March 22nd was World Water Day. Like many of us, I never thought much about water before. My two Gen Z stepdaughters drink a lot of it – our cabinets are stocked with an inordinate number of water bottles and it’s their beverage of choice (which amazes me given that I grew up craving less healthy options such as Tang and Hawaiian Punch). They are also very water-conscious. My oldest stepdaughter convinced my husband to install a water saving flush on the toilet when it broke. And both girls have gotten after me for leaving the faucet running when I am washing fruit or brushing my teeth, making me much more aware of the amount of water I am consuming. I now feel extremely guilty if I am being blatantly wasteful and make efforts to avoid this.
However, in our family we all take longer showers than we need to – we have to schedule around one another in order to ensure there is enough hot water to go around. And in a family of 4 we do a lot of laundry and the dishwasher is on pretty much daily. So while we are getting better, we are moderate water conservationists at best. Conserving water doesn’t have the same feeling that other environmental practices do; I have a visceral reaction to even the idea of littering, and we recycle regularly as a matter of habit. With water, the supply can feel endless and a few extra minutes in the shower seems like more like an entitlement than wasteful. But my perspective has started to shift…
Water first came above surface level (no pun intended) in my consciousness when talking with Jason Haber about his upcoming book on social enterprise titled “The Business of Good”. In his book, he discusses the organization Charity: Water explaining both the amazing work they are doing to help increase access to clean drinking water worldwide and their unique business model that fosters transparency, allows donors to see their impact, and makes giving cool and fun. Out of curiosity I started to read more and what I learned amazed me.
Gen Z will have to face considerably more water issues than previous generations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, at the current consumption rate by 2025 – when the oldest Gen Z-ers will be just 27 – two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. Charity: Water estimates that 1 in 10 people worldwide live without access to clean water today, and the women and girls from communities without easy access lose hours daily walking to fetch water to bring back to their villages. That is time spent away from school and away from the hope of economic growth.
In addition, the water they are able to access is often dirty and disease filled. It’s estimated that diseases from water kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. Katie McCannon, a member of Gen Z, shared her own powerful story and firsthand experience last We Day of walking for water in Kenya.
Brands have begun incorporating water issues into their CSR messaging to try to connect more deeply with consumers and show a commitment to conservation – something Gen Z places a high value on. For example, Colgate ran their first Super Bowl ad ever in 2016 and instead of focusing it on their products, presented viewers with a water conservation message. The ad reminded consumers to turn off the faucet, explaining that brushing with the faucet on wastes up to 4 gallons of water – more water than many people around the world have in a week. Similarly, Stella Artois paired up with water.org in their “Buy a Lady a Drink” campaign designed to raise awareness of water issues and ultimately create economic and educational opportunities for women and girls worldwide by helping to end the need to walk for water.
And social enterprise companies are popping up to provide water conservation tools and raise awareness around global water access. One startup that recently came to my attention is Ark Labs, which is developing a home water monitoring system that contains a remote shutoff powered by artificial intelligence. Homeowners can have peace of mind knowing that if a pipe bursts while they are away, their Ark will prevent flooding and water damage until they can get it fixed. The company is also raising awareness around water sustainability on their website and offers some great tips for everyday conservation.
Water conversation is, of course, just one social problem Gen Z cares about. We can add adequate sanitation, food security, other environmental topics, and several ‘mega’ issues to the list. But our society’s changing thinking about water presents some lessons for marketers of mission-driven organizations – in just ten years it seems that our perspective has evolved from considering water a limitless resource to a precious commodity that we should exercise care to preserve. This evolving landscape suggests that we can rely on Gen Z to think about the mega issues in society in a different way. For marketers with an interest in social impact, it also demonstrates that there is a powerful opportunity to partner with Gen Z to shape public opinion and behavior related to some of the most pressing issues of our time.