Gen Z Is Torn Between 'Conscience' and 'Commerce' When They Shop

Text that reads "Are you future shopper ready"

VMLY&R COMMERCE and Livity research helps brands bridge the Gen Z ‘value-action’ gap today, to prepare for the shopper of tomorrow 

If you think that Gen Z acts primarily on ‘brand purpose’ and ‘brand values’, new global research from WPP’s Creative Commerce company, VMLY&R COMMERCE and UK-based youth culture specialists Livity, will cause you to think again.  

The global study, shedding light on the shape and the power of the future shopper, surveyed 2,550 Gen Z in five cities worldwide – each one with fast growing economies and each with the largest Gen Z population in their home markets: Manchester, Houston, Lagos, Mumbai and, Shenzhen.    

The study discovers a distinct disconnect between commerce and conscience in the minds of this power generation, creating a conundrum for brands and retailers: The Gen Z Paradox. 

“We investigated the overall consumption attitudes, as well as buying behaviours in Fashion, Food and Technology of the now largest consumer cohort globally,” commented Debbie Ellison, VMLY&R COMMERCE Global Chief Digital Officer. “The research exposes a real paradox between how Gen Z wants to shop and how it does. Surprisingly, when it comes to what finally influences their purchase decisions, the generation is less altruistic than it likes to think it is. There is a value action gap for brands - reconciling these two very different mindsets holds the key for business growth.” 

For example, 50 percent of respondents across the five cities say they check whether a fashion brand aligns to their values before they buy. Yet research shows that Gen Z fashion purchases are driven mostly by factors including ‘being on trend’ and ‘value for money’.  

“There is a growing sense of unease amongst our future shoppers that unrestrained consumerism has led to waste across categories,” adds Livity CEO Alex Goat. “Yet Gen Z desire to buy sustainably can sometimes feel hard to achieve. Brands and businesses that help young people to live their values will ultimately win.” 

Gen Z, particularly in Manchester and Texas, are increasingly mindful of how their consumption habits impact the environment.  Within the food category, while respondents are actively looking to reduce their consumption of meat and dairy by going vegan, when it comes to key purchase drivers, ‘taste’ and ‘convenience’ score high. 

Key findings: 

The research provides six ‘survival’ tips for brands to help Gen Z “live their values” and ensure they are future shopper ready. 

1. Think ‘Value & Values’. “It’s not Conscience or Commerce,” said Ellison, “it’s both.” 

We call it ‘V2 Thinking’ - brands need to combine ‘Value’ such as quality, convenience, value for money, with ‘Values’ like caring for the environment, gender representation, racial equity and workers’ rights.  

2. Understand ‘Crush Culture’. The research reframes the popular term ‘Cancel Culture’ as ‘Crush Culture’, referencing Gen Z power to not only abandon brands that don’t align with their values but intentionally build brands that do. Seventy-five percent say they will switch from a brand that gets negative PR.  But if a brand sends the right signals on social media, this generation is all in. “It’s just like a high school crush, but for their new favorite brand”, said Ellison.  

A Gen Z’er in Houston comments: “If you’re able to convince us that you’re the best, we’re like ‘alright everyone, we’ll sell ‘em out right now!’ We’re on Twitter, we’re on Instagram waiting for your product release (and) we’re going to buy everything up, because we relate to the issues you stand for.”  

3. Stand Up for their Rights. “I want the global south to be looked after, no longer used as the world’s sweatshops and dumping grounds” comments a respondent in Manchester.  

The study finds that abuse of workers and poor working practices is the biggest reason why Gen Z would stop buying from a brand (61-71% across the various territories). As this new generation enters the workforce, they are coming of age and feeling the impact first-hand of negative working conditions.  

4. Get To Know the Neighborhood. Gen Z is not one homogenous group. The research showed that participants in some markets such as Shenzhen, Mumbai, Lagos were much earlier in the development of their value-led behaviors (80-95%) than others such as Manchester, Houston (50-55%). The latter being cautious and skeptical whether brands are ‘doing the right thing’. Yet, more advanced in consumption habits - buying more vintage, eating less meat. So, understand your Gen Z’er at a local level. 

5. Be Loud or Get Lost. As much as Gen Z said they frequently research whether a brand they’re purchasing aligns to their values, the true picture turned out to be different. “They are busy like the rest of us,” said Ellison. “Who has the time or head space to research whether every brand you buy aligns with your range of social values?” Instead, Gen Z listen to what it sees being publicly shared by brands and by peers over social – so it’s important for brands to make their purpose clear and values prominent to reach the masses and remain front of mind.  

As one respondent in Lagos commented, “If you are not visible on social media you may never be visible. It’s that or nothing.” 

6. Play the Long and Short Game. “Dismiss the Gen Z paradox at your peril,” warned Ellison. Even with social values not being the primary purchase driver right now, Gen Z across all territories felt that brand purpose is a driver of both short- and long-term gains for brands, and expect it to become more so. Brands showing up authentically, living, and communicating, values that resonate with Gen Z and delivering products conveniently at a price they can stomach will drive growth and build brand equity. 

About the Study: 

Partnering with Livity to recruit Gen Z participants, VMLY&R COMMERCE spoke with 2,550 participants across 5 markets in all five cities to include: Manchester, Houston, Shenzhen, Lagos, Mumbai. The quantitative research using VMLY&R COMMERCE’s proprietary Pathfinder tool took the form of a market research survey to 500 participants across each location. The qualitative research took the approach of 2-hour workshops with 10 participants in each territory, including creative pre-tasks completed before the workshops themselves. As well as 3 expert interviews per territory.