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You decide — should Gen-Z demand 100% sustainable businesses?

Research shows Gen-Z wants corporate transparency above anything else. But what does it take to be 100% sustainable and fair trade, and is it fair to pressure companies to obtain both?

‘The term sustainability gets used — and abused — a lot,’ says Richard Turner, founder of Ombar, an organic vegan chocolate company that prides itself in being ethical.

While Ombar is plant-based and has just applied to be a Certified B Corporation, he prefers not to claim to be 100% sustainable. ‘I’m not sure how meaningful that really is,’ he explains.

Sustainability has floated to the top of most companies’ agendas. Though it’s not always necessarily achieved successfully, it’s a quality that is now expected by young consumers.

Ombar has been making everything plant-based since it was founded in 2007. It even tracks carbon emissions and plans to offset anything unavoidable. But the owner thinks that the carbon-neutral model is sometimes ‘oversimplified’.

YouGov surveyed 10,000 Gen Zers in Europe earlier this year and found that almost 80% feel it’s ‘become more important for companies to behave sustainably’.

Green Match additionally discovered that 40% of Gen Zers have started boycotting a brand because it stood for something or behaved in a way that was against their values. It also revealed that 72% of Gen Zers are willing to spend more money on sustainably produced goods and services.

‘As we’re in the midst of a climate crisis, more and more people are demanding businesses to use sustainable processes,’ says Michael Raphel, co-founder of Holee Cowless. ‘And rightfully so.’

The takeaway restaurant in Cheltenham is ‘helping to tear down the stereotype that vegans only eat rabbit food’, and co-founder Raphel believes transparency is the best way to grow and attract a loyal following.

His company is starting a zero-landfill initiative by planting a tree for every food delivery made, which will offset carbon emissions. While it too is yet to become B Corp, it recently started supporting two local charities: the Leukaemia and Intensive Chemotherapy Fund in Cheltenham and Sobell House, in Oxfordshire.

‘As consumers, we live most of our lives in the dark,’ says Rosey Hocknell, designer and founder of swim and activewear brand WeAreNativ.

‘We need to acknowledge our flaws so that we can work on them.’ The luxury brand works with an ethical factory in Bali, plants 10 trees for every garment sold, and is creating an inclusive environment so its customers have a healthy relationship with themselves and the planet.

The line is created from 100% ECONYL® yarn, which is nylon regenerated from ghost fishing nets from the sea, carpet fluff, plastic bottles and more.

All three brands are relatively small and yet the owners all claim that they are doing everything in their power to stand by their values and meet Gen Zers’ demands: 100% sustainability and inclusivity. But not every company is striving for the same. Perhaps because it’s more complicated than it might seem.

Ombar is working on a new project to collaborate with an environmental NGO in Ecuador to help reforest and protect the rainforest that has been lost. But Turner says it won’t be easy to measure the number of emissions it offsets.

He underlines the main issues within the chocolate industry. ‘85% of forests in the Ivory Coast have been lost since 1990,’ he says. ‘A major driver for this is that cocoa farmers continue to live in poverty in West African countries, where 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from.’

He adds that another symptom of this poverty is child slavery.

One company that came into the spotlight this spring was Nestlé. While it successfully launched its first vegan KitKat bar, much of the plant-based community has voted to boycott the product due to Nestlé’s history of questionable practices.

In 2020, for example, the company decided to cut ties between KitKat and Fairtrade, which Fairtrade deemed as ‘profoundly disappointing’.

Raphel says he supports big companies who decide to launch plant-based products. But, if this is done unsustainably, ‘it kind of misses the point’.

Pressure to guarantee full sustainability is piling up on big corporates like Nestlé, and this has given way to a stark rise in greenwashing. Although this summer will see a set of new guidelines put in place across Europe to avoid misleading customers, giants such as Nestlé may escape any mandatory rules.

Regarding the vegan KitKat launch, Hocknell acknowledges its benefits but says it could be seen as a PR stunt. ‘Which can be dangerous,’ she says. ‘Because it gives consumers a false idea of how the company operates.’

But she says owning a fully sustainable business — for the planet and people — is a challenge.

‘As a brand, you’re creating something that leaves your control and is placed in the hands of the customer,’ she explains. ‘The customer is responsible for caring for that piece of clothing and for disposing of it sustainably.’ This is almost impossible to monitor.

Ombar’s Turner agrees that ultimately, it’s up to consumers to decide how they spend their money. But the brand does monitor as much as it can, especially throughout its supply chain. Its cocoa supply chain manager, Paola, lives in Ecuador and liaises with farmers from whom Ombar purchases its cocoa directly.

Sizing up is also something companies have to consider. As they expand overseas, it can become increasingly difficult for chains to be monitored, but Turner says if the business model is created with genuine principles from the beginning, it can be done. ‘I think a lot of it comes down to a willingness to invest in doing things differently,’ he says.

The demand is there. In 2019, Trade Fair, Live Fair surveyed 5,000 consumers across Europe and found that 84% buy products based on global poverty and 77% on gender inequality.

So why aren’t more companies going in the same direction as Ombar?

‘It may seem easy but I think running a business is pretty tough, particularly when you’re a smaller operation,’ he continues.

When you’re smaller, costs are usually higher too. WeAreNativ and Holee Cowless are both emerging brands, and obtaining the B Corp Certification as well as becoming carbon neutral are things that they are striving for, but it will take time.

And how do we get customers to pay more for their products? When it comes to chocolate, Turner says: ‘This is a tricky one.’

Over time, he describes the way our palettes have adapted to ‘what we think chocolate is’, which is often a cheap product. ‘There’s no way this should be the case; it’s often cheaper than a bag of crisps made with potatoes grown up the road.’

Cheap chocolate is linked to huge poverty in cocoa-growing countries, with farmers living on less than one dollar a day. He knows that there is a market full of people prepared to pay a bit more for an ethical product. ‘But it has to be convenient,’ he says.

Thus, it comes down to companies trusting their customers and whether they’re willing to take the risk.

Being ethical and sustainable are values that Turner deems personally important to him. ‘Maybe some other companies don’t feel the same way, or are pushing ethics and sustainability with an ulterior motive,’ he says. ‘[But] it’s a no brainer for us.’