Sustainability & Tech: Where Resale is Going Next

Gen Z are big advocates of sustainability. It’s why they hate fast fashion - and sustainable tech will be the next big thing on their agenda.
Fanbytes | Sustainability and tech resale

In 30 seconds:

  • Gen Zers are big proponents of ethical consumption. They care about the environmental impact of their buying habits, and they want to make sustainable choices.
  • Recently times have seen a strong focus on battling the fast fashion industry. But is that the only enemy of sustainability?
  • For this generation of digital natives, fast tech represents a huge barrier to living green. Will it be the next thing on their radar?

Sustainability. For Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2010), it’s far more than simply a buzzword or trend; it’s a lifeline. 

Gen Z has grown up well aware of the looming threat presented by climate change. A 2021 Pew Research report found that Gen Z is overwhelmingly worried about climate change, with 76% saying it’s one of their biggest societal concerns, and 36% ranking it as their most grave concern about the future. 

In fact, in a survey conducted by the University of Bath, 71% of young people described their future as “frightening”. 

This hyper-awareness and fear for the global climate manifests in Gen Z’s diet, their shopping habits, and their expectations for the brands they support. Fanbytes’ own research into sustainability conversations amongst Gen Z illustrate this, along with this group’s strong desire to learn and educate their peers around sustainable practices on social media.

But the subjects we saw covered also illustrate a new area to explore: sustainable tech.

Gen Z and sustainable tech

Tech resale company Back Market came to Fanbytes with the aim of educating Gen Z about the ethical consumption of technology.

It’s a natural fit. Gen Z are known to support brands that evince sustainable practices, and companies that empower Gen Z themselves to act more sustainably are destined to be even more popular. Research has found that Gen Z consumers expect brands to “take a stand” on sustainability, and nine in ten Generation Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental issues. 

Additionally – and most notably for a group nicknamed the “money-saving generation” –  Gen Z is willing to spend 10% more on sustainable products. 

It’s this focus on individual choices that marks this generation as different. Whereas older groups perhaps saw the responsibility of tackling climate change resting on large corporations and governments (with a sprinkling of individual responsibility for recycling), Gen Z are more accustomed to taking matters into their own hands, through their purchases.

Could this extend to purchasing sustainable tech?

Fanbytes Brand Partnerships Manager Lola Randles thinks so.We are a generation who are digital- and tech-savvy, so we are definitely the ones going to be first-movers in tech conversations and habits.” Purchasing tech sustainably is currently an area that’s not fully understood by the general public, but if any group is going to embrace this new behaviour, it will be Gen Z.

Currently, however, conversations around sustainability amongst Gen Z online overwhelmingly follow a different path.

Fast fashion vs. fast tech

From Fanbytes’ own research into online discussions around sustainability amongst Gen Z, we could see that ‘fast fashion’ over-indexes by a considerable degree.

This is, perhaps, unsurprising. The social and environmental pitfalls of fast fashion are widely reported, so young consumers, armed with this knowledge, are increasingly turning to more sustainable alternatives. 70% of 16-19-year-olds say that sustainability is an important factor when purchasing fashion items, while the rise of resale fashion apps like Depop can be attributed to Gen Zers altering their habits to shop secondhand.

Naturally, they’re also talking about it on social media. In fact, on TikTok alone, hashtags #StopFastFashion and #FastFashionSucks both have over 20 million views and counting. This generation aren’t just protesting with their wallets: they are using their digital fluency to create a groundswell of online activism; sharing data about the wastefulness of the industry alongside tips on everything from thrifting to sustainable brands to support.

Fast tech, on the other hand, is less understood. There is a considerable lack of clarity and education around the environmental and social impact of wasteful tech; both in the production and purchasing of new items, but also in the disposal (or lack thereof) of older gadgets. 

In addition, Fanbytes’ Lola explains,“ there’s a common misconception that if you buy tech secondhand, it’s probably going to break, there’s a slim chance you’ll get a guarantee, and there isn’t much value or range available. But that’s a misconception.”

Sustainability has become such a buzzword in fashion that the discussion can feel saturated, but the motivation to act sustainably is still there for Gen Z – and it’s powerful. Lola continues, “People are having a conversation about the damage that buying clothes first-hand generates, and how much better you’re doing if you are buying second hand. 

“So, we wanted to turn that conversation into something about tech as well. Not to take away from it, but to position tech in a way that it’s just as spoken about.” 

Sustainable tech: what’s the truth?

In the past, “sustainable technology” mostly referred to new advancements for lessening our dependence on fossil fuels – such as solar or wind power tech – but as Gen Z views sustainability through a more personal lens, individual tech-buying habits are due to come under scrutiny. 

To Gen Z, “Sustainable tech” can and should also look like sustainably accessed tech and sustainably disposed of tech. 

The planned obsolescence programmed into many digital products means that there is a cultural norm in the high turnover rate of purchasing new tech products – and a widespread high degree of tech waste. This cycle understandably has a huge impact on the environment, but it’s one that is currently shrouded in mystery. 

“The waste in buying a new laptop or throwing away an old phone – fast fashion pales in comparison,” says Fanbytes Creative Strategy Director, Tom Sweeney. So far, fast tech has benefitted from an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality. After all, when it comes to the materials needed to produce the tech, he points out, “It’s totally opaque.” 

But, he says, for every new phone, laptop and battery, “There is a person digging up the ground, getting toxic chemicals out.”

Fanbytes’ work with Back Market is spreading the message of the environmental impact of fast tech amongst Gen Z, in content and data that they’re excited to share. Fanbytes’ Lola explains, “a great example is, 83,000 litres of water are needed to produce a single smartphone. Maybe people can’t picture what that looks like – but then we also let people know that a pair of jeans only takes 7,500 litres of water to produce.”

Gen Z’s eco-anxiety is currently at odds with their digital nature. Until now, there hasn’t been a focus on the rate at which tech is replaced, or the ways old tech is disposed of (or not). Back Market and Fanbytes’ work is to make available the information, in order to kick-start Gen Z conversations around a fresh topic in sustainability – and open their eyes to more sustainable tech choices.

Tech Resale: The new buzzword?

The present lack of education around fast tech may explain the current landscape of sustainable conversations online, but it certainly doesn’t preclude it from becoming the Next Big Subject at the forefront of Gen Z’s concerns around sustainability.

In fact, as Fanbytes Creative Strategist Bean Urquhart notes, this general lack of knowledge actually presents additional motivation: “Gen Z loves being the first to something, especially when it’s ‘woke’ knowledge.”

“I know me and my mates do it. It’s kind of like ‘cancel culture’, but on the flip. You want to be the first person to access new knowledge” she continues. “There’s a massive opportunity to educate people on something they clearly already care about, but it’s a specific niche within sustainability that they don’t necessarily know about.”

Gen Z loves to educate themselves, especially on environmental matters. They’ve been dubbed a “generation of researchers” based on the exact behavioural patterns Bean describes. Furthermore, Gen Z are more motivated to share their findings online. As we explained in our article on Gen Z activism, the egalitarian nature powering the algorithm of Gen Z’s favourite app, TikTok (where any engaging content can ‘go viral’), means this generation are even more encouraged to shed a light on new subjects that capture their peers’ interest.

But speaking out on sustainable tech ticks more than this box for Gen Z. It also enables them to access the products they are already using in a more sustainable way, and helps them save money. As Bean notes, “It’s actually perfect for a Gen Z audience because it gives you what you would normally want to do, which is buying the phone, potentially for cheaper. But we can feel better about it and tell our mates with pride because maybe we’ve saved the planet a little bit.”

Capturing Gen Z’s imagination

In our article on Gen Z activism, we discussed how brands and companies must move from a modus operandi of “keeping up” with the ethical demands of Gen Z, to leading the way in activist conversations.

Sustainable tech follows the same logic. The reason Fanbytes sees this subject striking a chord with Gen Z is because engaging with this enables them to improve the climate impact of their current habits, but it also opens up the possibility of more conversations around e-waste, consumer responsibilities, and even cultural bias.

The current lack of education around how to recycle tech has meant that even people who have taken steps to hand in their old devices may unknowingly contribute to e-waste in the global south. Many corporations have gotten away with sending “recycled” tech to become another country’s problem: it’s harvested for scraps, before being sent to landfills.

Education on the potential circularity of tech, on the other hand, can present an opportunity to inspire Gen Z – and help communities in meaningful ways.

A fantastic example of this is REFEO (Refugee Education for Equal Employment Opportunities). This London-based not-for-profit supports refugees and asylum seekers, and part of their efforts include giving second-hand laptops, tablets and phones to those who need them for university, college or work.

REFEO Founder and Chairperson Mariam Diakite says “Accessing tech is crucial for refugees and asylum seekers. They already face several barriers and when they don’t have a laptop, they are automatically excluded from certain spaces. They can’t study online for training or university, they can’t work on their CVs or apply for jobs, there are many things they can’t do. 

“Getting a laptop has changed their lives – and this is not an overstatement.”

What about the subject of cultural bias? We foresee conversations amongst Gen Z that ask whether the current major focus of sustainability on fast fashion is a little suspect. There’s no denying that fast fashion brands are marketed mostly towards women. But this marketing is trivialised and therefore all-the-more easily vilified, which ultimately – and unfairly – frames sustainable shopping as a gendered issue. This is something Gen Z are likely to want to confront. 

As Fanbytes’ Bean notes, “We are a very guilty generation, because of ‘cancel culture’ and because there’s always something you could do better.” She adds, “Gen Zs are all looking to feel less guilty about their living experiences, and what they’re buying and putting out to the world.” This is exactly what is offered by sustainable tech and tech resale.

The sustainable choice

As digital natives, Gen Z’s choices around technologies and digital behaviours often herald wider changes within society at large. When they turn their attention to sustainable tech and tech resale, it’s likely to become a trend with as much staying power as the battle against fast fashion. 

Evidence suggests that the time is right. After all, the topic of sustainability is consistently trending across social media platforms, and this generation of activists is unlikely to stop battling for the planet any time soon – or accept that the war for sustainable shopping should target only fashion brands. 

As the discussion surrounding sustainability is reframed to encompass the waste and pollution generated by an industry reliant on planned obsolescence and constant upgrades, we can expect to see Gen Zers leveraging their anti-fast fashion views at the tech industry, and making the most of the tech resale platforms designed to help them fight it. 

Want to learn more about REFEO, or our predictions for Gen Z behaviours? We have further insights available here:

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