By Diane MacEachern, Big Green Purse, Author, Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World
The recent attacks on women’s access to safe and affordable contraception and other reproductive health options may not seem like they have much in common with the environment. But twenty years after the first Earth Summit occurred in Rio de Janeiro, a key obstacle to achieving sustainable development has emerged: global discrimination against women.
While researching a report on women and sustainability for the United Nations Development Programme, I was shocked at the degree to which gender discrimination in developed and developing nations alike prevents millions of women from leading more sustainable lives. Gender inequalities also prevent society as a whole from adopting widespread practices that would create a healthier environment.
Here’s what I found:
Women are more inclined than men to favor sustainability as a lifestyle choice. Research shows that this is true in poor and rich regions alike. Further, women buy more environmentally sound products, eat less meat, and use public transport more often than men.
Women are motivated in large part by their reproductive role and the impact their purchases could have on their families’ long-term well-being. Where men are more likely to turn to technological solutions, women demonstrate a greater willingness to change lifestyle behaviors, to consider the “precautionary principle” in their day-to-day choices, and to buy products and services that offer the greatest environmental benefit .
This should bode well for environmental change, as women control 65 percent of global spending, which amounts to $20 trillion annually. In urban areas, women make the final decision for buying 91 percent of home purchases, 65 percent of new cars, 80 percent of health care choices, and 66 percent of computers. In rural areas, women spend more money than men for food, clothing, school supplies, appliances and other items that directly benefit their children and family.
However, women’s choices are substantially impeded by their income levels, social conditions, and workplace biases that prevent them from achieving their true potential as healthy, productive and environmentally responsible citizens.
- Despite their consumer clout and increasing gains in the workforce, in 2011 US women held only 16.1 percent of board seats at Fortune 500 companies. In both 2010 and 2011, less than one-fifth of US companies had 25 percent or more women directors, while about ten percent had no women serving on their boards. In both 2010 and 2011, women of color held only 3 percent of all board seats.
- In Europe, despite a labor force that is 45 percent female, women only average 12 percent in terms of boards of director memberships. The percentage drops to 7 percent in the Asia-Pacific region, and down to 3 percent in the Middle East and North Africa.
- Women in developing countries have limited rights when it comes to owning land and are often excluded from training that would equip them to improve their land management skills.
- Women own a mere 1 percent of all property though they perform 66 percent of all work.
- Women in the U.S. earn only 77 cents for every dollar, on average, that a man earns. In developing countries, the gap between women’s and men’s incomes is far greater.
Women suffer more
Because women tend to be poorer, they are disproportionately impacted by climate change and other natural disasters
- Droughts, floods, storms, heat waves and other natural disasters kill more women than men and tend to kill women at a younger age, particularly in locales where their socio-economic status is especially low.
- In many developing countries, women and girls have to put themselves at great risk for robbery, rape and murder as they walk long distances in search of ever-scarcer caches of firewood and drinking water.
- Inefficient burning of wood, dung and other fuels in unventilated homes releases dangerous toxins and pollutants into the air, causing approximately 2 million deaths a year, mainly of women and children in the poorest communities.
- In China’s Gansu province, discharges from a state-run fertilizer factory have been linked to a high number of stillbirths and miscarriages. Water pollution in three Russian rivers has been linked to bladder and kidney disorders in pregnant women. In Sudan, women farmers exposed to pesticides are experiencing higher rates of perinatal mortality.
Women are recognizing their need for more sustainable options by creating their own institutions to provide them. The organization Women in Europe for a Common Future has launched the Nesting web site to help women create a healthy environment for their children in utero and once they are born. The web site, available in seven European languages, offers tips for renovating a toxin-free baby room and offers recommendations on purchasing healthy and environmentally-friendly clothes, toys, and baby care items.
Here in the U.S., groups like Women’s Voices for the Earth, Healthy Child, Healthy World and my own Big Green Purse are mobilizing women to defend themselves and their families by rising up against corporations that use toxins in everyday products. This campaign to pressure Tide to remove 1,4 dioxane from the detergent it’s marketing specifically for baby laundry is a case in point.
Women are also recognizing that if they want sustainable products, they may have to produce them themselves. According to the Fair Trade Federation, women now account for 76 percent of the workers engaged in non-agricultural fair trade production, many fabricating crafts from local natural resources. In Colombia, women coffee growers are marketing female-produced Fair Trade coffee. In Burkina Faso, a women’s environmental organization has developed a process to weave fashion accessories and clothing out of plastic bags, reducing trash and litter while creating jobs for women and more environmentally-friendly products for consumers. In Kenya, women are learning to produce handicrafts from recycled metals, which reduces solid waste, and water hyacinth, an invasive plant that negatively affects Kenyan waterways. In South Africa, the “Why Honey” enterprise is teaching women bee-keepers how to increase their effectiveness at processing and selling honey. Their efforts will also revitalize the local bee population, strengthening local biodiversity.
As the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability notes, “the problem is not unsustainable choices, but a lack of choices in the first place. Real choice is only possible once human rights, basic needs, human security and human resilience are assured… Empowering women in particular has the potential to yield tremendous benefits for households, communities and the global economy.”
Photo from Big Green Purse