The new cool — how Gen-Z redefines status through sustainability

We extract three key takeaways from The NXT Sustainable Consumer 2023 report, which extensively explores Gen Z consumer habits and their increasing demands of responsibility.

3 Oct 2023

In an era defined by Gen Z’s shifting commitment to sustainability, brands find themselves at a crossroads. Fredrik Ekström, brand strategist at Above The Clouds, delves into the report The NXT Sustainable Consumer 2023 that was presented at Transformation Conference. This outtake goes deeper into the report and explores the profound mindset of Scandinavian Gen-Z and its transformative implications for brands, igniting a pivotal conversation around sustainability that can no longer be ignored.

The high-end market is experiencing a significant overhaul as it adjusts to accommodate the growing purchasing power of Gen Z. Globally, in 2030 they will make up 40 percent of all individuals of working age and be the largest consumer group with a spending power of $33 trillion. Alongside Millennials, this consumer group was responsible for ”the complete growth of the luxury market in 2022,” as reported by Bain & Company, and is projected to contribute 70% of luxury spending by 2025.

Downplaying the significance of comprehending Gen Z’s future consumer behaviours, attitudes, and desires for self-expression would be a mistake. Brands face a distinct challenge considering Gen Z’s increasingly disparate value systems compared to previous generations of consumers. To captivate and maintain their interest, brands must swiftly transcend conventional notions of luxury, such as status, heritage, prestige, and exclusivity. Instead, they must embrace a fresh set of principles encompassing inclusivity, sustainability, transparency, green technology, and circular innovation. By doing so, brands can position themselves strategically to appeal to the aspirations and expectations when the influential Gen Zs are redefining status through sustainability and becoming a catalyst for driving meaningful change. 

The impressive power of knowledge 

The report reveals a powerful trend among Gen Z consumers, born between 1997 and 2012: an overwhelming 8 out of 10 view sustainability as an intrinsic part of their identity. They proudly embrace sustainability values, integrating them into their self-identity and image. Demonstrating knowledge about environmental and climate issues, while living a healthy and sustainable lifestyle has become a captivating trait, capable of impressing and attracting others. Despite the considerable interest in sustainability, a staggering 9 out of 10 Gen Z respondents admit to lacking knowledge about how their consumption habits impact the planet. They often feel as though their individual choices vanish into a metaphorical black hole, generating little discernible impact, whether positive or negative. 8 of 10 Gen Zs also express a desire to have more knowledge about sustainability and its planetary impact.

This gap, between their self-perception and knowledge, creates uncertainty in how to make environmentally conscious choices, coupled with 6 out of 10 that feel a fear of being negatively judged by peers if making misinformed decisions. Consequently, Gen Z finds itself caught in a paradox: an earnest desire to do what is right but hindered by limited knowledge and tools to navigate the complex landscape of sustainability. This paradox also creates a new form of status symbol, an admiration for those who have enough knowledge about sustainability to live a sustainable lifestyle and connect it to their self-identity.  

Remarkably, Gen Z’s dedication to sustainability surpasses that of the general population, with twice as many individuals (17% of Gen Z versus 8% of the general population) identifying themselves as being dedicated pioneers, proclaiming a steadfast commitment to sustainable practices. Notably, this engagement grows even amid economic uncertainty. Moreover, Gen Z also holds great admiration for those who can enlighten them in this domain, with 7 of 10 stating they would be impressed by someone who teaches them something new about the environment and climate issues.

Eco-Sexual Attractiveness

The word “status” affects people, it makes us feel a little embarrassed and usually nothing we want to talk about. At the same time, one cannot help but be fascinated by the power behind it. In recent years, there has been a notable surge in the emphasis placed on sustainability, which has subsequently sparked a heightened fascination with individuals who are seen as living healthy, sustainable lifestyles. This growing trend is evidenced by the increasing popularity of activities such as second-hand shopping, adopting a curious sober lifestyle, engaging in nature-related hobbies, embarking on healthy vacations, and embracing vegetarian cooking, among others. As consumers seek to expand their understanding of sustainability, they are naturally drawn to those who can enlighten them with new insights and knowledge.

This attraction to individuals who embody a sustainable and healthy lifestyle goes beyond mere admiration for their choices. In fact, a staggering 8 out of 10 Gen Zs confess to feeling a physical attraction towards someone they perceive as living a sustainable life, a phenomenon we termed ”Eco-Sexual attractiveness”.

This new form of ”sustainability status” establishes a different set of values where knowledge of sustainability is something Gen-Zs values highly, is impressed by, seeks to have more of, and is attracted to in others.

Catalysts for driving meaningful change

When many companies embark on their transformation from linear to circular and/or adopt a holistic approach to sustainability, they typically focus on the rational effects within products, production, and transportation. However, it is equally important to focus on emotional values and redefine the brand’s approach to work culture, storytelling, cultural status, and consumer engagement.

For brands in the early stages of this transformation process, it is easy to be dazzled by the success of others and forget that no other brand started its journey perfectly from the beginning. When comparing ourselves to competitors who have already succeeded in their transformation, it often appears simple, logical, and inevitable when their work is presented as successful cases and cited in the press.

The journey towards transformation is rarely straightforward, and achieving significant environmental results often takes years of dedicated effort. Throughout this process, engaging consumers becomes paramount through powerful and genuine brand communication, where inclusivity, sustainability, transparency, green technology, and circular innovation become the new symbols of status.

To captivate and sustain the interest of future Gen Zs, brands must swiftly transcend the conventional notions of luxury, shedding the old notions of status, heritage, prestige, and exclusivity. Instead, they must wholeheartedly embrace a fresh set of principles in their brand direction that encompasses inclusivity, sustainability, transparency, green technology, and circular innovation. This strategic positioning enables Scandinavian brands to align with the aspirations and expectations of the influential Gen Zs, who are reshaping the concept of status through sustainability.

Effective brand communication serves as a vital tool not only to prevent consumers from migrating to competing brands that offer more enticing deals or tell a more captivating story but also to provide reassurance and knowledge. By creating proof points and empowering consumers with new and exciting knowledge about sustainability, brands will impress and attract consumers and become catalysts for driving meaningful change.

However, a successful brand transformation does not happen with a single campaign. There are no shortcuts. There is only a roadmap of strategic, creative, and operational decisions that, if executed consistently, put a brand on the path to sustainability, cultural status, consumer excitement, and business success.