Op-ed: Companies need to cater ethical products to Gen Z

Hannah Bai, contributor

At this point, around half of Generation Z, or Gen Z, has reached adulthood or is nearing it. So far, their ability to utilize the information they see and spread on the Internet has defined their impact on the world. More specifically, their command of social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok has made it incredibly easy to share and learn about any topic. When it comes to the marketplace, they’re demonstrating a growing interest in products that are ethically sourced and environmentally friendly while still maintaining their expectations for good quality and exceptional service. Just receiving the item on time isn’t enough anymore; Gen Z wants to know what resources were used, the carbon output of the machines used to manufacture it, the well-being of the workers and more.

If they find an item has failed to align with their values, it only takes a few minutes for them to share this with the rest of the world. Buyers have made millions of reviews, rants and video essays on numerous brands and products advising other consumers based on their personal experiences. For example, an account named “cnnunderscored” on TikTok has garnered over 317,000 followers that are interested in their product reviews, while the Instagram user Carla Beltran uses her platform to promote a vegan lifestyle and to speak out against brands that are causing harm.

Additionally, as they grow older and participate more frequently in the market, their purchases will become an increasing source of revenue for companies. As of 2021, Gen Z represents around 40% of U.S. consumers and has 2 billion members worldwide. Logically, companies have begun to reflect on how they can better serve their new consumers, and how they can improve their supply chains.

So without further ado, companies, meet your new customers, what they expect of you and what you can do to satisfy them. 

Gen Z has been shaped by their time spent in COVID-19 quarantine. Almost everybody had newly acquired time, which meant paying more attention to online entertainment, including shopping, streaming services and games. 

Their newfound enthusiasm for online purchasing was quickly followed by an increased concern for how their buying habits were affecting the world. The topic of ethical consumption had already garnered people’s attention in previous years, but the pandemic acted as a catalyst for awareness. However, as the world emerged from the worst of the pandemic, ethical spending and shopping habits followed Gen Z and inspired many others. Consequently, since 2016, there’s been a 71% increase in online searches for sustainable goods.

Thus, here are some of the things Gen Z is looking for during their next purchase.

Environmentally, the requirements for a company to be considered “green” in the eyes of Gen Z are quite broad. It can be anything from a restaurant emphasizing they use slow farming , or a clothing company claiming they use recycled materials, to a tech company advertising they use less energy-intensive machines. However, regardless of how they decide to advertise that they are environmentally friendly, the most important thing is that they’re transparent about their operations. 

A lack of transparency can lead to major issues, like the $21 million lawsuit against Fairlife for false advertisement. The company had been known to advertise that they have zero-tolerance for animal abuse, but in 2019 an undercover video taken at one of its suppliers revealed that the cows were being mistreated. Not only did the company face the lawsuit, but stores across the country also pulled Fairlife products from shelves to appease consumers. Since then, the company has announced that it’ll be conducting audits on all of its farms and has also invested millions of dollars into policies and programs to demonstrate its loyalty to customer standards. 

Furthermore, surveys have found that 45% of Gen Z stopped purchasing from certain brands because of sustainability concerns, a number that will most likely continue to grow as this movement picks up speed. Additionally, 75% of the generation believes that sustainable purchases are more important than the name of the brand. This data was especially applicable when it was leaked that Apple, Dell and HP were sourcing from overseas companies with hazardous working conditions. There was a massive public outcry from their consumers, with many calling others to boycott the brands. Since then, the companies have made public announcements to gain consumers’ trust back. For example, Apple took to the public and released a list of its suppliers along with conducting regular monitoring reports on its factory employees.

Ethically, the most important standards a company must meet are regarding how their workers are treated. A 2020 survey found that 75% of Gen Z respondents said they would like to see companies ensure employee safety. 

A prime example would be the general outcry against working conditions at fast fashion brands, such as SHEIN. The company has been under fire since social media users have called out their dangerous and inhumane working conditions as well as becoming one of the faces of overconsumption. The main driving force behind SHEIN’s criticism are audiences on TikTok, who have created hashtags such as #stopSHEIN that have garnered over 42 million views on TikTok. This has led multiple customers to stop purchasing from them, an event that has no doubt caused major potential revenue losses.

However, there are more reasons to listen to the new demands of Generation Z than just potential backlash. There are endless chances for increased revenue when potential improvements on supply chains are considered. Opportunities such as finding a sustainable energy source for factories, keeping employee motivation high and recycling or repurposing materials can all help companies become more profitable in the long run. 

Additionally, hedge fund managers are now starting to consider Environmental, Social and Governance — or ESG — matters as risk factors for companies, which puts pressure “on companies with high emissions to collect and improve ESG data.” For example, Blackstone Hedge Fund recently sent letters to companies recommending they quickly create or adhere to environmental standards. 

Additionally, this generation’s love and appreciation for their Earthly home is influencing people of all generations. They’ve been labeled the “most disruptive generation” by the Bank of America due to their ability to pass their environmentally-conscious lifestyle to people of any age. Thus, companies should keep in mind that their outlook is causing a long-term shift in the industry.

Although I’ve referred to Gen Z as “they” through most of this article, it is most certainly a “we.” I was born in 2005 and am ever-aware of the changes that my peers are demanding. Thus, I want to emphasize the fact that they are not simply generalized statistics. For me, it’s everyday life. Obviously, my friends don’t campaign for environmentally-friendly companies on their social media accounts day in and day out. However, I’ve watched as my friends ditched certain sportswear because of allegations against the brand, seen them never step foot into certain stores after they read a news article and seen them drop snack brands after they learned about unethical working conditions. Consequently, I urge everyone to be aware of the changes that are occurring and what you can contribute.

Hannah Bai is a first-year business administration major. She can be reached at [email protected]