Generation Z and the environmental impact of digital

Joe Hearty
Sep 22, 2019 · 4 min read
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The Business Roundtable, a lobbyist group of CEOs from America’s most powerful corporations, last month abandoned the view that maximising shareholder value should be a company’s primary objective. In their opinion, to be a brand or organisation of value you must also consider the needs of your customers, employees and your impact on or contribution to society at large. This move towards a more humane corporate culture is likely linked to similar shifts in consumer behaviour — shifts driven by a younger, more connected generation of people with a healthy appetite for positive change. Gen Z are sounding an alarm, and slowly, the world is waking up.

Despite the so called ‘attitude-behaviour’ gap (people saying one thing and doing the other), Gen Z put their money where their mouth is. They will pay a premium for products that use responsibly sourced materials and are manufactured, distributed and sold in a way that aligns with their personal ethics (https://www.buycott.com). Recycled smart-fabrics, hand-crafted clothes, chemical free cosmetics; Gen Z are shopping for a clear conscience — buying into products and services that communicate a clear and authentic purpose and cutting out those whose ideals clash with their own.

“40% of gen z has stopped purchasing or boycotted a brand because they stood for something or behaved in a way that is against their values.” — Sustainablebrands.com

Of course, making the right decision at checkout isn’t always so straightforward — luckily however, commercial ethics are not only communicated via branded advertisements and celebrity endorsements. In the physical realm, products are adorned with logos that confirm their compliance with a myriad of regulations; animal cruelty laws, energy consumption and distribution guidelines, varying degrees of recyclability…the list goes on. Within the digital sphere however, Gen Z are not afforded the same luxury and so engaging in a way that accommodates ethical aspirations becomes a challenge of unfathomable complexity and weight.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Gen Z are also famed for their insatiable appetite for technology. As shown in Mishka Kornai and Zach Wechter’s short film ‘POCKET’, social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram have a tight grip on their day-to-day. Invasive hook models, personalised content feeds and a thirst for near-constant validation has them at the behest of push notifications — without sparing a thought for the real-world impact of their interactions. But what exactly do we mean by real-world impact?

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Mishka Kornai and Zach Wechter’s short film ‘POCKET’

Firstly, the very well documented psychosocial byproducts of digital experience have been talked about and catered to for years. Digital’s effect on mental health is obvious — it’s changing the way we understand our own identities and, importantly, how we relate to one another as human beings. Encouragingly, there are signs of incremental change; the existence of Digital detox retreats, Screen Time apps, and internet-less mobile devices all point to a general shift in awareness and an interest in sustained behavioural change.

Secondly, a byproduct more difficult to quantify and rarely discussed (likely because it’s experienced in a less-direct way), is the environmental impact of Digital. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the complex infrastructures supporting many of these apps and digital services have a very negative impact on our planet — an impact actively obscured by distance. But what does this mean for Gen Z and how might they balance their penchant for Digital with the prospect of an uninhabitable planet?

Staggeringly, Snapchat announced that in 2018 an average of 3 billion snaps were sent every day. To put that into perspective; a single snap produces 0.1g of CO2 , so in just 24 hours, Snapchat generates the carbon equivalent of 1 car driving for 54 years. This is, of course, microscopic in comparison to carbon emissions generated by the aviation industry or agriculture — but it’s not nothing.

Digital product companies focused solely on their bottom line or designing only for future states of technology are failing to consider the needs of future users. If Gen Z’s proclivities are anything to go by, soon enough we’ll all demand the same degree of transparency afforded to the manufacture of physical products. Under what conditions was the digital product designed and built? Does it encourage unhealthy usage habits? How much CO2 am I unwittingly contributing to the earth’s atmosphere?

It is fair to say that quantifying environmental impact is a game of estimates and that calculating it on a feature-by-feature basis is, well, complex. However, if we are unable to determine a digital product’s impact, or at least provide regulatory guidelines for specific by-products, what hope is there for the environmentally conscious user? How might product companies begin to make better informed decisions, regarding the experiences they shape and the ways in which they build and distribute them, without the right intel?

Though seemingly inconsequential, our growing reliance on digital and the emergence of energy-heavy technologies like machine learning and crypto-mining will soon see its impact garner front page headlines. Society at large is waking up, no longer afforded the luxury of ignorance. Frustratingly, however, we are not yet equipped with the knowledge or the tools to think and act differently.

In an industry of exponentially higher resolutions, faster connections and smarter devices, how can we refocus our target and start innovating in the right ways? We, the product makers, must simplify the complexity of digital’s impact to a degree with which users can engage & act — if not for the sake of our clients, for the sake of our planet.

An edited version of this article was originally published via both Contagious Magazine and Future Vision.

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