As America's youngest generation begins to enter the consumer market, workforce and voting booth, they have proven to be on a mission toward improving their planet. But as some companies attempt to meet Gen Z's demands for sustainability, others might merely be presenting a façade.
Gen Z shops green
Sustainability is important to 19-year-old Trinity Gbla. Having grown up experiencing wildfires and extreme heat near her home in Southern California, Gbla said these past few years have highlighted climate change as an increasingly pressing issue. She's not alone: Climate change/protecting the environment was the No. 1 concern for Gen Z, followed closely by unemployment and health care/disease prevention, according to a recent Deloitte survey.
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"There's such a huge climate crisis going on in the world that you just cannot ignore," Gbla said. "Usually, when I'm shopping, I like to see what's ethically sourced, or if it's environmentally friendly. Price is definitely something that's important to me, especially because I'm a college student, so it's like, I'm broke. But I'm willing to pay for more expensive stuff when it's ethically sourced."
This desire for sustainable products among Gen Z is robust. According to a 2020 report by First Insight, 73% of Gen Z consumers surveyed were willing to pay more for sustainable products, more than every other generation. And, despite being the youngest cohort with many still in school, they were willing to spend the most in added costs, with 54% saying they would pay more than a 10% increase in price for a sustainably made product.
This year, more than a quarter of millennials and Gen Zs worldwide said that their buying decisions have been influenced by the impact of certain businesses on the environment. Gbla said she can already see the influence her generation is making by using their purchasing power to hold companies to a higher standard, with numerous companies launching sustainability campaigns and highlighting green practices.
They want to work at green companies
But consumer spending is just one small part of the equation. Gen Zers also want the companies they work at to be environmentally-friendly.
"We're in a transition to a more sustainable economy," said Jen Cannon, vice president of business development at Impax Asset Management, which manages $45 billion in assets. "If I'm a company that doesn't even address climate change, what's the future of my organization?"
Failing to address Gen Z's environmental concerns not only puts a company's reputation at risk but also its future workforce.
"They want to have a job that's in line with their values," Cannon said.
Nearly half — 49% — of Gen Zs surveyed by Deloitte said that their personal ethics have played a role in their career choices. Theo Daniels is one of them.
The 19-year-old entered Howard University last year as a freshman in the computer science department. He has since made the switch to biology and political science, a decision he said was driven by his passion for the environment.
"I want to actually do something impactful and helpful," he said. "I'm not saying you can't do that in computer science. I felt like for me, however, that would be something environmentally related."
With his new career path, Daniels hopes to find policy solutions to hold corporations accountable for their environmental impact — he says that it would be in the best interest of both the planet and consumers.
"Being able to find ways to communicate that science into policy change, to actually get the ball rolling in the right direction, is something that's very important to me," he said. "There's a lot of work to be done and I'd like to be a part of that. I'd like to do my part to make the planet a better place to live."
Beware of 'greenwashing'
But while brands might be adapting to meet the demands of their impassioned consumers, it's not always in the way our generation hoped. Sustainability-targeted marketing has become increasingly prevalent as companies try to appeal to the Gen Z audience, said Jennifer Schmidt, a senior partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
"People are using a storyline that has something with sustainability, low waste, appropriate ingredients or appropriate fabrics that you'll find on front of their websites, on packaging, as part of their marketing," Schmidt said. "I can't think of a brand that's not doing this right now."
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This has made shopping for environmentally-friendly clothing frustrating for Perri Russell. While there are plenty of green tags, environmental messaging and eco-friendly labels, as a self-proclaimed ethical consumer, Russell knows that what a company says can be very different from what it does.
"Our world is overrun with advertisements and promotions and a culture that is begging you to just consume, consume, consume," Russell said. "It's really difficult to be an ethical consumer. It requires a lot of thought and education and care, and that is because corporations have made it so difficult."
There's a name for this practice: "greenwashing."
"Greenwashing" is the deceptive practice of branding a company as environmentally-friendly without adopting legitimate sustainable operations.
Jason Dorsey, Gen Z expert and author of "Zconomy: How Gen Z will change the future of business—and what to do about it," said this is a "rapidly increasing" marketing trend.
"'Greenwashing' is very real and appears to be growing every day. The reason is that Gen Z — who is now up to age 25 — has made it clear that protecting the environment and combating climate change are a priority for them, not only as consumers but also as employees and even as shareholders and voters," he said. "The combination of pressure and expectations from Gen Z as trendsetters along with a desire to "be more green" is not only being used to cover up past actions by companies that harmed the environment but also as a reason to charge more for products."
How to tell if a product is truly green
Transparency is the best way to differentiate between a truly green company and one that is merely slapping a green label on there. If a product has a green label or eco-slogan, but doesn't have the information to back it up, Russell said that's often the biggest giveaway that it is likely not a truly sustainable product.
That's why, for her, the companies that make it clear to consumers where their ingredients are from and publish clear statistics and information about sourcing, manufacturing and direct environmental impact are the ones she's more eager to support. A lot of the time, that means avoiding some of the biggest retailers.
"Smaller companies are also working hard to build brand loyalty, thus transparency in sustainability and labor practices are a way that they draw in their sustainability focused client base,'' Russell said.
Gbla recommends shopping at second-hand stores when possible as a way to guarantee you're not contributing to the "fast fashion" industry, which isn't always good for the environment. She also tries to purchase less and instead invest in lifetime products, which she said has the added bonus of saving her money in the long run.
At the end of the day, Gbla said, sustainability is about using less and being more intentional with your purchases, a good habit for both your finances and the planet.
CNBC's "College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Katie Jahns is an intern at CNBC working with the long form unit. She is a rising junior at Northwestern University studying journalism and psychology. Her mentor is Nate Skid. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.