How Gen Z Is Shaping Sustainable Luxury

In 2020 Gen Z’s influence on fashion exploded. As brands race to capture their attention, Alden Wicker dives into just how important sustainability is to the youngest shopping generation and the impact it’s having on the future of luxury.

It seems counterintuitive that Generation Z would have such a huge impact on luxury fashion. After all, this is a cohort that is 25 years old at the most. Are they really spending enough at Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo to have an influence over these brands? 

Well, yeah, actually. Half of Gen Z in the UK bought a luxury product in the 18 months leading up to mid-2019. And according to Business of Fashion, by 2025 Gen Z members and Millennials will together claim 45 percent of the luxury market. 

But it was 2020 where the Gen Z influence exploded. The first generation to grow up on digital platforms, they dominated our collective transition to consuming our media digitally. They get their fashion inspiration from a wide variety of places, from their friends to micro-influencers on Instagram and goofy Tiktok stars, and progressive activists and politicians. And they’re influencing Millennials, whose concerns about climate change and racism in turn have deepened.

Photo by Elice Moore

A 2017 Futurecast report said that 60% of Gen Z members say they will support brands that take a stand on social causes such as human rights and inclusion. A 2019 Facebook study found that 68% of Gen Z-ers “expect brands to contribute to society,” while a McKinsey report from the same year said that nine in ten “believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues.” 

Transparency has now become de rigueur for brands that want to appeal to the youngest shopping generation. “The second something doesn’t match with what you’re saying, you’re going to be skewered for it,” McKinsey associate Emma Spagnuolo said on an August 2020 McKinsey podcast. “You can’t talk about sustainability if you’re not doing sustainable practices. Things that in the past you could hide by selecting and choosing what you wanted to show to the public—today everything is fair game.” 

Photograph by Phil Oh

Transparency has now become de rigueur for brands that want to appeal to the youngest shopping generation.”

And Generation Z does have strong opinions about sustainability. They’re the creators of Extinction Rebellion, the movement to treat climate change like the existential crisis it is and which has been staging disruptive protests at fashion weeks in London and New York, holding signs that said, “Repair Rewear Rebel.” 

As a result high-end brands are finally coming around to acknowledging consumers’ rights to “Repair” and “Rewear.” Kering recently invested in the resale site Vestiaire Collective and Alexander McQueen partnered with the platform to take back its customers’ old products and authenticate them for sale. The august luxury department store Neiman Marcus has a stake in the luxury pre-owned handbag retailer Fashionfile, and has given it space inside a half dozen stores, with plans to expand to at least ten more. The retailer has special online sections for sustainable brands, and has tasked a team of three with identifying and rolling out more initiatives around earth-conscious fashion. 

Farfetch says sales of its “conscious” brands have grown 3.4 times faster than the rest of its marketplace. Many of its customers searched for animal-free products, but by far the most enticing aspect for Farfetch customers was the quality and durability of products. And that is an aspect of sustainable fashion that really provides value for this generation, who justifies a high-priced purchase by citing its quality and longevity… and resale value. 

Farfetch’s sales of its “conscious” brands have grown 3.4 times faster than the rest of its marketplace.

Photo courtesy of Farfetch

Another aspect of sustainability younger shoppers are concerned about is waste. Nordstrom, the Seattle-based department store, recently partnered with the textile upcycling organization Fabscrap, which collects unused textiles from fashion brands. Along with funding Fabscrap’s brand portal to measure the impact of diverting textiles from the landfill, Nordstrom will allow customers to add on $1 to their purchase to support the organization through the end of April.

LVMH, which includes the brands Louis Vuitton and Dior, incubated a startup that launched the Monday after Earth Week called Nona Source. It sells leftover material from luxury brands, like lambskin, silk, and viscose jacquard. And the conglomerate is building a direct connection with Gen Z tastemakers through its support for sustainable design courses at the prestigious London fashion school Central Saint Martins. 

 When Generation Z goes shopping for luxury, they’re not looking to pick up a logoed It Bag that you can find at the local mall. They want something unique that has clearly stated values. One way to fulfill Gen Z’s expectations is by providing upcycled pieces. The luxury resale site The RealReal now has a collection of designer upcycled pieces that can’t be found anywhere else. 

Gabriela Hearst makes her debut for Chloé at Paris Fashion Week. Autumn/winter 2021 collection.

Another thing that luxury brands are now doing to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability is committing to using more sustainable materials across collections. Prada announced in 2020 that all its trademark nylon will be composed of 100 percent recycled materials by 2021. Gabriela Hearst’s first collection for the feminine brand Chloé featured recycled cashmere, fair trade production, and upcycling. 

Salvatore Ferragamo launched a new microsite this year called Sustainable Thinking, “created to host, cultivate and amplify discussions about sustainability, inclusivity and community support.” The website showcases the brands various commitments to diversity and climate goals, along with highlighting new products made with more sustainable materials, like the Responsible Viva ballet flat, made with recycled polyester and cotton, certified responsible viscose, and natural rubber and bio-based plastic. 

One big thing that Gen Z has very different opinions on from that of their grandparents is fur and animal rights. The mink coat is sliding into obscurity, as luxury houses in Europe one by one ban fur from their collections. Stella McCartney has made sustainable and cruelty-free fashion a core part of her brand since its first fur-free runway collection in 2001. And she continues to pioneer the form with her support of innovative bio-materials, such as mushroom leather and lab-grown silk, both by the startup Bolt Threads. Hermès is working with Mycoworks to produce its classic Victoria bag in mushroom leather by the end of the year. 

Central Saint Martins student Benjamin Benmoyal features hand-woven tape from discarded video and cassettes in his latest collection.

But it’s authentic, holistic sustainability that seems to be paying off the most. Kering, for example, has been transparent about reporting on its impact through its Environmental Profit & Loss reports (EP&L). Gucci, the Kering brand that dove most enthusiastically into sustainability over the past decade, led the conglomerate to a healthy rebound in revenue after the pandemic. 

One thing is clear: Generation Z is redefining what luxury means for a new century. Luxury brands that hew to this ethos of care for the planet and animals, who create quality products that can be repaired and resold, who provide a transparent measure of their impact and commit to shrink it, and who invest in innovative technology around sustainability, will not only survive, but thrive in this transition.