How brand choices become radically hopeful acts for young consumers

—Shopping has become a political act, and Gen Z customers are increasingly making themselves heard by how they spend their dollars, says Toronto writer Jane Aster Roe—

I’ve never had to purchase a mattress for myself, but when that day inevitably arrives, I already know I’ll be buying a Casper. Why? Because I spend large portions of my day listening to podcasts, and my favourite podcasters all advertise for Casper.

The parasocial relationships I’ve developed with the people behind my most listened-to podcasts means I want to support them by buying what they advertise. And, more importantly, I trust them.

Specifically, I trust their value system. I trust that they won’t advertise for companies with immoral policies. I trust their recommendations are for companies that pay their employees living wages, and have environmental policies that, if not working to prevent the impending disasters of climate change, at least don’t actively contribute to them.

This has been on my mind a lot over the past few months, as I’ve started working full-time as an audio producer and writer. What does ethical advertising look like? And how do I fit into this world?

I was born six months before 9/11. I grew up with the internet, and came of age as companies began to figure out the value in advertising via social media and influencers. I’m firmly planted in Generation Z, or the iGen.

Growing up with the internet has meant my generation is more aware, at a much younger age, of all that is happening in the world. We’re deeply frustrated by interlocking systems that reinforce white supremacy, the patriarchy and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.

We’re keenly aware that the planet is dying and that it’s our responsibility to fix it. We’re also aware that we can’t avoid living in the systems we resist.

So we seek out brands that seem to have souls. Brands that make us feel like we’re not contributing to the systems we want to dismantle. Brands that make their products out of recycled plastic water bottles, and support the LGBTQ and BIPOC community—not just during Pride Month, and not just after a man is brutally and publicly murdered by the police.

In the past three months, I’ve made 13 purchases because of an Instagram ad. Instagram ads work ridiculously well on my friends and me. And I know it’s because my phone is “always listening.” I know that the tradeoff of social media and living a life partially online is a loss of privacy. But that doesn’t bother me or my peers nearly as much as it appears to bother the generations above us.

I made 13 purchases because of Instagram ads because Instagram showed me what I wanted to see: Ethical and sustainable brands that are cost-efficient and meet a need in my life. Brands like Thinx period underwear, or Who Gives a Crap, a subscription toilet paper company that makes its products out of bamboo and donates 50% of its profits to build toilets in communities that need them.

As Stephie Grob Plante said in a 2019 Vox article, “shopping has become a political act.” The left-leaning segment of my generation is aware that capitalism in North America is an inescapable inevitability, and so we try our best to make our dollars speak loudly, using our power as consumers to point companies towards our values.

Brands that are looking to attract young people know this, and tend to emphasize their commitment to combating climate change, treating their employees with dignity and respect, and making a positive impact on their customers’ lives.

Of course, in an imperfect system, there’s no way to shop completely cleanly. My backpack, made out of recycled plastic water bottles by a small, Indigenous-owned company, had to be shipped to me on a plane from Vancouver.

And with all the incredible community mobilizing and education that social media and podcasts provide, it also has the power to spread dangerous misinformation and hate. While I may not care that my phone is always listening to me, I do care that the internet is splitting open the political centre and pulling people further left or right.

Coming out of a pandemic, we seem to be collectively burnt out by online school, working front-line jobs for minimum wage, and both the absence, and then sudden resurgence, of real, social interaction.

Whether or not Gen Z is addicted to their phones and how big of a problem that addiction poses is a debate for another publication, at another time. The point is, as we pull out our phones continually and habitually throughout the day, advertisements are layered amidst the political education slides, hilarious TikTok videos, and true crime podcasts.

I don’t know whether brands are appealing to young people’s desire to be conscious consumers, or our desire to be conscious consumers is shaping brand’s policies, but whichever it is, I’m going to keep trying to make noise with my dollar.

We are continually pummelled with bad news, and exhausted by the knowledge we have little to no power as individuals to change the systems we hate. Buying my reusable paper towel because of a podcast ad from a small, Black, female-owned business makes me feel like I’m doing something to point the world in a more positive direction. And that feels like a radically hopeful act.

Jane Aster Roe is a multimedia writer, producer and storyteller based in Toronto. She is passionate about storytelling as a form of radical empathy and strongly believes in the power of art and media as a vehicle for societal change.