were lower, according to the Oliver Wyman Forum surveys. That’s particularly true for younger adults. More than a third of Gen Z say sustainable products are simply too expensive.

Influencers big and small

Gen Z is the most tech-savvy generation in history (for now, anyway). Most of these digital natives received their first smartphone around age 12. Providing more innovative and creative opportunities to tap their tech skills in pursuit of climate goals could encourage them to lower their emissions. Gen Z is already more likely than other age groups to use “smart devices” such as smart power strips or outlet timers to automate energy use.

Given that almost 90% of the Gen Z members surveyed are using social media platforms, influencers can play a bigger role in improving Gen Z habits. For example, online thrift store thredUp is partnering with Stranger Things star Priah Ferguson to launch Fast Fashion Confessional Hotline, a resource to counsel members of Gen Z away from fast fashion and teach them about the environment.

Family and friends can also help Gen Z make greener choices. Nearly a quarter of them say activism by relatives or friends encourages them to better understand the climate threat.

Business and government leaders have an opportunity to exert their influence as well. Offering affordable sustainable products, more targeted information and access via social media could help Gen Z make better decisions. And governments can put into place policies that encourage adoption.

No single group of people will solve the climate conundrum by themselves. But Gen Z, the oldest of whom will be 53 in 2050, will be a major part of the solution. The sooner leaders help this cohort to close the gap between climate concern and action, the better their chances of building a sustainable future.