We love the inclusivity of the sustainable fashion community, from the young designers changing the face of the industry through passionate and compelling voices to the savvy, woke and hyper-aware Gen Z consumers who understand the power of their purchases. With a wide array of independent brands and online venues at their disposal, these new consumers know they aren’t tied to a handful of major brands or even brick-and-mortar stores. And yet the Gen Z consumer remains a minority voice in the sustainability community.

Why is this the case? What can we do to make sustainable fashion even more accessible to younger generations?

Though it’s hard to pigeonhole the actions of any diverse group, we’re fascinated by the ways young consumers have changed the fashion marketplace (along with almost every other industry) through their buying behaviors. Following the patterns of Gen Z buyers, you start to see the threads that tie this generation together. If sustainable fashion is to be, well, sustainable for future generations, we must pay attention to these patterns.

Social Buying and a Digital Marketplace

The rise of social influencers has made a huge impact on brand marketing. What once may have been a side hobby for the fashion-inclined has become a robust way to create a platform and successfully market consumer brands.

Social media is leaning into this new world. Ads blanket everyone’s feeds, giving broad exposure to new products and boosting sales. On Instagram Stories, brands can now embed links to connect a user directly to a product, taking them from “interested party” to “active consumer” almost instantly. Apps such as @liketoknow.it allow you to shop the looks directly from your favorite influencers.

Gen Z consumers, who grew up with a vivid awareness of the developing digital landscape, are perhaps the most aware that a personal brand matters. What gets published on social media is as much a reality as what happens in your day-to-day life.

Given this strong correlation between identity and consumption, it’s no surprise that Gen Z-ers believe their possessions are an expression of who they are. To an extent, this is true for all of us, but this generation has different stakes in personal expression. Conformity has become a trope of the past and individuality matters more than ever. To stand out amidst a sea of curated brands and striking personalities, you need to be completely unique.

And to do that, you need to buy things that are unique and personalized. Enter vitamins tailor-made for your health needs and hair care adapted for your hair type, caftans with your pet’s face on them and shoes you customize yourself. Products must be a reflection of the individual rather than the other way around.

Politics and Personal Values

In the wake of numerous global tragedies — both natural and man-made — Gen Z came of age in a time characterized by helplessness and disillusionment. Instead of responding with apathy, this generation has shown amazing fortitude and action, adopting responsibility for issues they inherited. They are creating groundbreaking apps, appearing on Shark Tank with new inventions, leading protests, engaging with global figures on Twitter and more. They set trends and force older generations to pay attention.

They have a broad awareness of the world around them, thanks to instant updates on Syrian warfare or quick access to photographs of melting glaciers in the Arctic. They know the state of the world and their place in it.

And as gatekeepers for the future, they understand better than anyone that sustainability matters. Ethical design is hugely compelling to Gen Z. They have seen the impact of fast fashion on the environment and on the people who labor in these industries.

They also want brands to express a stance on the things that matter to them, like inclusivity, fair wages and environmental impact. Gen Z consumers, like millennials before them, are well-educated on where brands stand and have high expectations for ethics.

The Connected Generation

Gen Z consumers have a fluid sense of connectivity, having crafted communities of friends through social media, dating apps and gaming, as well as IRL friends from school or work. They tend to be more open-minded about religion, sexuality and history, welcoming differences as a way to become more self-enlightened.

This carries through to their engagement with brands. No relationship is based on transaction or aesthetic alone. A strong opinion and a good story are incredibly important, especially if there is a philanthropic component.

And the relationship goes beyond products, branding and marketing, too: Younger consumers, from millennials down, want to see diverse leadership teams, transparency, conscious ecological footprints and more. They have a curiosity about the world that predisposes them to be discerning consumers.

With an array of choices, it’s important to make the right one that is most in-line with their personal values.

Introducing a New Generation to Sustainable Fashion

Given all these observations about young consumers, it seems that they would be the first in line for sustainable products. But the truth is, Gen Z consumers are still more likely to purchase from a store in the mall than a high-quality ethical fashion brand.

The simplest and most unsatisfying answer is cost. Ethical fashion retails at a higher price point, due to the nature of producing things in a sustainable way. The oldest consumers in this generation are approaching 22 and don’t have the disposable income of older generations. They are more tied up in school debt and cost-of-living struggles, tending toward more practical buying behaviors.

Plus, sustainable fashion outlets can be difficult to discover. Beyond an awareness of the community, finding a way to transition into making more conscious lifestyle choices is a hurdle.

So what can we do to widen access and create more pathways to sustainable consumption for younger generations?

Here are our ideas:

  • Make knowledge more accessible. Share articles, podcasts and documentaries about sustainability. Talk about up-and-coming designers and showcase their projects through social media. By creating and sharing content that matters, we can help start conversations around sustainability.
  • Present pathways for conscious consumption. A younger consumer might not have the means to dive into ethical fashion, but could invest in smaller pieces made by ethical brands. Maybe a tote bag or a simple t-shirt presents a more realistic purchasing opportunity. Or they can search for these independent fashion brands secondhand. Clothing swap events such as those through Global Fashion Exchange allow you to add to your closet in a sustainable way. By prioritizing conscious consumption, we realign values around quality rather than quantity.
  • Make opportunities for engagement that aren’t necessarily tied to buying. Events are a great place to introduce conversations about the sustainable fashion community. If you own a shop or brand, invite shoppers to visit and see how the products are ethically made. These connections provide the foundation for change down the line.
  • Encourage and support emerging designers and makers. Give visibility to new designers and help them create a community of their peers. Some of our favorite t-shirts come from CHNGE Outerwear and Querencia Studio, both led by young designers.

We’re thrilled to belong to such a diverse community, and want it to continue to grow. Our mission is a hefty one, made less weighty by the participation of many eager hands.

So if you know someone curious about ethical fashion, share your knowledge and passion. Help them find a way in. Building up a new advocate creates a richer community as a whole.