Gen Zers take action after growing increasingly concerned about their futures: 'Pleading with older generations for change'

Morgan Greenwald
·8 min read

While many businesses endured endless setbacks amid the global pandemic, one sector consistently found ways to profit: the online secondhand market. In 2021, the online thrifting market is on track to grow by 69 percent compared to 2019 — meanwhile, GlobalData expects the traditional retail market to shrink by 15 percent.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is largely responsible for this shift from traditional retail to online thrifting. Between a stock market crash, record unemployment claims and stores being forced to close indefinitely, consumers turned to e-resale platforms like Tradesy, Depop and thredUP out of fear and frugality.

“People’s shopping preferences have changed during the pandemic,” Tracy DiNunzio, CEO of resale platform Tradesy, explained. “We’re seeing our customers, particularly younger customers, are very focused on sustainability and value, causing many to prefer shopping pre-owned luxury over new. This change in values, paired with the shift to e-commerce 2020 brought on, has fueled the rise of shopping pre-owned by several years.”

Even before the pandemic, though, consumers were becoming increasingly more interested in secondhand shopping and increasingly less interested in the traditional retail sector. In 2019 — before the coronavirus was even a threat — GlobalData reported that resale was growing 25 times faster than the broader retail sector.

As for how the resale market is growing so rapidly, the question isn’t what’s driving that growth, but who. More than any other age group, young shoppers are embracing secondhand shopping and making it cool again. In a GlobalData consumer survey, 40 percent of Gen Zers said they bought something secondhand in 2019, compared to 30 percent of millennials and just 20 percent of Gen Xers. These young shoppers care about reducing their carbon footprint and making economical purchases — and it’s changing the retail landscape from every angle.

Gen Z has made the sustainable fashion world more inclusive

Much of Generation Z — which includes anyone born after 1996 — came of age in the 2010s as people became increasingly concerned (and increasingly vocal) about global climate change and its causes. Pair that with the fact that Gen Zers live largely online, and what you have is an influential class of consumers educating the masses on the benefits of sustainable fashion.

“What’s special about this generation is that we have had a little more space and resources to really take a step back and evaluate the systems that we’re in, how it affects us and [our] willingness to attempt to change it,” Jazmine Rogers, the 24-year-old sustainable fashion blogger behind @thatcurlytop explained.

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Rogers herself originally wanted to create “the next Forever 21,” but after studying fashion in college, she became horrified by “the fashion industry’s perpetuation of modern-day slavery through labor trafficking and the horrific effect they have on the environment.” So, she decided to pivot to sustainable fashion instead. For the past six years, she has used her Instagram to lead by example and help her followers adopt sustainable, attainable habits that go beyond secondhand shopping.

“I try to emphasize that sustainable fashion doesn’t mean just buying new pieces,” Rogers explained. “There are many other ways to participate in the movement. My [favorite] is through my hashtag #rewearthat, where I have a community of people celebrating the clothes they already have and breaking the stigma that you have to wear something new to be fashionable.”

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Rogers is a prime example of the power that Gen Zers have, especially online. With 82,000 followers and counting, her Instagram account reaches countless consumers — and young shoppers are more and more regularly turning to influencers over brands for inspiration and guidance. If Gen Z influencers care about the planet, their followers will follow suit.

“Social media has played a HUGE role in making sustainable fashion more normalized,” Rogers said. “Fast fashion relies heavily on social media to market their trends and pieces to the masses. I think it’s been wonderful to see so many people come online and provide other sustainable options and basically say, ‘Hey, you can look good and care about the people and planet.'”

“I take my job as an influencer seriously because I feel like this role traditionally sways people into harmful habits toward themselves and the people and planet,” she added. “And I want to be a part of changing that narrative and making caring about the planet and people the bare minimum.”

Many bloggers and brands are highlighting the intersectionality of sustainability and race

As a half-Black and half-Mexican content creator, Rogers also uses her platform to discuss environmental racism, a concept that highlights how communities of color are “hit the hardest” by environmental issues due to government policies and economic inequality. 

“I advocate for these voices to be at the forefront of these sustainable conversations to be able to shed light on how environmental racism affects them and their communities, and to also provide sustainable perspectives that various cultures have to offer,” she explained.

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Previously the sustainable fashion world was dominated by well-to-do white women, but due to the civil protests that broke out in 2020 in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black people, BIPOC influencers in the sustainability space (like Rogers) started to amass the followings they deserved. This opened up the space to consumers of all walks of life — many of whom previously felt unwelcome.

“I have been able to bring up my own personal experiences and perspectives that have allowed me to be more sensitive to the lack of accessible prices and sizes,” Rogers said. 

Rogers’ blog posts are inclusive and nonjudgmental, and her ultimate goal is to “break down these complex ideas into more achievable, fun solutions that can be more easily implemented in people’s lives.”

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Brands are starting to support BIPOC voices and designers within the sustainable space, too. Sunny Wu, founder of ethical e-tailer ourCommonplace, prioritizes both woman-owned and BIPOC-owned brands on her platform in an effort to lift those communities, and to help consumers “utilize their dollars where they hope to see a change in the world.”

“It’s important for sustainability [to support BIPOC-owned brands] because sustainability is a whole ecosystem. At the end of the day, it really takes the people — like people, profit and the planet, so the triple bottom line — in order for the sustainability movement to move forward,” Wu explained. “A lot of people do want to support BIPOC-owned brands now and I’m looking for an avenue to make it easier for people to identify the founders themselves and the businesses that they want to support.”

When it comes to traditional retail, customers are willing to spend more on sustainable goods — and brands are taking note

Beyond secondhand shopping, Gen Zers are making it a point to support businesses that prioritize ethical and sustainable business practices — ones like ourCommonplace. Those who can afford it put their money where their mouth is: In CGS’ 2019 Retail and Sustainability Survey, more than 50 percent of Gen Z respondents noted that they’re willing to pay more for eco-friendly products and brands with ethical business practices.

For their part, brands are listening to consumers and are slowly but surely cleaning up their acts. In the 2020 Fashion Transparency Index — which reviewed 250 of the world’s largest fashion retailers based on their social and environmental policies and practices — participating retailers achieved an average score of 23 percent, up from 21 percent the previous year. The report also found that 78 percent of the major retailers included had published a company policy on energy use and carbon emissions, an increase from 72 percent the previous year.

The brands that are taking action are also reaping the rewards. ThredUP’s 2020 Resale Report found that sustainable brands like Patagonia, Reformation and Everlane are some of the most sought-after on the platform. And in September 2020, sustainable shoe brand Allbirds raised $100 million in Series E funding, putting its valuation at a staggering $1.7 billion.

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Not all retailers are shifting to sustainability in good faith, though. According to Wu, many big brands engage in greenwashing and make false claims about their products and manufacturing processes, just to lure in customers. Consumers have to proceed with caution.

For many, it can be difficult to differentiate between a company that truly cares about practicing sustainability and one that simply wants to appeal to conscious consumers without doing the hard work. Knowledge is power, Wu said, and if you’re ever wary of a company’s motives, do your research.

“People really need to be educated in order to take the right steps,” she explained. “Who I’m trying to reach is those who might not necessarily understand why fast fashion or greenwashing is even an issue.”

Transitioning to a sustainable lifestyle and teaching yourself how to spot greenwashing doesn’t happen overnight. As you educate yourself and dive deeper into companies’ policies, Rogers says the most important thing you can do is “give yourself grace.”

“Whenever we learn something new, failure is part of that process of learning and growing,” she noted. “Specifically with this movement, it’s better to have everyone participating imperfectly than just a handful doing it perfectly.”

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