At Barkley this summer, we decided to take our questions about Gen Z to the people in our building who we thought might have some answers: the interns. Using focus groups, a survey, and a variety of secondary sources, we gained two key insights that you might find surprising.
Part 1: Purposefully Practical
Over the past few years, purpose has risen to the top of many discussions surrounding the future of brands. From Patagonia’s environmental mission to Airbnb’s assertion that people ‘Belong Anywhere’, there are many examples of brands who have achieved success through their emphasis on key values. Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, has even gone as far as to say that brands “won’t make it” unless they are driven by purpose. This trend toward cause marketing, coupled with Gen Z’s particularly strong interest in purpose, often leads to the assumption that Gen Z’ers usually shop from brands that share their values.
However, when we surveyed our group of young people, we saw a more-complex situation arise. Many respondents chose their favorite brands based on “what they stand for” and how they “inspire me”, whereas only one respondent referenced purpose when asked about their purchases over the past month. In our follow-up focus groups, we were told the following:
“I think we only half care”
“H&M’s my go-to because I need something that’s in, but it’s also cheap and I can get it right down in the mall”
“Right now we’re shopping at Wal-Mart, but in ten years the goal is to shop at Whole Foods”
“You have to have a good product and then you can add on a purpose. It’s a bonus.”
“I’m just trying to save money.”
“I don’t demand that [higher] purpose outside of utility”
This discrepancy between purchasing ideals and day-to-day decisions is not unique to our sample. Nearly 75% of Gen Z and Millennial consumers claim that they are willing to pay more for brands that are committed to a positive social and environmental impact, yet Gen Z most regularly shops at H&M and Forever 21. Though these companies have made progress toward more-ethical practices, neither company is strong on sustainability. Given the fact that only 15% of Americans’ used clothing is recycled or donated, it’s clear that both individuals and companies lack follow-through on environmental stewardship.
Fast fashion is often criticized as enabling this culture of wastefulness. When cheap, stylish clothing items are always in circulation, it’s easy for people to make impulsive purchases that have ambiguous origins and are quickly discarded. Gen Z seems especially susceptible to this trend; though its members express great concern for social and environmental issues, these issues don’t often affect their purchases. They feel good when they find out that a product is fair trade or ethically produced, but most of them will not prioritize these qualities when it comes to meeting their regular clothing needs.
Furthermore, since Gen Z tend to have little, if any, income, it’s easy for them to justify $3 leggings or a $8 t-shirt on the grounds of affordability. When faced with reality, Gen Z values the practicality of a product over its higher purpose. As discussed in How Brands Grow, a brand must be easy to buy, easy to remember, and easy to notice in order to flourish. Gen Z doesn’t expect more than availability, affordability, and functionality from any brand.
There is an opportunity for marketers to solve for the guilt that can result from young people’s purchases. Brands (such as Pact) benefit from providing Gen Z with options that fit their high ideals while also fitting their low budgets.