No time to lie: Gen-Z's perspective on corporate greenwashing

Stylised image of man wearing sunglasses with the world as lenses

TJ Jordan, Creative and Caitlin Whyte, Account Manager

Authentic Action

With the increase in demand for global brands to be more sustainable, how many brands are actually living up to their claims of committing to green practice?

In recent times, the term ‘greenwashing’ has been used to describe companies that purport to be environmentally conscious for marketing or reputational purposes, but their action does not reflect the message they are communicating.

Research shows that Gen-Z is more invested in sustainable business practices than other generations. This group has also been shown to be more likely to consider a brand’s dedication to social causes as factors for brand trust and favourability when making purchase decisions. Following our 2021 report, ‘The Voice of the Climate Generation’, Creative, TJ Jordan and Account Manager, Caitlin Whyte take a closer look at what greenwashing means to Gen-Z and discuss the report’s conclusions with a focus group made up of Gen-Zers Olivia H., Liam, Olivia N. and Alix.

Who owns the term ‘greenwashing’?

If you want to get the most helpful definition of greenwashing, ask someone born after 1996. “It’s when a company is lying, basically.” 17-year-old student Olivia gave it to us straighter than anyone in our industry would.

For years, the term ‘greenwashing’ has been the lexicon of experienced activists, media, and scientists. An accusation reserved for experts. But it’s time for the professionals to relinquish their grasp. In a world of Greta, Extinction Rebellion and high-profile COP conferences, greenwashing is now a concept owned as much by the consumer as it is the specialist. And even if some young people don’t have the term itself in their lexicon, it’s Gen-Z who have the strongest grip.

This is a generation fully immersed in the climate crisis issue. Our 2021 report, ‘The Voice of the Climate Generation’, revealed that nearly a third of 18-24 year olds (30%) campaigned or voted for a political leader with a manifesto that explicitly addressed the climate crisis, whilst just under half (44%) have searched for information about a company’s climate change policies or commitments. But while those policies and commitments are habitually framed by their author in a progressive light, nearly two-thirds of Gen-Z don’t believe that older generations are tackling the crisis fast enough (65%). They think businesses are lying.

30% of 18-24-year-olds voted for a politician that explicitly addressed the climate crisis

An instinctive definition

Gen-Z’s concern about greenwashing is so authentic that Olivia’s instinctive definition about truth and lies provides fresh insight into the challenge to curb it. First, when it comes to companies and their green credentials, lying doesn’t just mean ‘not telling the truth’. Becoming fully-fledged members of society during the late 2010s, when most companies and governments were only just clicking into action on the situation, this demographic is inherently cynical. Creative narratives that skirt around the facts or don’t place claims in a fair context just won’t fly. When we showed 17-year-old school student Liam a corporate sustainability video narrated by one of its staff members, his scepticism was as biting as it was quick-witted: “Well, obviously he is a well-paid actor”.

Understand Liam’s doubts, and you begin to see the ironically opaque nature of the word ‘transparency’ as we currently use it. From hiding information in distant parts of a website to seemingly innocuous disclaimers on content, there are many ways organisations can convince themselves they are being ‘transparent’. But if a business finds themselves using comms to do anything other than address the most significant facts head-on, then in the eyes of Gen-Z, they are greenwashing. Simple.

There is a significant hurdle to jump for some of the world’s most recognisable companies. Their reputation amongst this generation — whether deserved or not — precedes them. As 23-year-old university student Alix put it in response to another video, “I already know this company isn’t good for the environment, so it’s difficult for me to believe they care about it here.” Jumping this hurdle requires taking heed of the high value placed on true transparency by Gen-Z.

Action breeds truth

Stylised image of sunflower placed in a smoke stackBut most importantly, this group want to see real action. Acutely aware that humanity is living through a climate emergency, they see business as having both the power and responsibility to accelerate positive change. “So many companies place the accountability on the consumer by engaging with micro-actions like plastic bag use, but in fact, it’s the big corporation that needs to change and will create a larger impact in doing so,” 15-year-old school student Olivia N. told us. And she believes communicating about this in the right way can be part of that impact, driving government action, healthy consumer behaviours and partnership across industries: “It’s good to advertise it as long as you’re following through with what you’re saying.”

So, the equation becomes simple: authentic action leads to authentic communication.

If you want to talk about the climate to Gen-Z effectively, your organisation should be taking action that it is comfortable talking about in the spirit of full transparency. And it only works that way around. Targets, lofty principles or distant goals aren’t enough. “It has to be something that’s actually happened,” Liam concluded frankly when we asked him what he felt companies should be communicating about.

Some may see that as a daunting prospect, but the opportunity to create long-term brand loyalty with this generation while powering positive change should be enough to tempt any business into action. Our research shows that a majority (61%) have altered their personal spending habits to reduce their environmental impact, while 23% have bought or sold shares in a company based on its actions relating to the climate crisis. Gen-Z is a powerful group of consumers who are willing to take action in response to yours.

23% of Gen-Z has bought or sold shares in a company based on its actions relating to the climate crisis

“Now or never” This conversation is not siloed to climate. The principles of action breeding truth apply to a broader agreement amongst this generation that companies should be taking responsibility for any ethical or social matter that they touch on. Ranking and playing off ‘issues’ against each other is not their game; instead, they are acutely aware of the bigger ethical picture. But the climate conversation does have a unique urgency and collective interest. 93% of Gen-Z say that the issue of climate change is either ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ important to them, whilst the latest IPPC report states it is “now or never” to limit the most dangerous effects of warming.

It is difficult to argue against the climate crisis being, if not the most important social issue of today, then certainly the most pressing. Gen-Z knows better than anyone that truthful communication is essential to meeting the required pace of humanity’s response.

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