Sushobhan Mahanty : Sustainability lies at the intersection of economic growth, social justice and equity, and environmental protection. In order to make advances in sustainability, women, and men around the world have committed themselves to careers in science, academia, activism, public policy, fieldwork, data analytics, governance, law, politics, and the media. Sustainable development depends on an equitable distribution of resources for today and for the future. It cannot be achieved without gender equality. Women’s empowerment is a key factor for achieving sustainable economic growth, social development, and environmental sustainability. Sustainable development should be a key principle of all policies and actions, which are broadly designed to create a society that is based on freedom, democracy, and respect for fundamental rights, fostering equality of opportunity and solidarity within and between generations. Development affects people in different parts of the world in different ways. It also affects people differently, depending on whether they are male or female. Being aware of this, and taking it into account in development planning and action is known today as practicing a ‘gender perspective’. Generally speaking, there have been a number of improvements to women’s lives in the past twenty years. For example, female life expectancy is increasing; more girls are going to school; more women are in the paid workforce; and, many countries have introduced laws to protect women’s rights.
Women have always been and remain the deciding influence on the quality of life and wellbeing of their families and communities. They are the primary caregivers and the managers of natural resources, including food, shelter, and consumption of goods, in most cultures. In addition, many women also have jobs and have careers in the formal economy. Women’s responsibilities place them in a unique position to improve the human and economic well-being and to conserve and maintain the natural environment. It was not long ago that, if you wanted to reduce the impact of your consumer choices on the environment, your only option was to use your own shopping bag. These days, the eco-minded shopper is overwhelmed with “green” choices. With the rise of reusable pads and menstrual cups, periods can now be plastic-free. Cosmetics increasingly come in glass and aluminum containers. Even hosiery brands are swapping nylon for more eco-friendly material. Given the devastating toll of consumer waste on the health of the planet, you may find this visible drive towards sustainability on supermarket shelves cheering. But if you are a man, you may not have even noticed it: most eco-friendly products are marketed to women. There is an obvious (and depressing) reason for this: women are not only more powerful consumers but also disproportionately responsible, still, for the domestic sphere. The result of this is what the market research firm Mintel has termed an “eco gender gap”, where green branding might as well be pink.
In a 2018 report by Mintel on the subject, Jack Duckett, a senior consumer lifestyles analyst, said women “still tend to take charge of the running of the household”, with laundry, cleaning, and recycling falling under that banner. But “with eco-friendly campaigns and product claims largely aimed at female audiences”, advertisers run the risk of communicating the message that sustainability is women’s work. The idea is already insidious due to the persistent portrayal of women as caregivers – even of the planet. Janet K Swim, a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University who has done extensive research into the social consequences of environmentally friendly behavior, points to a political cartoon showing Theodore Roosevelt, the US president from 1901 to 1909, wearing an apron, “trying to mock him as feminine” for his conservation policies. While it is true that women are more likely than men to be green, in the past that gender gap has been attributed to personality differences. Research suggests that women have higher levels of socialization to care about others and be socially responsible, which then leads them to care about environmental problems and be willing to adopt environmental behaviors.
In a study published in the journal Sex Roles, Swim and her fellow researchers at Penn State found that men could be disinclined to carry a reusable shopping bag – or recycle, or any environmentally friendly activity that had been gendered as feminine – for fear of being perceived as gay or effeminate. One study found that men could be disinclined to carry a reusable shopping bag for fear of being perceived as gay. Similarly, a 2016 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research found that “men may be motivated to avoid or even oppose green behaviors in order to safeguard their gender identity” and that their participation could be encouraged by weakening the association between femininity and sustainability, such as “by using masculine rather than conventional green branding”.
Plastic Freedom and Package Free Shop, two popular zero-waste online retailers, say they are careful to use gender-neutral marketing – but both say about 90% of their customers are women. Lauren Singer, the founder of Package Free Shop, which sells items such as bamboo cutlery and eco cleaning products, suggests that the imbalance presents women with an opportunity to lead. “Let’s be the ones that absorb the responsibility of being the stewards and educators of sustainability,” she says. But with analysis in 2016 from the Office for National Statistics showing that women carry out an average of 60% more unpaid work than men, Howell’s suggestion may hold more appeal: to close the eco gender gap, close the associated gap “in terms of who does the laundry, who does the grocery shopping, who does the cleaning at home”. Also, get rid of “false ideas of what a sustainable product must look like”, she says, pointing out that men may carry a rucksack or reusable sports bottle without it being sold or perceived as green.
The British men’s skincare company Bulldog stands out for making sustainability a cornerstone of its brand. Its plastic tubes are derived from sugar cane, not fossil fuel; it sells bamboo-handled razors and shower gel in cardboard packs, and its Original Moisturiser is certified carbon-neutral. “We’ve never thought that there’s really a gender perspective on the idea of sustainability,” says Simon Duffy, the brand’s founder. “It’s a crazy idea to me, that that is considered more feminine than masculine. Everybody should be focused on this.”
It is a reminder that, for a company to be truly green, its attention to sustainability should extend to every level of its business – not just the one that draws consumers. Areeba Hamid, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace, says the impact of individual choices – even giving up meat or air travel on a large scale – is negligible: “If the corporations keep drilling for oil and gas, that is not going to amount to anything.”
Howell says: “While individual action is important, the individualization of responsibility can go too far. We have got to look at the whole and try to do something at a societal level.” Another study by Swim, published in the journal Global Environmental Change last year, showed that men preferred arguments that centered on science and business and tended to “attribute negative feminine traits” to men who argued on the basis of ethics and environmental justice – as women typically did.
Women tend to have less trust in institutions, Howell says, which may mean they have less faith in the ability of science, technology, and the government to address the issues that face us. Men, however, have been historically well served by the status quo, “are much more inclined to believe that, if they accept there is a problem, then somebody or some technology will sort it all out – that we don’t need to change our lifestyle”. Misogyny has been shown to be a factor in climate denial. A 2014 paper in the International Journal for Masculinity Studies found that: “For climate skeptics, it was not the environment that was threatened; it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity.” As Martin Gelin wrote last year in the New Republic, the highest-profile climate campaigners in the world today are two young women: Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Those shouting them down are primarily older conservative men.
Women are not only vulnerable to climate change they are also effective actors or agents of change in relation to both mitigation and adaptation. However, discussions have been mostly focused on how susceptible they are to climate change and how their knowledge and expertise can be used for better programmatic outcomes. The discourse now needs to shift to ways of creating climate change mitigation and adaptation into avenues of economic empowerment of women.
1. Green Entrepreneurship: Tribal uneducated women from Udaipur, Rajasthan were transformed into green entrepreneurs making solar lamps. Similarly in the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, women (often illiterate) are trained to manufacture and maintain solar panels in a 6-month program. Such efforts need to be replicated and scaled up into viable business models to turn women into green leaders.
2. Swachh Bharat Mission: An example of women leading the way can be best seen in the context of the Swachh Bharat Mission which aims to create an open defecation-free India by 2019. Women understand the health benefits of clean ways and sanitation once explained to them; they embrace the need for toilets for these reasons and the risks to their security as they otherwise go to fields under cover of darkness. In many States women sarpanches have scripted success stories and made a difference in their villages, making them open defecation free by building toilets and creating awareness. The mission has also raised people’s aspirations leading to the demand for better toilets that offer more than just the conventional toilet structure. To complement the government subsidy microfinance has proved to be an important instrument. Women are at the forefront of these interventions with credit being directed to women’s self-help groups (SHGs). The success of the micro-lending program by Gramalaya in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, highlights how the development of a water and sanitation loan fund and the mobilization of women’s SHGs are able to reduce barriers to access credit and increase investment in water and sanitation facilities
3. Navdanya movement: Amrita Devi had sacrificed their lives for the protection of the trees that were going to fell down by a commercial logger in Uttarakhand. Other women like Vandana Shiva have also contributed to environmental conservation and protection. They had organized women and people through the Navdanya movement of 1982. Growing population and technological advancement are continuously putting a strain on the environment and on the country’s natural resources. Over-exploitation of the country’s resources like land, water, fuel, etc. has resulted in degradation of resources mainly due to industrial pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, and urbanization. Therefore, conservation of natural resources and promotion of the environment cannot be done without involving the women in planning and training for promoting the values for conservation and promotion of the environment. Hence, an attempt has been made to assess the role of women in the conservation and promotion of the environment along with suitable strategies for the same.
4. Chipko movement: One of the first environmentalist movements which were inspired by women was the Chipko movement (Women tree-huggers in India). “Its name comes from a Hindi word meaning to stick” (as in glue). The movement was an act of defiance against the state government’s permission given to a corporation for commercial logging. Women of the village resisted, embracing trees to prevent their felling, to safeguard their lifestyles which were dependent on the forests. Deforestation could qualitatively change the lives of all village residents but it was the women who agitated for saving the forests. Organized by a non-governmental organization that Chandi Prasad led, The Chipko movement adopted the slogan “ecology is the permanent economy.” The women embracing the trees did not tag their action as feminist activism; however, as a movement that demonstrated resistance against oppression, it had all the markings of such. It began when the Maharaja of Jodhpur wanted to build a new palace in Rajasthan which is India’s Himalayan foothills. While the axemen were cutting the trees, martyr Amrita Devi hugged one of the trees. This is because in Jodhpur each child had a tree that could talk to it. The axemen ignored Devi and after taking her off they cut down the tree.
5. Green Belt movement: Another movement, which is one of the biggest in women and environment history, is the Green Belt Movement. Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai founded this movement on World Environment Day in June 1977. The starting ceremony was very simple few women planted seven trees in Maathai’s backyard. By 2005 30 million trees had been planted by participants in the Green Belt movement on public and private lands. The Green Belt movement aims to bring environmental restoration along with society’s economic growth. This movement led by Maathai focused on the restoration of Kenya’s rapidly diminishing forests as well as empowering rural women through environmental preservation. This conflict started because men wanted to cut the trees to use them for industrial purposes while women wanted to keep them since it was their food resource and deforestation was a survival matter for local people.
“Occasionally, I feel quite angry,” says Howell, “because a lot of the problems have historically been created more by men, because they have more power, but it sometimes seems that women are getting more desperate about trying to solve them – and maybe have less power to do it.” But the world is changing. Millennials and Generation Z (those born between the early 80s and the mid-00s) have been shown to align broadly on the climate crisis, according to recent data compiled in the US by the Pew Research Center; even young Republicans are more likely to say that governments need to do more. “If you look at the youth climate movement, and Greta, there are a lot of young men as well as women,” says Hamid. “I think this is generational.
Author of Sustainability Vibes, LinkedIn Newsletter and Contributor, Conscious Carma e-magazine