home Features The Eco-Gender Gap: Is Saving the Planet a Woman’s Job?

The Eco-Gender Gap: Is Saving the Planet a Woman’s Job?

Writes Elisha Carey, Features Editor

Speaking last week to the United Nations’ Security Council, Sir David Attenborough delivered a grim message to world leaders, “please make no mistake – climate change is the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced.”

“There is no going back – no matter what we do now, it’s too late.”

Climate change is an issue affecting every single person on planet earth, which is why you might be baffled to hear that roughly 50% of earth’s population are lagging behind in their efforts to tackle it. In 2018, market research firm, Mintel, reported that 71% of women in the UK were making a conscious effort towards living more sustainably in comparison to just 59% of their male counterparts. Jack Duckett, Senior Analyst at Mintel dubbed the firm’s discovery as something of an “eco-gender gap” pointing to “men feeling that caring for the environment somehow undermines their masculinity” as the potential root of the problem.

In order to paint the Irish picture of this issue, University Express got in contact with Fiona Donnellan, the Founder of Sustainable PR, an Irish public relations firm working solely with eco-conscious brands. Fiona tells us that 90% of her client base are female “in my experience the majority of Irish sustainable brands are women-led” she says, giving the examples of eco toy company, Jiminy.ie, minimal waste store, reuzi.ie, and reusable cups and bottles brand, Ecoset, which each have women at the helm. Sharon Keilthy, Founder and CEO, of Jiminy.ie tells University Express that “96% of our 11,000 Instagram followers are female” while most of the shops that Jiminy supplies are female-led, as are half of their toy-maker suppliers. Fiona Smiddy of Green Outlook, an Irish sustainable lifestyle shop, notes a similar trend as women also make up the majority of Green Outlook’s customer base.

Mintel’s 2018 report noted that women “still tend to take charge of the running of the household.” This is certainly true for Irish women who, according to a 2019 joint report by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), spend 10.5 hours more per week than men on housework and 11 hours more on care of both children and older adults. Helen Russell, lead author of the joint report, observed that “In Ireland we have the seventh highest gender gap in hours of unpaid work per week.” For reuzi.ie Founder, Pat Kane, it was her experience of motherhood which informed her choice to build a sustainable brand and promote minimal-waste living, she writes on her website: “After becoming a mom for the first time, I started to notice the amount of rubbish we were going through every day rising at an alarming rate – from plastic wraps and bottles, to random boxes and let’s not forget about the hundreds of nappies!”

Not only are women disproportionately responsible for the domestic sphere but this is coupled with the fact that eco-friendly products are, as Mintel observes, “largely aimed at female audiences.” Recent years have seen the popularising of plastic-free period products such as menstrual cups, reusable pads or even absorbent period underwear as well as cosmetic products in glass and metal packaging. The advertising for these products is borderline inescapable (within the last week alone I could count over 20 adverts for Garnier’s new sustainable shampoo bars on my Instagram feed.) Donnellan speaks to a pressure she herself has felt to go green: “for me it’s hard to open a magazine or scroll through Instagram without seeing something about it brands urging you to buy less, buy better, buy ethical, go vegan. Sustainability can’t land solely on our shoulders.”

As well as this, social media of late, has opened up young women to criticism for failing to engage in sustainable behaviours. “Sustainability shaming” has become popular on platforms like Instagram, Twitter and even TikTok, targeting anyone caught buying an item of fast fashion clothing, using harmful cleaning products, eating meat, or storing foods using plastic instead of glass. Instagram, in particular, is a peculiar platform for “sustainability shaming” to be taking place, the app is well-known for fuelling consumerism, the notion that women must always be “on trend”, avoiding outfit repeating at all costs, but then turns around and attacks those who fall victim to this trap, for their failing to avoid fast fashion. Many young women, myself included, have to carefully toe the line between being shamed for engaging in sustainable behaviours and being shamed for failing to. Sustainability journalist Sophia Li has said “I think there’s so much shaming and cancel culture that comes along with this (sustainability) space” but that, “everyone is on their own sustainability journey.” It’s important to note that being able to afford sustainable items, particularly sustainable clothing, is a privilege not everyone has. Li says sustainability is a spectrum, on one end is Greta Thunberg, who, in 2019, made a double crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by boat to avoid contributing to the carbon emissions from air travel, and on the opposite end, are climate deniers like Steve Bannon. Not everyone can be a Greta.

On the question of why women are more eco-conscious than men, Smiddy contends that the sustainability movement appeals to “the maternal and caring nature of women” and indeed this hypothesis finds support in various studies from the ‘90s to the early ‘00s which point to women’s greater tendency to be prosocial, altruistic, empathetic and to assume a future-focused perspective.

The 2019 journal Sex Roles featured a study by Janet K. Swim et al. which found that both genders associated sustainable behaviours with female gender stereotypes. Swim’s research highlighted that certain pro-environmental behaviours such as buying clothes from a sustainable brand or using reusable shopping bags, were perceived by men as a threat to their masculinity. After being presented with a short case study of a man who recycled and used a reusable shopping bag, the male participants in the study unanimously agreed that these behaviours made them “uncertain of his heterosexual identity.” Swim and her colleagues were able to conclude that men could therefore be disinclined to engage in these behaviours for fear of being perceived as effeminate or gay. The same concern has also been well-established as a factor in men’s reluctance to embrace vegan or vegetarian diets. Professor Laura Wright, author of The Vegan Studies Project explains that there is a strong link between white heterosexual masculinity and the consumption of meat. Similarly, A 2016 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research noted that “men may be motivated to avoid or even oppose green behaviours in order to safeguard their gender identity.” The paper claimed that brands had a responsibility to weaken the association between femininity and sustainability, explaining that this could be done “by using masculine rather than conventional green branding.”

So, it is clear that gender stereotyping and misogyny are forming barriers to men’s participation in sustainable behaviours, with disastrous consequences for the planet. In fact, misogyny has been proven as a factor in men’s climate change denial: a 2014 paper in the International Journal for Masculinity Studies stated, “for climate sceptics, 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.” Well-known climate change denier and misogynist, former President Donald Trump’s environmental policies saw the US pull-out of the Paris Climate Agreement, loosen regulations on toxic air pollution, roll back significant protections for endangered species’ and increase logging in public forests. Scientists are now claiming that these policies cost the country thousands of lives.

In an effort to offer up something of her own explanation of the eco-gender gap, Smiddy points out that while the majority of her customer base are women, there are more products available on Green Outlook that cater to them like “sustainable period products and skincare” and that “women are more conscious in general of the beauty products that they use and would put more research into their skin, hair and body care choices.” In similar efforts, Keilthy of Jiminy.ie told University Express, “a male customer once mentioned to me, it’s hard to carry-around reusable water bottles and coffee cups if you don’t normally carry a bag. Women culturally more often carry a bag; men more often just put a wallet in their pocket.” This begs the question, whether men participate in sustainability in their own way. It is widely believed that men are more invested in electric cars than women, however, the 2019 National Travel Survey on the Central Statistics Office website states that 0.2% of men between the ages of 18-24 owned an electric vehicle in comparison to 0.4% of women in the same age bracket. When it comes to 35–44-year-olds, just 0.2% of men owned an electric vehicle compared to 1.6% of women.

However, it wouldn’t be fair to say that men are entirely removed from the fight to protect the environment either. Donnellan draws attention to two Irish sustainable brands Bambooth and Crann, both run by men. And while the most current major players in climate change advocacy, Greta Thunberg, Isra Hirsi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are all women, we simply cannot discount the work of the likes of Sir David Attenborough and Al Gore for their respective roles in both raising awareness of the plight of our planet and putting in place effective climate policy.

Nike’s recent moves towards sustainability, the Biden Administration rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and the global decline in greenhouse gas emissions, as a result of the pandemic, signal hope for the future but climate change is here to stay, and it is everyone’s responsibility. The eco-gender gap is just another example of inequality between men and women and it’s about time we closed it. With women making sacrifices for the planet such as washing their own period blood off of reusable underwear and abstaining from their favourite clothing brands, it is only fair that men should make efforts to match. We must resist the gender stereotyping and misogyny which led men to opt out of sustainability. There is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about caring for the planet, it is simply the right thing to do, for all of us.