When it comes to climate, each generation represents a different stage of grief.
In the 1960s, we ignored the signs of climate change and went ahead with great energy. In the 1970s and 1980s, anger began to mount. Some scientists, such as physicist Carl Sagan, raised red flags around the changing climate, while others, like John Mason, head of the UK Met Office, tried to dismiss “alarmist US views”. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies began investing in PR campaigns to raise doubts about the climate crisis, a trend that continued well into the 1990s.
The 2000s saw a depressive state of grief. The science was undeniable and when many people began to take action, climate fear arose – some psychologists say a major obstacle to taking action.
Enter Gen-Z. If you’ve spent much time on Echo TikTok, you’ll know that they are exceptionally good at dispelling climate fears and spreading climate optimism – perhaps this is the acceptance stage of grief. We spoke with some of them to find out more.
Colin Donaldson, 26, has been picking up trash from Florida beaches every day for more than 700 days
Trash Colin (real name Colin Donaldson) grew up in Tampa Bay, Florida, and has always loved the ocean. But the behavior of some people angered him. “People would come up to me and they’d say, ‘This is my favorite beach in the world’, and then I’d see them leave all their trash in the sand.”
“I was really crazy about it. So I went to my first beach cleanup and the dude was like, ‘Brother, we’re all crazy, but you have to fight it with positivity.’ I tried it and it worked – I was getting more reciprocity from positive messages.”
Donaldson hasn’t looked back since then and somehow finds it incredibly joyful to pick up the trash. Her 1.4m TikTok followers love to see her playful love of the planet and high-energy persona.
Many of them have been inspired to pick up garbage in their local areas: “People are like, ‘My kid loves to see you every day and now he’s picking up the trash’. All I got was a comment, ‘I’m on my own’. Was waiting for friend’s track Meet to end and I was really bored, so I just started picking up trash. I would never have thought of doing this if I hadn’t watched your videos.’ ,
An “anti-echo chamber” is how Colin describes TikTok. “That’s why TikTok has literally changed environmental activism,” he says. “The way the algorithm works, it can have 10 followers and say ‘hey guys, let’s recycle today’, and TikTok will put me in front of people who aren’t looking for me and don’t know who I am” .
Climate activism is huge on the social media site – the hashtags #climatechange and #eco have been viewed 2.4bn and 1.6bn times, respectively.
Franziska Trautman, 24, turns glass to sand to save Louisiana’s eroding beaches
“It’s our planet too, and we don’t have time to wait for these old people to decide. We’re doing it ourselves,” says Franziska Trautman, aka “That Sand Girl” on TikTok .
Sharing a bottle of wine with her friend Max Stitz in 2020, the 24-year-old reflected on the fact that her state of Louisiana had no glass recycling facilities. His bottle of wine was about to end up in a landfill. “I wanted to work towards being part of the solution rather than being part of the problem,” she said. America recycles only a quarter of its glass. This is lower than countries in Europe, which recycle between 60% and 80% of their glass.
Trautmann and Steitz founded Glass Half Full, Louisiana’s only glass recycling facility. The glass is turned into sand and used to restore the state’s eroded coastline. Louisiana loses an American football field of land every hour due to coastal erosion.
While studying at Tulane University in 2019, and with no money and mounting student debt, the pair crowdfunded their first machine and began collecting bottles in the back garden of a frat house. They have since removed more than 2.2m pounds of glass from landfills, and have a huge recycling facility warehouse.
On TikTok, Trautman politely answers her audience’s questions, without indicating patronizing. Sand is the most exploited resource after water, and Trautman regularly reminds her 260k TikTok followers that we are in a global sand shortage. “You might be thinking: ‘What about the Sahara Desert?’ Well, the sand we need for concrete and coastal restoration has to be coarse and slightly angular, and desert sand is very fine and round,” she says in one of her videos.
Glass Half Full caught the attention of television host Mike Rowe. After filming what they thought was a documentary, Trautman and Steitz were surprised with a $32,000 check on their show Returning the Favour. This allowed them to level up and buy a huge powder-making machine.
Glass Half Full was awarded a National Science Foundation grant, along with scientists from Tulane University. Together with scientists, Trautman and Steitz are experimenting with glass sand looking for contaminants, and looking at how it works with native plants and marine wildlife. The results were so positive that the group placed just 15 tons of glass sand on the shore, and worked with the Pointe-au-Chien tribe to restore part of their land.
“My message to people is to always take my story as something that you can do too. So we saw a problem in our community, and instead of waiting for someone else to solve it, we decided to go for it. We had no money, no recycling knowledge, we didn’t know about the glass and sand issues. We learned everything along the way. If you see a problem you want to solve, solve it.”
Zahra Biyabani, 23, seeks to displace the fast-fashion industry by founding the world’s first sustainable clothing rental company
She’s just out of college and writing a book on the power of climate optimism, as well as launching the world’s first sustainable fashion rental marketplace. She makes regular TikTok videos to educate her viewers on environmental issues. Oh, and he just did a TED talk.
Zahra Biyabani really makes you reflect on what it is possible to do as a 23-year-old.
The environmentalist from Houston, Texas, is launching In the Loop, her mission to make sustainable and ethical brands more accessible to youth.
Through research, she found that the main barriers for youth in renting clothes were cost, size exclusivity and lack of styles that people wanted to wear.
Biyabani is bringing together a market of eco-friendly brands with strict entry requirements. “We make sure they pay a living wage, that 50% or more of their clothing is made from intentionally sourced fabrics, and we also make sure they offer the public five- and 10-year sustainability goals,” She says.
For one-time renters, each piece of clothing is 75% cheaper to rent than its on-site retail price. You receive the items for three and a half weeks, return them using the included return label on the reusable shipping bag, and then In the Loop cleans, recharges, and ships out in the next month’s cycle. And all this has been done from the garage of Biyabani’s parents.
When Byabani learned that 56% of Gen Xers believed humanity was doomed, she began posting weekly positive climate news, which were met with much gratitude. Climate optimism, Biyabani says, isn’t about discrediting science and evidence that the climate crisis threatens our future on Earth—it’s a way of generating hope so that people keep fighting.
“We can’t make change if we don’t believe change is possible. So climate optimism is just the framework we desperately need to unlock the full potential of climate solutions.”
Thomas Lawrence, 23, Is Building a Sustainable Marketplace to Take on Amazon
“I think it’s time for Congress to lobby on the other side. I’m not a blind optimist, but we have to accept the world as it is. Money makes the world go round. I’m not saying that.” I want it to be like that. But it is like that,” says Thomas Lawrence, founder of Good People Inc.
“If big oil, big meat and whatever is going to lobby Congress in America to keep their pockets heavy and keep the world what they want, why can’t we do the same thing? Now is the time to have a little more impact on the right side of history,” he says.
The 23-year-old entrepreneur is building a corporation that “does only good for people and the planet.” Good People Inc. wants to take on Amazon and give people an ethical, value-driven choice. “they [Amazon] Created a market in which they are now the only player, and that’s why many people can’t give up on Amazon. The definition of a monopoly is that consumers have no other choice.”
Good People Inc. is already providing over 200 products to people in the UK and is growing every day; The US site has also just launched. The company was born out of the way marketing baffled us. “I hate all these brands that force people to spend their hard earned money by making you feel inadequate, or that you need something when you need something,” he says. “A big problem for consumers isn’t always that they can’t get their stuff, the point is that they want the stuff first.”
In order to sell products in the marketplace, retailers have to pass a number of regulations created by Lawrence, including zero-waste packaging, no plastic use, transparency about the origin of the material, and how employees are treated.
What is it about Gen-Z that results in so much direct action and optimism? “I think my generation and millennials are starting to realize that they have to take matters into their own hands, rather than wait for the people who are currently in charge to help.”
If all goes according to plan, Good People Inc. will end up as a co-operative, owned by those who work there, and will have the capital and power to take corporations to their own playground.