Beyond Earth Day:
3 Gen Z-Led Social Movements Your Brand Should Know About
Last Friday was Earth Day, the day every year when brands make big social media statements about how they’re helping the environment and young people on the internet mercilessly mock the ones whose words don’t match their actions. It’s a day that puts this piece’s authors— as both cynical Gen Z-ers and people who do advertising— in a precarious position year after year. How can we explain to our colleagues from other generations that just chiming in on the issues isn’t enough to engage people like us?
Gen Z came of age witnessing political crises, social injustices, and economic turbulence, all with access to the internet from childhood. Growing up alongside the rise of social media, we’ve seen change happening as a result of action in real time, so we feel individually connected to large-scale issues. And since social media has let us see all of this from the perspectives of a bunch of individuals rather than mass media outlets, we relate to political issues on a personal level. That’s why we became a generation of activists on a micro and macro level.
Our drive to make a difference makes its way into our buying choices, and brands have been making an effort to care about the same issues we do, whether it’s the environment or racial and gender diversity. But Gen Z is having other discussions that brands haven’t quite caught up to yet.
Pay attention to these three topics, and think about how your brand can make positive changes in each of these areas— beyond just a well-timed tweet or two.
Transgender rights and visibility
Gen Z’s access to the internet has allowed us to connect to the stories of more people with diverse and multifaceted identities than ever before. Because of this, one of our biggest priorities is advocating for marginalized populations, whether it’s racial minorities, people with disabilities, or the LGBTQ+ community. According to a 2020 global survey, 4% of Gen Z identifies as transgender or a gender other than male or female. And as the most gender-diverse generation ever, we’re speaking up for transgender people.
Many transgender trailblazers making headlines are part of Gen Z, like collegiate swimming champion Lia Thomas, and Gen Z activists are some of the main voices pushing back against anti-transgender legislation being introduced in state governments across the country. We want to see a world that embraces transgender people and creates an environment for a more open, fluid expression of gender for everyone.
WHO’S DONE IT WELL: The beauty industry has been an early advocate for highlighting queer and trans voices (like YouTube makeup guru NikkieTutorials), but also modeling non-stereotypical ways for anyone to express themselves, like makeup brand Anastasia Beverly Hills including men as models and rapper Tyler, the Creator’s collection of nail polish targeted at men.
Pushing back against diet culture
As children, Gen Z watched tabloid magazines lambasting celebrities for gaining weight and daytime TV commercials pushing the latest fad diet. We came of age during the rise of social media, which created more pressure to coexist alongside “perfect” bodies. But today, we have a greater awareness of the adverse effects of this type of messaging and the food system in many parts of the country that makes healthy eating and exercise inaccessible.
This attitude shift has caused brands to pivot their messaging, like when legacy diet program (and world’s worst mother/daughter bonding activity) Weight Watchers changed its name to WW in an effort to lose some of its stigma. But Gen Z can see through this rhetoric. We know that dieting isn’t the beginning and end of health, and there’s more than one way for a healthy body to look. Now we’re waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
WHO’S DONE IT WELL: For nearly 20 years, Dove has been a pioneer of challenging beauty standards. Pop singer and body positivity advocate Lizzo is a brand ambassador for its current campaign “The Selfie Talk,” which equips parents and teachers to have meaningful conversations with teenage girls around digitally altering the photos they post on social media.
Decentralizing work from life
During the uncertain early days of the pandemic, we watched essential workers– from nurses to wait staff— risk their lives. Then, pandemic-era conditions shrunk the labor force and made days more grueling while wages stayed the same. And now that remote work has become a norm for a large portion of the population, we’re questioning other work-related norms, too.
Social media platforms (especially professional networking sites like LinkedIn) have exposed us to messaging that tells us our entire lives must be defined by our careers and our productivity. Meanwhile, the pandemic has made the job market even harder to break into than it had already been after previous recessions. These circumstances have made many of us more apathetic toward work and convinced some Gen Z-ers to get involved in a growing antiwork movement, in which members rethink the grip the concept of work has over our lives, several choosing not to have jobs at all. But whether or not we’ve stopped working altogether, Gen Z is interested in new ways to decenter work and live a more balanced life.
WHO’S DONE IT WELL: Dating app Bumble made headlines when its CEO gave all of the company’s employees the week off during late January 2021 to recover from pandemic-related burnout. More and more companies beyond tech like Citigroup and Synchrony are offering paid sabbaticals to their employees. And Washington DC-based pizza chain &pizza has offered employees paid time off for activism, encouraging them to build a life outside of work.
This list just scratches the surface of the changes we in Gen Z want to see happen in companies and society. And there’s no way to make every issue we care about an essential part of your brand’s purpose. But pay attention to the conversations young people are having online and in the real world, and start to think about what your brand can do for the people you directly affect. And before you claim that your brand cares about something we care about, be sure that’s reflected in the way you do business. Because if your words seem empty, Gen Z won’t be shy about telling you so.