Written by Zenda Nel

Sustainability reporter


Gen Zers, those born between 1995 and 2010, is a large and diverse generation and the fastest-growing group of consumers. Their attitudes and actions are influenced by their digital immersion from a young age and their desire to have a positive impact on the world.

These are the people whose first ‘toys’ were mommy’s smartphone. They learned to read on screens, and that became their world. That experience has produced a hyper-connected generation that is well-informed and adept at finding information online. For them, there is no boundary between their offline and online lives.

This generation has become a powerful influence on people, affecting how they consume and relate to brands.

Gen Zers converge around issues they believe in and take action to force the changes they want. What formed this generation, and how does this affect their views on consumption and their relationships with brands? 

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The Gen Z factor

If you want to grasp Gen Z and their potential to impact attitudes, you only need to remember the most famous member of the generation: Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who at the age of 15 addressed the UN and admonished world leaders on their shameful omission to act in time on climate change. Thunberg also started a worldwide school climate strike movement called Fridays for Future

Sustainability is an issue close to this generation’s heart, including fashion sustainability.

According to a McKinsey study, Gen Z is motivated by a search for truth, which is expressed in four behaviors: 

  • Appreciation for individual expression and the unimportance of labels
  • Mobilization around many causes
  • A belief in the value of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world
  • Analytical and pragmatic decision-making

Being digital citizens with a thirst for information and the ability to search online, Gen Z consumers tend to be well informed about brands and how they operate. When they lack information, they find out what they need to know before making any buying decisions. Brands can’t hide their clandestine practices from Gen Zers as they are too tech-savvy and will find out the truth. After all, they grew up with the fake news phenomenon.

For this generation, consumption isn’t about owning things; it’s about having access to things, including services. You don’t have to own a garment; you can simply rent it and afterward put it back into circulation.


The Global Shapers initiative

As a generation of doers intent on bringing about positive change in the world, young people have organized themselves in a global community of hubs working to address many local, regional and global challenges ranging from poverty and climate change to helping in the aftermath of natural disasters.

The Global Shapers Community is a network of 10,712 young people under 30 in 147 countries. Some of these hubs are working to clean up the fashion industry and bring about fashion sustainability. The fashion industry causes 10 % of annual global carbon emissions, more than that produced by international flights and maritime shipping. The cost to the environment is measured in massive water pollution, toxic chemicals, microplastics, and textile waste. 

Back in 2018, more than 30 of the Global Shaper hubs focused their activities on sustainable fashion during that year’s Fashion Revolution Week. They raised awareness of the sustainability challenges in the fashion industry and encouraged local communities to pursue sustainable fashion practices. The projects involved upcycling workshops, clothing swaps, thrift markets, film screenings, sustainable fashion fairs, and roundtables.


The impact of the younger generation on the adoption of sustainable fashion consumption

The yearly thredUP Resale Report provides a narrative of the rise of thrifting and the younger generations leading the trend, with millennials and Gen Zers going for secondhand clothing at more than twice the rate than other generations. thredUP is an online thrift store that is itself leading the charge in secondhand fashion.

The 2019 report noted that Gen Z and Millennials were driving the growth of the secondhand market. At that stage, these generations were adopting secondhand apparel 2.5 times faster than other age groups. Already then, they were shopping sustainably, with 74% of 18-29-year olds choosing to buy from sustainably conscious brands.

People were also starting to consider the resale value of items they buy, and secondhand was expected to grow to nearly 1.5 times the size of fast fashion by 2028.

Then in 2020, covid-19 hit. 

The pandemic accelerated the changes that were already happening. Sheltering in place accelerated the shift toward shopping online, and consumers turned to thrifting. Most of all, the youth of the world used their words, actions, and money to demonstrate their intention to bring about a long-term solution to fashion waste.

While the 2019 report projected the secondhand market to be worth $51 billion in five years, the 2020 report put that figure at $64 billion in the following five years, with resale expected to overtake traditional thrift and donation by 2024. All generations had increased their purchase of secondhand clothing, but Gen Z was once again at the forefront, with 40% of them buying secondhand and 90% considering it when money is tight.

‘’Bargain hunting, environmental concerns and the sharing economy have erased the stigma of used goods at the same time technology has made thrift shopping more accessible, reliable and cool. Even Kim Kardashian West wears vintage designer duds,’’ wrote the Wall Street Journal at the time.

By the time the 2020 report came out, the secondhand market was no longer merely a fashion trend; it had become a matter of course, an activity vast numbers of people are engaging in. In fact, the secondhand market had once again surged, and the 2020 report now projected it to reach a value of $77 billion in the next five years. According to the report, resale is driving the growth of the secondhand market as more and more people are selling their used clothes online.

Gen Z is setting an example for sustainable fashion through more circular fashion habits. When buying, they consider the resale value of clothing, realizing that they won’t ultimately be the sole owner of the item. Also, before they would throw away an item of clothing, they would resell it. 


The rise of reselling

Being tech-savvy and committed to sustainable fashion, it’s no surprise that Gen Z is driving the use of secondhand selling apps. They are avid users of secondhand selling apps like Depop and Poshmark.

The vast majority of users on Depop are under the age of 26. More than 30 million young people in 150 countries use the app. And they are making serious money. So far, the community has earned a whopping $1 billion. Shop best Australian sustainable indie brands on Local Threads

Teens are not only using Depop to sell used clothing and footwear; many of them have been very successful at starting their own business ventures on the platform. Business Insider reported that some sellers on the platform make up to $300,000 a year on the app and have been able to set themselves up with cars and houses while they’re still at school.

On Poshmark, sellers use their smartphones to take photos of the clothes they want to sell and upload them immediately afterward to their wardrobes. Sellers who are very active on the app can make a living by selling on Poshmark. The popular app is reportedly used by five million people.

Some young sellers on Poshmark have been able to pull in six figures on the app, running full-time businesses.

A unique feature of Poshmark is its social nature. It provides an opportunity for people to enjoy a social shopping experience. Sellers and buyers get to know each other, which often leads to repeat business. 

Young people are devoted to apps like StockX, which calls itself a stock market of things, and Goat, a popular platform for sneaker enthusiasts. 


Gen Z’s relationship with brands

These youngsters are not easily swayed by impressive marketing campaigns – their focus is on quality and authenticity. Brands don’t call the shots on this generation. With a strong awareness of fake news and fake claims, they have an innate distrust of hype. 

They use evidence from friends, family and celebrities and information from transparent brands to make up their minds about which brands they would support. Gen Z measures a brand’s authenticity by its ability to demonstrate continuity, credibility, integrity and symbolism.

Both Gen Z and Millennials tend to support brands that take a stand on important issues like human rights, race and sexual orientation. Several consumer studies show that millennials and Gen Zers are strongly influenced by what a brand stands for. They will drop a brand if it is breaks its promises.

Sustainability and authenticity have made Everlane, Mud Jeans, and Patagonia brands that young people trust.  


Final thoughts

The younger generations are a force to be reckoned with. Together, they form the largest consumer base and wield a powerful influence. With their values of price transparency, authenticity and sustainability, fashion seems to be facing a less destructive future. 


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