Are Retailers As Sustainable As We Think They Are?

As Generation Z, we have grown up witnessing a worsening climate crisis. We are committed to brands and companies that prioritize sustainability. However, the brands we tend to follow and buy have varying levels of devotion to such environmental causes. While so far our growing concerns have not been heard by people in power, our generation thankfully holds the next round of eligible voters in the US. This is something many retailers are aware of, and they have begun to reshape their companies in ways that meet our increasing environmental standards – but to what extent?

Cue a pair of 17-year old girls on a three-day investigation involving brands and companies in Manhattan to figure out just how big of a role sustainability plays in buying decisions today.  In an effort to survey the retail landscape, we visited several categories in and around Midtown Manhattan, as well as e-commerce sites, and engaged with employees to learn more about each company’s efforts and their employees’ understanding of them. Some of our experiences were expected – such as our visit to Whole Foods (which we assumed to be a beacon of sustainable practices) and met our expectations. Elsewhere, there were surprises – like our visit to Zara which we assumed would live up to its “fast fashion” name, but is instead embracing sustainability and making worthwhile changes to their processes. Even e-commerce giant Amazon has made an enormous commitment to reducing it’s environmental footprint, in spite of its logistics and shipping.

In summary, we found the experience to be eyeopening and were pleased with many of the efforts we saw being made by companies in all categories. Ultimately, our generation is looking for the best quality, cheapest, and most reliable products, from companies that, in the long run, will not ruin the planet we call home.

 

Key Points

  • We do not believe that government is listening or changing fast enough to make a difference in the fate of the planet
  • So, we are increasingly more committed to brands and companies that prioritize earth-friendly efforts
  • You can’t fool us! We are savvy in our understanding of supply chain and its impact on the environment. Oh, and we can sniff out “green washing” like nobody’s business.
  • If your store’s staff believe in your product and mission, we will too. We expect them to be your ambassadors or you run the risk of losing authenticity.
  • We are willing to revisit our assumptions when a brand shows us it’s starting to do the right thing. In fact, we appreciate the efforts made even when a company hasn’t gotten there yet. You gotta start somewhere!
  • We are hopeful that ‘sustainable’ doesn’t have to mean expensive, slow or boring, and are encouraged by new efforts within e-commerce and ‘fast fashion’ to do give us both.
  • Beware! We aren’t afraid of asking questions and using social media as our go-to tool for discovery. And we are not afraid to make demands of brands to push them to live up to higher standards

 

Wholefoods

Before our investigation, we essentially believed that Whole Foods was the largest marketer of sustainability among today’s grocery stores. The extensive WholeFoods situated conveniently across from Bryant Park presented a wide customer base for us to explore.

When asked to consider his reasons for shopping at Whole Foods, one consumer, Peter (30), expressed his gratitude at being able to easily navigate and find unique products with ease. Most people responded similarly, with some variety, but sustainability had yet to be called out as a reason. We then turned to an employee at the seafood station, Kenny (28), who stated that, “I would say 25% of customers care about sustainability. The majority regardless of age or anything, just care about price.”

Despite this average, he was still willing and able to present us with a detailed account of the seafood’s sustainability. Backed by a combination of employee knowledge and Whole Foods’ offerings, we believe that the company truly cares about its global impact. As Gen Zers, we found this very interesting, and when we posed the question to our combined follower count of about 2,600 on Instagram, we discovered that 88% of our followers like Whole Foods and agree with their methods.

 

Trader Joe’s

We then proceeded to visit Trader Joe’s, where we first spoke to shopper Greg (32),about his experience. He said that the produce was some of the best in the area. cHowever, when asked if he believed the food was sustainable, he replied, “Probably not more so than other places, but it feels like it is, and that’s what matters.”

This idea began to spark a sudden understanding of the “sustainable” trend and whether or not companies live up to their promotions. We were then able to gain some insight from a store worker who explained that the company revolves heavily around the desires of its customer base. “They follow sustainability trends for the revenue and to satisfy customers, not because they actually care.”

In addition to the food category, we can also see the involvement of young people today in the world of fashion. We have come to realize that many global fashion companies profit at the expense of children and natural resources, which are exploited for cheap clothing production. As a result, many of our peers have turned to better options in the hopes of creating a more sustainable fashion industry. When asked about sustainability practices, some stores were reluctant to share their companies’ information and referred us to online sources. Others, however, had employees who proudly gave us their opinions on the very brands they worked for.

 

Zara & Urban Outfitters

Despite being one of the biggest fast fashion brands in the world, Zara has taken the initiative to reduce its environmental footprint. We learned from their Bryant Park store manager that they are working to extract themselves from the world of fast fashion. In 2015, the parent company, Inditex, released their new initiative “Join Life” for their brands and included several aspects in it ranging from its manufacturing practices to its in-store habits.

Similarly, Urban Outfitters caters to many types of customers. However, it has proven much more detrimental to the environment than brands like Zara. When asked at their 5th Avenue location whether the company’s clothing quality justifies the costs, shopper Xavier (20), responded, “For what you’re paying, I feel like the quality is definitely up there … but I feel, like, with Urban Outfitters, you’re just paying for what you get for.”

This was very telling as to how typical consumers think when they shop at a store like this. However, when an employee of the store aged 24 was asked if the clothing was worth the cost, she replied, “I typically think it’s not. Our discount we get is, like, the price people really should be paying, and we don’t even get a really big discount.” We learned that shoppers at these stores tend to have an idealized image of the brand and its production methods. However, those working there say otherwise.

We found a contrast in mentality between those working at these stores and those buying from them. As for sustainability, it comes as no surprise that the company takes no steps to reduce their carbon footprint or the possible release of harmful chemicals. As such an influential name in the fashion world, we can see how many choose to ignore Urban Outfitters’ true methods. Shoppers can easily be distracted by the current trends and remain oblivious to the environmental damage being done.

At a much higher price point, many luxury brands do not focus heavily on sustainability. Among these well-known luxury brands is Canada Goose which has garnered a lot of attention in the Northeast. With their notorious arm seals, the brand has blown up globally. Realistically, no New Yorker needs a parka to tough out the 20 minutes they are outside in sub-freezing weather. However, due to social media’s influence, the jackets have been deemed a necessity. Nevertheless, their sourcing is concerning. Coyotes and geese are killed for the use of their natural products – fur and down feathers – which have led some to label the brand as environmentally destructive. When asked in-store about the company’s manufacturing practices and promises, the Soho location’s manager gave very robotic, practiced, and unconvincing answers. Eventually, this brand may see its profits dip as customers with more environmental awareness gain more buying power and the ability to afford luxury goods.

 

The North Face & Apple

Similarly, there are outerwear brands that offer just as valuable products at a much lower price. Competitors to Canada Goose include The North Face, Columbia, and Patagonia. Notably, The North Face is known for its sustainability promise. We interviewed an employee of their 5th Ave location, Jenna, who explained that the company has a lifetime warranty on products, justifying their price point. She also said that, as a previous Peace Corps member working on environmental issues overseas, she is “really proud to work for this company… [even the] T-Shirts over there are made out of recycled bottles, [and] we also use all eco-[friendly] products. We don’t use any real fur as well -Canada Goose does! So yeah, definitely [this company is sustainable].” As a young customer, her knowledge attracted us to the brand.

Technology companies have also piqued our interest in regards to sustainable practices, and we believe they have a responsibility in terms of reducing their electronic waste. As the largest tech company in the world with its value being placed at over $1 trillion, Apple has not much competition in its field. From an environmental side, Apple has also been working hard on changing their processes to reduce the carbon output. However, Apple differs from other companies of these proportions as they take pride in their changing habits. Apple’s efforts are likely to keep attracting generation after generation, especially young customers.

 

Nintendo

Nintendo was the first gaming program a lot of children experienced growing up. Their New York City flagship store draws visitors from around the world. When Alex,15, was asked about his connection to the brand, he said, “Yeah, I would say [I’ve been a fan for a long time].” He also agreed when asked if Nintendo was sustainable. In reality, the company has made no commitments to protect the environment. Several petitions spanning over a decade have asked Nintendo to change their standards and retrieval of minerals, which only recently made a difference in the past 5 years. In a similar field but with different morals, Microsoft has had environmental consciousness at the forefront of its brand for years. They became carbon neutral in 2012, which was quite impressive for the time. As Microsoft continues to show concern for the environment, they will maintain their customer base, especially younger consumers.

Through technology comes another aspect of the Gen Z experience – social media. Frequently taken for granted, mediums such as Instagram and Snapchat are great ways to spread information to the younger generation. Instagram especially has seen an influx of awareness-spreading campaigns visible to people with just the tap of a screen. Teen petitions for different causes have skyrocketed in recent years. As the Instagram database continues to grow in the millions, celebrities and influencers are especially key in promoting products and ideas. We have been made aware of human and animal rights violations through social media, which only further push younger people to educate themselves on what is happening in various industries.

With the growth of technology comes a rising e-commerce market. However, it is widely understood that many will not get what they paid for. It is easy to deceive buyers with exaggerations and fanciful images when they cannot see and touch the product themselves. Commerce bought online is being delivered to people’s doorsteps faster and faster. This is prevalent with many companies, with the majority using trucks that give off emissions negatively contributing to the Earth’s atmosphere and the ozone layer. Before our investigation, we believed that online companies do pose a threat to the environment especially with the wastefulness of their packaging.

 

 

However, when looking at the online superstore Amazon’s website, we discovered that environmental concern is preached through their Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative to “significantly reduce the cost, time, and technical barriers associated with analyzing large datasets to generate sustainability insights.” While we previously thought Amazon was an antagonist of climate change and unsustainability, it is quite the opposite. In 2008, Amazon set out to become less wasteful with packaging and made its shipping boxes from up to 50% recycled cardboard. It later resorted to using innovative clean energy sources, such as wind turbines, to lower both production costs and climate effects. While Amazon will continue to thrive, the company needs to take another look at their transport methods if they want to maintain the growing market share of GenerationZ and Millennial consumers.

Other e-commerce retailers have taken the idea of sustainability to the next level. Loop, an e-commerce network, paints a picture of its purpose with phrases such as “your favorite brands reimagined to be waste-free.” Their mission is carried out as they are entirely modeled around sustainability, from their biodegradable Loop Totes to working to eliminate single-use plastic items to the free pick-up and recycling of products. Innovation in sustainability such as this provides proof that companies can be both green-oriented and successful. In the years to come, companies with similar business models will elicit the most interest from buyers. On a personal level,  we are likely to buy products from Loop now based on their ethics.

Overall, e-commerce markets surprised us with their levels of concern for the environment. We found these companies were more environmentally friendly than most physical walk-in stores, as they cater to the younger generation’s values and concerns. Our generation is the most likely to buy online products due to our familiarity with the internet. E-commerce will continue to grow in popularity and success among people our age, provided that they continue to innovate with alternative sustainable methods. At the end of the day, our generation is looking for the best quality, cheapest, and most reliable products across the board and companies that, in the long run, will not ruin the planet we call home.

Authors:
Anais Preller
Anais Preller
Maya Gardner
Mayer Gardner