Gen Z consumers are making companies bend to their will

Gen Z consumers are making companies bend to their will
Image: Jackson Gibbs for Quartz
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Once upon a time, not so long ago, brands had a fair amount of influence over what teenagers thought was cool. Magazine advertisements, star-studded TV commercials, and canny product placements played a big role in persuading young people to invest in everything from the Calvin Klein perfume CK One in the 1990s to the T-Mobile Sidekick in the 2000s.

Appealing to teens these days is as important as ever for businesses. Gen Z makes up 40% of global consumers today, with about $150 billion in spending power in the US alone, according to the consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

But online culture has upended the traditional relationship between influencers and influencees. This generation has never known life without smartphones and social media. That’s allowed teens to wrest power away from brands and traditional cultural gatekeepers. Companies hoping to appeal to this demographic will have to follow Gen Z’s lead.

“Millennials use social media as a platform, but with Gen Z, it’s woven into the fabric of their very beings,” says Chloe Combi, the UK-based author of the book Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives. “They spend more time with online communities than they do with real-life friends. There is no separation between the online self and self.”

The dominant role that the internet and social media have played in their lives from childhood onward is the single most important influence on Gen Z, typically categorized as anyone born after the years 1995 or 1996.  Forty-five percent of US teens now say that they are online “almost constantly,” according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, compared to 24% of teens who had the same response as recently as 2014.

Similarly, a 2018 Common Sense Media survey found that 70% of teens say that they use social media multiple times a day, compared to 34% in 2012. The same survey found that teenagers’ favorite way to spend time with their friends is now texting.

Gen Z’s digital sensibility has big implications for the way teens now participate in popular culture. They’re more likely to be found watching their peers’ YouTube channels than tuning into traditional TV shows. They get information about the world from Instagram and Snapchat instead of newspapers, books, and magazines. The number-one shopping influencer for today’s teens isn’t Rihanna or a Kardashian. It’s Devon Lee Carlson, a 25-year-old Instagram and YouTube star.

In the words of Combi, “They are the first generation who create what they consume and consume what they create.”

As a result, today’s young people have an unprecedented amount of power over the many companies hoping to court them—using their power to push companies forward on big social concerns such as the environment and gender nonconformity. That remains true even as the coronavirus pandemic, and accompanying global recession, shape this generation’s habits. Coming of age during an international crisis, some experts predict, is likely to compound young people’s progressive politics, affecting the demands they make from businesses accordingly.

“Gen Z are really the leaders of speaking with their dollars,” says 20-year-old Maya Penn, an entrepreneur and animator who founded the eco-conscious clothing company Maya’s Ideas when she was just eight years old. Her peers may be too young to be elected officials or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, she says, but they’re “really exercising how and where they spend their money makes an impact on the world around them.”

“Before, it was more brands telling customers what they wanted,” agrees Jessica Blackler, the 24-year-old founder of the UK-based gender-free makeup line Jecca Blac. “Now it’s customers telling brands.”

Under the logic that Gen Z understands Gen Z best, Quartz spoke with young activists and entrepreneurs like Penn and Blackler, along with other experts, to find out how Gen Z is already reshaping the consumer landscape.

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Table of contents

Agitating for the environment | Reuse, rent, digitize | The eco-conscious imperative | Greenwashing | The end of gendered consumption | The body-positive boom | It’s a small world after all

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Agitating for the environment

Melati and Isabel Wijsen, two teenage sisters who live in Bali, are prime examples of how this generation is already exerting influence on a global level.

Moved by their island’s massive plastic pollution problem, the sisters used a combination of online and offline tactics—from social-media petitions to a beach cleanup to a hunger strike—to launch Bye Bye Plastic Bags, beginning in 2013. Their initiative played a crucial role in the passing of a law last year banning single-use plastics in Bali. It also established the sisters as prominent young activists: Melati now has about 52,000 followers on her personal Instagram page, while their TED talk on the campaign has received more than 1.5 million views.

Melati and Isabel are involved in a number of efforts to combat waste around the world, with conscious consumerism a major priority in their personal lives. Melati advises that people hoping to make more environmentally-friendly choices ask themselves two questions: “Where does it come from, and where does it go?”

The sisters shop at bulk zero-waste stores, and also declare their loyalty to Stasher bags—the reusable silicone bags meant to replace Ziplocs—and the Pela Case, compostable smartphone cases featuring engravings of koalas or mandalas.

“We do a lot of research when it comes to new brands or businesses, this is easy to do online, and ask opinions from those around us,” says Melati. “We look up to Patagonia and TOMS quite a lot and feel that they are a great role model for other companies.”

Young activists like Melati and Isabel or 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg are not aberrations. One of the biggest traits that distinguishes Gen Z is its concern with climate change and the environment.

In investment bank Piper Sandler’s 2019 survey asking 9,500 American teens about the most important social or political issue today, the number-one answer was the environment. What’s more, 95% of people between the ages of 18 and 25 are willing to change their habits and lifestyles to combat global warming, according to a poll (pdf) of 1,800 members of Gen Z conducted in November 2019 by trend forecaster WGSN.

“A big driver for this kind of behavior among Gen Z is climate change, plain and simple,” says Penn of Maya’s Ideas. “Gen Z feels like they’re the last generation to turn this around before it’s too late.”

Young people are throwing their weight behind secondhand shopping and sustainably-produced products to enormous effect. But while headlines frequently suggest that Gen Z will save the world, young people don’t always appreciate the sentiment. “You all come to us young people for hope,” Greta Thunberg said during a speech to world leaders at the United Nations headquarters in New York City last year. “How dare you!”

There are, of course, limits to what they can accomplish on their own. Adults shouldn’t be pinning their hopes on a bunch of people who are still just trying to pass calculus class—partly because it’s not fair, and partly because Gen Z’s sway over consumer trends is no substitute for government policy.

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Reuse, rent, digitize

Marley Dias, a 15-year-old activist who created the diversity-in-literature movement #1000BlackGirlBooks, offers one good example of how sustainability concerns inform Gen Z’s shopping habits. The author of Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You! says that she shops at thrift stores in an effort to avoid the environmental toll of fast fashion, and tries to make her clothing last as long as possible. “I learned how to sew and fixed up a patch in one of my jeans,” she notes.

This approach to shopping is evident on Dias’s Instagram feed, with more than 100,000 followers. In several photos, she poses in a bold, geometrically-patterned sweater straight out of the 1980s; in another, she wears a white tank top and a button-down shirt with abstract splotches of red, orange, and yellow knotted at her ribs. “Sometimes people say I dress like a cool librarian,” she says. The exception to her penchant for thrifting is sneakers, which she buys new: She wears a size 10 shoe, so options are harder to come by.

Research suggests that Dias and her friends are in good company. Buying used clothing allows young people to stay true to their environmental beliefs while building affordable, varied, and unique wardrobes—something that matters to many young people in the age of social media.

One in three Gen Z customers in the US now shop secondhand, up 46% from 2017, according to a 2019 survey conducted by retail analytics firm GlobalData for the secondhand clothing website ThredUp. The same survey projects that the secondhand clothing market—including resale sites as well as thrift and donation stores like Goodwill—will reach $51 billion by 2023.

Traditional clothing retailers are trying to get in on the secondhand trend to appeal to the younger demographic’s morals—and their wallets. Macy’s, JCPenney, Madewell, and the Gap have all signed onto a partnership program for reselling clothing launched by ThredUp. H&M began testing a reselling option on the website of its brand & Other Stories last year, while Nordstrom began reselling online and at its New York flagship store in January.

“This isn’t a fad that’s going to disappear anytime soon,” David Weiss, a partner at consulting firm McMillanDoolittle, told the Chicago Tribune last year. “This is a generational shift.”

Meanwhile, many teens favor going directly to online secondhand options like ThredUp and Poshmark. A particular favorite among the set is Depop, a reselling app based in the UK with a user base that’s more than 90% under age 26.

Depop’s success can be attributed to the fact that teens and early-twentysomethings are the ones curating the clothing on offer. As New York Magazine’s Matthew Schneider observed, “Depop’s innovation is to understand the alchemy of the ‘peer’ in peer-to-peer transactions, relieving 30- and 40-year-old fashion directors and the graying CEOs of publicly traded multinational apparel companies of their duty to preach cool-for-a-price to young customers. The youth can minister to themselves.”

Beyond thrifting, WGSN’s Cassandra Napoli predicts that Gen Z will also further give rise to the rental economy pioneered by companies like Rent the Runway. For the younger set, H&M and Urban Outfitters are also getting in on the rental action, and American Eagle opened a rental program called Style Drop in 2019 in what one executive told MarketWatch was an effort to address Gen Z’s environmental concerns.

Seasons, backed by Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, caters to the “hypebeast” set with rental streetwear. “Given the Cambrian explosion of apparel brands online, rising concerns for the environment, and student loan debt crushing a generation—shared access to apparel will become the new normal,” Ohanian predicted in a blog post about his investment.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, could be impacting shoppers’ taste for secondhand and reused items, at least for the time being. Searches and reviews for used, vintage, and consignment stores fell by more than 60% in March, according to Yelp data for the US market, while thrift stores were down by 38% over the same period. Even in places where stores are still open for business, it seems likely that concerns over the possibility of contamination may be making shoppers less interested in secondhand items.

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The eco-conscious imperative

All this talk about saving the planet may be trendy, but it’s not just for show: 73% of Gen Z customers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, with the majority up for spending 10% or more on such items—significantly more than millennials, Gen-Xers, and Baby Boomers, according to a survey of 1,000 respondents in the US conducted in December 2019 by the digital research firm First Insight.

That’s created a lot of opportunity for companies claiming to make eco-conscious wares. Penn of Maya’s Ideas sells colorful wrap blouses made from vintage fabrics and scarves painted with fruit and vegetable dyes. She’s also a longtime sustainability advocate herself, having given a TED talk on the importance of protecting the environment at age 13 that’s now been viewed more than 1.6 million times as well as founded a nonprofit, Maya’s Ideas 4 the Planet, that helps provide rewashable, reusable sanitary products to women and girls in developing countries.

Penn can attest to the groundswell of interest from people her age in sustainable fashion over the past few years.

“I think that’s actually something surprising for me personally, to see how a major factor in a lot of youth culture is advocating for the environment,” she says. The much-discussed VSCO girl trend, for example, relies heavily on reusable straws, Hydro Flask water bottles and the phrase “Save the Turtles,” as satirical TikTok videos make clear.

One example of sustainable fashion resonating with Gen Z customers at the high end is Maison Cléo, a French mother-daughter shop that sells puff-sleeved blouses and cowgirl-inspired vests made by Cléo, the mother in question, online for only a few hours every week. “They only make a small run of products, you have to be the first one to grab it,” Napoli says.

Marie Dewet, the twentysomething co-founder of the shop, is a champion of slow fashion. She uses Instagram stories to break down the pricing of clothing and, explain, for example, why a blouse that took three hours to sew by hand retails for €260. “I insist on price transparencies because I was shocked when I saw behind-the-scenes prices when I worked in fashion for a made-in-France brand,” she told the blog Man Repeller in 2018. True to its youthful appeal, the shop offers a free scrunchie with every order.

Beauty and personal-care companies face particular pressure from the Gen Z demographic, who are careful about what they put on their skin, according to Piper Sandler’s Erinn Murphy. “Forty-seven percent of teens do look at ingredients in personal care or beauty,” Murphy says of the findings in the company’s Taking Stock With Teens survey. “Seventy-five percent say they’re willing to spend more on clean or natural beauty.”

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While it can be difficult for the typical shopper to deduce whether a company is truly helping the environment or not, Penn says that her generation knows how to do its research. “Gen Z is very in tune with ‘greenwashing’ and seeing when brands are just pretending or throwing out a little bit of a capsule collection but won’t do anything else,” she says.

Already, several brands have experienced the risks of greenwashing firsthand. H&M attracted unwanted attention in 2019 when it was grilled by Norwegian regulators over the marketing of its Conscious collection as sustainable. As Quartz’s Marc Bain has written, while the clothing in question was made from materials like recycled polyester or citrus peel, “its low-cost, high-volume business model is arguably at odds with its sustainability goals.”

That disconnect doesn’t sit well with Gen Z consumers, who are an inherently skeptical bunch when it comes to corporate intentions; and largely do not trust businesses to act in the best interests of society.

Blackler, the founder of the vegan and cruelty-free makeup company Jecca Blac, says that social media compounds the risk for companies with policies that run afoul of Gen Z’s political and ethical priorities. “Consumers of that age will dig into other aspects of the company like why you’re different, are you vegan/cruelty free, are you natural, are you being inclusive,” she says.

If companies fall short, young people are unafraid to spread the word. “You can really, if you wanted to, slam brands down massively on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, really question what they’re doing,” Blackler says. “It’s scary for brands.”

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The end of gendered consumption

Companies that are eco-conscious tend to be progressive on other fronts, too. A few years ago, 24-year-old Blackler was working as a makeup artist and started taking on trans clients who wanted to feminize their faces. She realized that she could help fill an important niche in makeup and beauty. Today, her brand Jecca Blac offers vegan and cruelty-free products designed to work for anyone—but with a particular eye to trans people, men, and anyone else whose needs might be going unaddressed by mainstream makeup brands.

The company’s Correct & Conceal palette, for example, is designed specifically to cover up beard shadow. “A lot of my clients were people that aren’t open about being trans and would need a solution they could take off [as opposed to laser surgery],” she explains. The Sculpt & Soften palette, meanwhile, is meant to appeal to trans clients who may be newer to makeup, and features a 34-page booklet on basic contouring techniques to feminize the face or soften the jawline.

Jecca Blac’s packaging is also specifically geared toward trans clients, who may have larger hands. “They couldn’t open the small concealer pots or pens,” Blackler explains.

Gen Z is markedly comfortable with the idea of gender fluidity and gender nonconforming people than previous generations. YouTube stars like 20-year-old James Charles (also a CoverGirl spokesperson), and Instagram influencers like 24-year-old drag queen Aquaria (who later won the tenth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race), have helped raise this generation to think differently about the idea of who gets to wear makeup.

“Gen Zers are more likely than Millennials to say they know someone who prefers that others use gender-neutral pronouns to refer to them: 35% say this is the case, compared with a quarter of Millennials,” the Pew Research Center reported in a 2018 survey of more than 10,000 US adults and 920 teens. The same survey found that 59% of Gen Z supports that online forms should include gender options beyond the binary of “man” or “woman,” compared to 50% of millennials.

Beauty and skincare lines have taken note: brands like Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty are increasingly turning to packaging that reads as neither feminine nor masculine in an effort to appeal to younger consumers. Along with Jecca Blac, several other queer and gender-fluid beauty brands have entered the market in recent years, including Fluide, which launched in 2018, and the aptly named Non Gender Specific.

This approach extends to the way Gen Z shops. One trend forecasting study conducted in 2016 found that only 44% of 13-to-20-year-olds say that they always shop within their own gender category, compared to 54% of millennials.

Gen Z’s dismantling of traditional gender boundaries may well give rise to more stores like the Phluid Project, a New York City shop dedicated to gender-free clothing, particularly (though not exclusively) for the LGBTQ community.

The internet’s favored softboi aesthetic, which reclaims pastels and floral patterns for young men as well as their right to cry and enjoy videos of cute baby animals, is already making an impact on companies. Napoli points to the Louis Vuitton flowery hoodie worn made famous by athletes like Odell Beckham Jr. as a prime example. That look “has completely infiltrated streetwear now,” she says.

Meanwhile, eager to keep up with the youths, a number of fast-fashion behemoths, including Zara, H&M, and ASOS, have offered clothing lines or capsule collections touted as gender-neutral. Some of these efforts have come under criticism for sticking to basics like hoodies and sweatpants—the kind of clothing that’s already gone from being associated primarily with men to being worn by people of all genders.

“That’s a kind of misogyny,” says 25-year-old MI Leggett, a nonbinary artist and fashion designer, “that the masculine is seen as the default and inherent and aspiration.” Some gender-neutral collections are also just plain old lazy, Leggett says, relying on marketing ploys rather than taking initiative to come up with new designs.

Leggett’s gender-neutral, anti-waste clothing company, Official Rebrand, attempts a more radical rethinking of the relationship between gender and fashion. The company remakes used clothing with paint, bleach stains, and other alterations. (Actor and gender-bending fashion icon Billy Porter is a fan.) An upcycled mattress cover becomes a pullover jacket; hand-painted tank tops bear the slogan “Angels have no gender but lots of sex.” Other touches, like replacing the tags saying “Made in Bangladesh” with “Someone made in Bangladesh,” speak to Leggett’s concerns about the global toll of fast fashion.

For Leggett, who goes by the pronoun they/them, there’s a clear connection between environmentalism and queer and gender-nonconforming identites. “There can be no gendered freedom or queer liberation if the environment is under siege,” they say. A key part of contemporary queer activism, after all, lies in the idea of opposing social structures that perpetuate harm to marginalized people across a variety of identities.

Leggett also sees a connection between the idea of recycling materials and the concept of gender fluidity. “Another thing too is the material fluidity, how an object is not necessarily finished” when it appears on a store shelf or an online shopping cart. “A person can change and transform, and so can an object,” they observe.

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The body-positive boom

The rise in gender-neutral and gender-fluid movements is playing out alongside changes in how girls and young women in this generation are relating to makeup.

Traditionally, young girls have looked to celebrities, media, and brands for guidance for the latest looks. The 1990s featured trends like deep reddish-brown lipsticks and sparkly body gels.  The 2000s were the era of lip gloss-lacquered lips and smokey eyes. And recently, the reigning beauty look involved plenty of contouring, as per the aesthetic popularized by YouTube how-to videos and Kim Kardashian. Even the “no-makeup” look, perennially popular over the years, involves multiple products.

But girls and young women are showing signs of waning interest in makeup, according to Piper Sandler’s Murphy. In the company’s 2019 poll, 20% of female teens said that they never wear makeup, compared to just 12% two years ago.

“That’s another big shift, from teens wearing it every day to wearing it only sometimes,” she says.

The exact reason Gen Z is approaching makeup differently is unclear. But the body positivity movement has certainly shaped the way Gen Z thinks about beauty standards, thanks to influencers like 23-year-old actress and body-positivity advocate Barbie Ferreira, or 18-year-old singer-songwriter Billie Eilish, who has said of her choice to wear baggy clothes, “Nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath.”

As a recent Vogue article noted, “Traditional advertising giants no longer have the sovereignty they once did – can you remember the last time you saw a billboard? – which means today’s young women are being exposed to a different mode of beauty, one that hasn’t been distorted by out-of-touch marketing executives or corporate leads trying to appease the male gaze.” That’s left brands striving to keep up with the times, led by Aerie, which launched its highly successful, airbrushing-free “Real” campaign back in 2014.

“People are just becoming more comfortable in their own skin and not having to cover something up,” says Murphy. “The beauty world is moving toward inclusivity. It’s not about covering up your acne, it’s about treating it”—perhaps with star-shaped stickers that actually call attention to spots.

Eitan Bernath, a 17-year-old chef and former Chopped competitor who shares recipes and cooking videos on TikTok and Instagram, says his mom recently pointed this shift out while browsing TikTok. “She finds it so interesting how the types of people who are viral and famous on TikTok and considered hot look nothing like the people when she was a teenager,” he says—that is, white, thin, and like every other celebrity.

“TikTok and social media have really humanized all these people who are different from us. People are so much more accepting.”

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It’s a small world after all

Cultural differences mean that Gen Z’s experiences and priorities will inevitably vary depending on the country in question. But social media’s ability to spread trends around the world means that Gen Z consumers still have a lot more in common than any previous generation.

In India, for example, outside of urban, well-educated pockets, people under age 25 are largely culturally conservative, according to journalist Snigdha Poonam, a Delhi-based journalist and the author of Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World.

Young Indians typically still “follow their families’ beliefs on religion, caste system, gender roles, marriage, politics etc,” Poonam writes via email.  But “they do align with their Western counterparts in their aspirations. As consumers, especially, they seem to want the same things as people their age in the West, from [fitness] watches to Netflix subscriptions.”

Poonam often writes about how YouTube and the hugely popular TikTok have taken hold among young people in India, with success on these platforms seen as an engine for upward mobility in a country with steep unemployment rates. While India has its own array of internet stars, these platforms also facilitate the exchange of influences across the globe.

“I remember meeting a 19-year-old college student in a small town who styled herself entirely by watching Selena Gomez and Kylie Jenner on Instagram,” Poonam says. “She often achieved this by sewing her clothes herself.”

The same pattern of cross-cultural influence holds true in Hong Kong and China, according to Elvis Zhang, a 21-year-old entrepreneur and student at Stanford University who is originally from Hong Kong. “Everyone’s using Instagram and TikTok and making memes on their Facebook groups, it’s all the same,” he says. “Even in China, they don’t have Facebook but they have their own version [WeChat], and kids are doing the exact same thing.”

Zak Dychtwald, author of the book Young China: How This Generation Will Change Their Country and the World and founder of the think tank Young China Group, says that the environment is a major concern among the under-25 set in China as well. “They grew up in a grey world,” he says. That made sense when “China was industrializing and that was the cost of getting out of poverty. Now that they’re not in poverty, people want a higher quality of life.”

Young Chinese people also care more about gender and other identity issues than previous generations, Dychtwald says, although he cautions that these issues tend to be less of a rallying cry. “In some ways China is having a pretty radical gender identity moment,” he says, “but the core of that is not deriving from Western framework.”

Since masculinity in China is already associated with a certain level of elegance, for example, makeup has had an easier time taking off among men in Gen Z than in many US and European countries.

Reflecting on the impact the internet has had on his generation, Zhang says that if he introduced his parents in Hong Kong to his white American host parents, they probably wouldn’t have a lot of shared interests. “There’s this huge gap with cultural things they’d never understand,” he says.

But if he introduced friends from China and the US, “they’d still have a lot in common,” he says. “They see all the same things, do the same dances.”

And with teens around the world watching each other constantly on social media, telling each other what’s cool and what matters with little regard for what traditional powerbrokers think, companies will have little choice but to do their bidding.