You’re a 30-year-old who is looking to buy a new mattress.
You research all of the typical factors to decide between brands: price, quality, delivery time, extended warranty availability, customer reviews, and product features.
But you’re likely to research a feature that wouldn’t have mattered so much to your parents or to their parents: how environmentally conscious different companies are in how they make, market, and deliver their products.
Green consumerism has proven to be especially important to generations that grew up in the middle of the fight to acknowledge the climate crises:
- 85% of millennials say that it’s very important that companies implement programs to improve the environment, says Nielsen
- Generation Z values eco-friendly policies, too, with 80% of them agreeing
- 62% of Gen Z prefers to buy from sustainable brands, per a 2019 FirstInsight report that also found that 50% of Gen Z and millennial consumers are willing to spend up to 10% more on more sustainable products
- And Gen Z is the largest generation in the U.S. and will have massive purchasing power over the next decade
While companies whose entire value prop is based around eco-friendly principles will do especially well with younger consumers—think luxury closing reseller The RealReal and their popularity with millennial and Gen Z buyers—other companies are making that pivot.
Here we’ll look at three different case studies of companies at different points along that journey, showing what it looks like to win and to fail at embracing green consumers.
#1: How Patagonia kept up its eco-friendly values and is winning with young buyers
Since Patagonia made their first set of pitons, or spikes for climbing, in 1973, the outdoor outfitter has focused on creating clothing and gear that perform and whose production is as environmentally conscious as possible.
From using recyclable materials to repairing and reselling old products to donating to environmental causes to suing the government to protect national monuments, Patagonia has a long history of living up to its values.And now the retailer is named one of millennials’ top trusted brands when it comes to social practices and Gen Z buyers are proud to wear their clothing.
From a creative 2011 Black Friday ad campaign to encourage people to buy more thoughtfully (and to repair and reuse gear instead)...
...to taking public stances on environmental and political issues, Patagonia has long put its money where its mouth is in terms of ethical consumerism.
#2: How Volkswagen attempted a green pivot and it backfired
Eco-friendly advertising doesn’t always work—particularly not when it’s inaccurate.
VW’s 2009-2015 “Clean Diesel” advertising campaign is a great example of “greenwashing,” or providing misleading or unsubstantiated information about the environmentally-friendly benefits of products or practices. (Another, more common one is “cage-free” eggs, since that descriptor doesn’t really tell consumers anything about how those egg-laying chickens were actually treated—they could be cage-free but still kept indoors in enclosures and live pretty miserable lives.)
Greenwashing runs the risk of alienating your consumers when they find out that your practices aren’t quite as squeaky-green as you’d implied, which is exactly what happened to VW.
VW had been touting that their special technology helped their diesel cars emit fewer pollutants for years—but then the EPA found out that over 11 million cars worldwide had been fitted with “defeat devices” that let the cars cheat emission tests and emit up to 40x as much pollutants than the U.S. limit.
VW had to pay a nearly $15 billion settlement, spend $10 billion buying back affected cars, and deal with incredibly negative press coverage. Let their case be a reminder that saying you’re eco-friendly without actually doing anything to be more eco-friendly doesn’t work out in the end.
Or, in the end, not-so-clean.
#3: How Levi’s successfully made an eco-friendly pivot
Did you know that it takes 1,000 gallons of water to make and use a pair of jeans over its lifetime?
Levi Strauss & Co. did, and decided to work on reducing that number through advertising campaigns encouraging consumers to wash their jeans less and, more importantly, through restructuring how their factories use water through new technologies for finishing products. A 2017 pilot program with six suppliers saw a 19% drop in energy and water use and was expanded to over 40 supplies in 2019.
While the denim giant had long thought about environmental standards alongside labor and health and safety standards in its production, that wasn’t how they marked their products until recently.
Says Michael Kobori, Levi’s VP of Sustainability: “We need to be more clear and explicit in our product and marketing, and speak about sustainability more accurately with stakeholders. With millennials and Generation Z, you have a significantly heightened interest in sustainability and the future of our planet.”
Done well, greenifying your business processes and marketing strategies does works—Gen Z’s favorite brand of denim jeans is now Levi’s (21%), per Sourcing Journal.
Older ads focused on the durability of their product for their working consumers…
...then on stylish, fashion-forward factors for discerning young buyers…
...and now targets Gen Z and millennial buyers with eco-focused campaigns like Water<Less.
There’s money in green consumerism
It’s fair to be a little bit skeptical: sure, young consumers say they care about the planet, and say they’d pay more to shop with a brand that does, too, but is that what their purchasing decisions actually support?
The answer there is a big “yes,” per NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business, as reported on by the Harvard Business Review. 50% of consumer packaged goods growth over a five-year period came from sustainability-marketed products.
And even more importantly, sales of products marketed as sustainable and eco-friendly grew over 5x faster than those that weren’t.
Whether you’re launching a new business, highlighting the eco-friendly roots of an existing one, or pivoting towards a new green future for a product line that historically hasn’t considered its environmental impacts, there’s in green consumerism. And that window is closing, as Gen Z gets older and eco-friendly policies go from a nice-to-have to a basic requirement.
Go green and go now.