Ex-Lululemon CEO: Gen Zers want sustainably made products. Firms should take heed


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As I’ve written before, anticipating consumer trends—knowing full well they’ll happen with or without me—has been a key part of my career. Whether it’s the rise of yoga embodied by Lululemon, the popularity of aerobics in the 1980s, or the peak of running and tennis performance when I led Reebok, consumer shifts fascinate me because they often stem directly from cultural changes. Through the lens of sustainability and innovation, such shifts provide valuable lessons when addressing today’s urgent global challenges.

The profound insights from the 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, were introduced to me by Raegan Kelly, Head of Product and Sustainability (and a fellow founding member) of Better for All, a California-based company that sells compostable bioplastic cups to college campuses and music festivals across the U.S.

The book further shaped my understanding of sustainable production. McDonough and Braungart advocate that everything can be a resource for something else—in other words, no waste. By designing products from the outset with biodegradable or perpetually recyclable materials, we don’t just minimize but can potentially eliminate waste. The book describes how in nature nothing goes to waste: What one system discards, another uses as sustenance. Everything can be engineered to either break down and nourish the soil as biological nutrients or be repurposed into high-quality materials—known as technical nutrients—for new products, without causing pollution.

When I led Lululemon, we revalued fabric remnants discarded in manufacturing, using them to design a series of headbands. Unfortunately, companies often refuse to spend even minimal amounts to eliminate waste—and cost—even though the changes would benefit both their businesses and their customers in the long term. This resistance persists despite the potential to address waste that amounts to billions of dollars in unnecessary costs annually.

Addressing a widely accepted inconvenience

Throughout my career I have never worked in a silo, but always found innovation came as a consequence of working with talented, open-minded individuals who view change as an opportunity—not something to run from. At Reebok, working alongside such a team on the Pump shoe led to a radical rethinking of what footwear could offer. The accepted inconvenience in athletic shoes at the time was that a size 7 shoe did not automatically fit all size 7 feet. The Pump, designed to give custom fit, support, and protection, addressed this dilemma. The innovation is now used in medical splints and braces.

Just as dissatisfaction with traditional shoes led to the Pump, today’s discontent with environmental degradation drives demand for more sustainable practices. Gen Z, both highly influential and deeply committed to sustainability, leads the charge. Among Gen Z consumers in the U.K., saying no to single-use plastics is the most common sustainable lifestyle change, a Deloitte survey found. More than 60% of this demographic has reduced their use of single-use plastics, according to the World Economic Forum. They want more than incremental changes—they demand an overhaul in the creation, use, and disposal of products.

Closing the gap between innovation and thoughtful product design

The philosophy of addressing what was previously accepted as “just the way things are” can lead to groundbreaking advancements in any field. Today, it’s crucial in the development of sustainable materials and manufacturing processes.

Current advancements in biomaterials like PHA, PHBH, and PEF showcase potential alternatives to conventional petroleum-derived plastics, capable of supporting everything from reuse systems to composting and recycling, and potentially presenting significant waste management savings. Projects like Notpla, Incredible Eats, Better for All, and Patagonia’s Worn Wear embrace alternative materials and processes to create products and packaging, making sustainability the business-mission focus.

Resource stewardship and product design

Thinking of design from an “end-first” perspective involves reverse-engineering the lifecycle of products to minimize waste from the outset. This stewardship mindset encourages us to act as guardians of resources rather than just devourers. Brands adopting this approach not only reduce their environmental footprint but also position themselves to be leaders in sustainable innovation.

An end-first or circular design strategy involves a fundamental shift in how we conceive of and manufacture goods. By focusing on the entire lifecycle of a product, business stakeholders become stewards of resources rather than procurers or vendors. Organizations can offer more environmentally friendly products and model a better way to design and manufacture goods.

Such transformations in design philosophy and production processes don’t merely benefit us today—the long-term health of the planet and future generations depend on them. They also respond directly to the demands of consumers, especially the influential Gen Z.

A call to action for modern manufacturing

The path forward requires creativity, commitment, and global collaboration across all sectors to reimagine traditional practices and embrace sustainable alternatives. We can achieve not only a drastic reduction in waste but a transformation in how goods are produced, consumed, and reprocessed into new materials and products, aligning brands with planet-sustaining goals.

The journey toward zero-waste manufacturing and circular design is not just an option but a necessity for a thriving future. The brands and manufacturers that step up to the challenge will be the ones that rise above the competition.

Bob Meers is a founding member of Better for All. He previously served as CEO of Lululemon Athletica, president and CEO of Syratech, 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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