My business career has always revolved around anticipating consumer trends, whether it was the rise of yoga at Lululemon or aerobics (which allowed us to take the small yoga apparel business to a billion-dollar international public enterprise during my tenure from 2005 to 2008), or running and tennis at Reebok in the 1990s (where we grew sales from $13 million to $3.5 billion in sales). I find shifts in consumer behavior intriguing–because they are going to happen with or without me.
The issues around sustainability and overconsumption of single-use plastics were first introduced to me by my family after I left my role at Lululemon. My wife’s daughter is incredibly passionate about this space. In the past few years, she has opened my eyes to the magnitude of environmental issues that future generations will face.
Thinking back to my time at Lululemon, I began recognizing how the high volume of single-use plastic waste generated by consumer brands negatively impacts the planet over time. One example is the plastic bags used to cover garments during shipping at Lululemon. These bags served no purpose other than to keep dust off the apparel during shipping–and were ultimately discarded upon arrival to the stores. Unfortunately, this is a universal story, as almost every major retailer rely on single-use plastic bags, containers, and other disposable items as a key part of their supply chain.
As global leaders continue negotiations around the future of plastics in Paris this month, it’s an important moment in time to discuss what it will take to see action and address the barriers business leaders face. It’s more important now than ever to give credence to the unwavering demands of younger generations and shift our perspective on what we can do to change the status quo.
Reframing our understanding of consumer expectations
As a generation coming of age in the midst of a global pandemic and climate crisis, Gen Z has emerged as a demographic that is deeply committed to principles such as sustainability and social responsibility. These digital natives are the most sophisticated and critical generation of consumers to date. They are also the most diverse generation, according to Pew Research.
Gen Zers are reshaping the market by insisting on working at, buying from, and engaging with businesses that place sustainability at the forefront of their operations. An inherently skeptical group, Gen Zers are sensitive to inauthentic brand messaging. Data from McKinsey shows that 88% are doubtful of businesses’ eco-friendly claims.
Reflecting on my background in the sports industry, where consumer desires shape product development, I see parallels between the demands of Gen Z and the expectations from athletes and consumers we worked with at Reebok. Just as athletes sought improved performance, injury reduction, and customized experiences, today’s consumers, especially Gen Z, demand more than incremental product improvements when it comes to issues like single-use plastics.
A similar paradigm shift happened during my tenure at Reebok, when we introduced the Pump shoe, which incorporated a valve that was initially developed for NASA spacecraft. This was not a marketing gimmick: It took considerable time, effort, and investment from all parties involved to find a solution for the perfect pump, but it was well worth it. We listened to the voices of the generation who were saying: We don’t want the next iteration on an existing product, we want something new that fits our values.
Going against the status quo
Gen Z gravitates toward brands that make sustainability central to how they do business. They will not hesitate to call out a company publicly or stop buying its products if they perceive a lack of authenticity.
An overarching issue in the conversation around single-use plastics is the ecosystem the industry is built on. This includes the resources, infrastructure, and factory setups–all centered on providing cheap, single-use items that generate profit at scale.
The good news is there are brands and institutions tackling the issue of single-use plastics. With formal discussions around plastic pollution currently being held at the UN’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, it is clear global leaders are responding to the challenge. Companies like Better for All (Geosphere), Sun and Swell, VEJA, Kaneka BioPolymers, and Blueland (an eco-friendly kitchen cleaning tablet from which customers dissolve in water to avoid single-use cleaning products) aim to change the game for single-use plastics.
By addressing Gen Z’s environmental concerns, businesses, and governments are not just driving change, they are inspiring a shift in consumer behavior towards more conscious and responsible choices.
The consumer shift towards sustainability and away from harmful single-use plastics is imminent. Business leaders can either respond to it or be left behind. In fact, my own transition as a business executive from sports and fitness into sustainability was a natural progression dictated by evolving consumer expectations.
Gen Zers, armed with their influence over older and younger generations alike, are compelling us to imagine a world where sustainability isn’t just an afterthought but a fundamental aspect of design. Just as with Reebok’s Pump shoe integrating NASA’s valve, the resources to meet these demands do exist. The onus is on society to harness them effectively.
Bob Meers is the CEO of Geosphere LLC (Better for All). Meers previously served as CEO of Lululemon Athletica, Inc., president and CEO of Syratech Corp, and president and CEO of Reebok International.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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