Climate change,  Environment/Ambiente

Sustainability: a women’s stuff?

When I read an article on sustainability as “women’s issue” (Suzanne Elliot, 2021, Euronews), I was intrigued to the point of investigating and better understanding how and why there can be a green-feminine stereotype. Although in the current context of gender fluidity its significance could be questioned, it could help in a more effective dissemination of sustainability messages.
Several studies indicate that there is a gender gap with regard to care for the environment.
According to research by Mintel (2018), men waste more water and food, recycle less, are less careful about turning off lowering the heat when they leave the house, and less inclined to encourage family and friends to live more ethically. The difference in the frequency of behaviors demonstrates the existence of an “eco-gender gap”.
According to the OECD report on Gender and Sustainable Development, women tend to have a smaller ecological footprint than men by adopting more sustainable consumption patterns. They are more likely to recycle, buy organic food and eco-labeled products, and value more energy-efficient means of transport. They make more ethical purchasing choices, paying more attention to aspects such as child labor, and are more inclined to choose products with labels such as Fairtrade. Instead, men, whether wealthy or poor, tend to be more resource-intensive, have a larger overall carbon footprint (Raty and Carlsson-Kanyama 2010), and feel less guilty about a non-ecological lifestyle (Tiller 2014).
Another study answers the question: “Does gender really matter for sustainability?” (Meinzen-Dick, Kovarik, R. Quisumbing 2014*): yes, but according to the analysis conducted it does not mean that women (or men) are intrinsically more resource-conscious. Rather, we should take into account the intangible motives, material conditions and means available generally to one or the other gender.
Plastic Freedom and Package Free Shop, two well-known US zero-waste retailers, claim to be careful about using gender-neutral marketing, but both say around 90% of their customers are female (source The Guardian) .
In Italy, we asked WHATaECO, e-commerce of sustainable products: “85% of our buyers are women“. The clients of the Stoviglioteca in Milan are also mainly women. “98%“, Nadia tells us, leading this service that allows you to rent washable and reusable tableware kits for your parties.
Why this gap?
The differentiation of roles in the domestic reality can have an impact. Many women still tend to take charge of housekeeping, with tasks such as cleaning, laundry, and even recycling. According to the OECD, women are more often responsible for activities such as shopping, preparing meals, buying gifts and disposing of garbage. Regarding the consumption pattern, women spend more on consumer products (in particular, hygiene, body care, health, clothing and shoes, books and culture). Men eat out more frequently, buy more alcohol and tobacco, spend more on transportation and sport.
In the past, the gap has been attributed to differences in personality traits. A series of studies from the mid-1990s to early 2000s indicated a greater tendency for women to:
– be prosocial, selfless and empathetic
– show a stronger ethics of attention
– take a future-oriented perspective.
“Research suggests that women have higher levels of socialisation to care about others and be socially responsible, which then leads them to care about environmental problems and be willing to adopt environmental behaviours,” says Rachel Howell, professor of sustainable development. at the University of Edinburgh (source The Guardian).
According to the aforementioned study (Meinzen-Dick, Kovarik, R. Quisumbing 2014*), it is not inherent characteristics of the gender that cause the gap. Rather, other elements such as motivation, decision-making power and financial situation must be taken into account. Preferences for sustainability are malleable, influenced by material conditions and awareness campaigns. Gender roles and resource dependence for livelihoods are particularly salient in shaping both knowledge of resources and preferences for their conservation.
The constraints on adopting more sustainable practices may differ for men and women, this can explain the gap could be. Whatever the motivations and decision-making power that men or women have, without the knowledge, work and financial resources necessary to adopt practices that limit or increase the use of resources, sustainability will not be achieved.
However, the question may arise that the perception of more sustainable practices as a threat to masculinity also plays its part. It’s a study conducted by Penn State researchers that sheds light on how men may be unwilling to carry a reusable shopping bag, recycle, or engage in other environmentally friendly activities that are considered feminine. “There may be subtle, gender-related consequences when we engage in various pro-environmental behaviors. People may avoid certain behaviors because they are managing the gendered impression they anticipate others will have of them. Or they may be avoided if the behaviors they choose do not match their gender”. To preserve gender identity, men would avoid ecological behaviors linked to the green-feminine stereotype. Just as it seems to happen in the mechanisms of reluctance on the part of men to adopt vegetarian and vegan diets. Swim thinks it’s important to understand these social consequences, because they can prevent people from engaging in behaviors that could ultimately help the environment (source Science Daily 2019).
The green-feminine stereotype

The prevailing association between the concepts of green and femininity, and the corresponding stereotype (on the part of both men and women), according to which green consumers are female, could therefore contribute to the gender eco gap. Survey data collected by OgilvyEarth suggests that “going green” is considered more feminine than masculine by most American adults (Bennett and Williams 2011).

Environmentalism and conservationism reflect attention and care for the environment, which are typical female traits (Gilligan 1982; Tavris 1999; Watson 1994). According to the Penn State researchers, environmentalism in general can be viewed as feminine because it fits the traditional role of women as care givers. Furthermore, the green-feminine association could simply be the result of the examples that come to mind when thinking of people who typically adopt green behaviors.

If the association is strong enough, it can influence social judgments and self-perception. Men and women can judge those who engage in ecological behaviors as more feminine than those who do not, and to the extent that such a stereotype is internalized, men and women who engage in ecological behaviors can experience a heightened sense of femininity.

An experimental study highlights the implicit cognitive association between the concepts of green and femininity, and shows that this association can influence both social judgments and self-perception, between men and women. The analysis suggests that, as a result of maintaining gender identity, gender signals (e.g., those that threaten or affirm a consumer’s gender identity or that influence a brand’s gender associations) are more probability of influencing men’s preferences (compared to women) for ecological products and the willingness to adopt green behaviors. Consumers who feel motivated to take actions that serve to reinforce gender identity as a central aspect of their self-concept should be more influenced by the green-feminine stereotype (Brough, Wilkie, Ma, Isaac & Gal 2016**).

More inclusive marketing?
The association risks being strengthened by advertising, with eco-friendly campaigns and messages largely aimed at female audiences. Many environmental messages use more feminine fonts and colors. Additionally, many green marketing activities involve areas where women tend to be more involved than men, such as cleaning, food preparation, family health, laundry, and home maintenance.
According to some, if the gap exists and it makes sense to talk about gender differentiation these days, marketers should consider masculine branding strategies of a stereotypically feminine product category. As is the case with diet sodas that are offered to male audiences with slogans such as “Pepsi Max — the first cola diet for men” (Brough, Wilkie, Ma, Isaac & Gal 2016**). Or like vegan stylist and activist Joshua Katcher, who founded his sustainable menswear line, Brave GentleMan, in 2008. Seeing masculinity that hinders sustainability as a cultural crisis, Katcher proposes to make being green more attractive and rewarding for men in an intelligent way, that is, without harming people with the archetype of the traditional man (source Euronews). “What I’ve been trying to do with Discerning Brute (Katcher’s blog) is to tap into our ideas of heroic power, of protective power. I think there is a way to attract those types of men who want that feeling of being physically able to do something meaningful to protect.”
In the article published in the journal Sex Roles, Penn State researchers stress the importance of continuing to study gender stereotypes surrounding environmentalism and its associated behaviors. They added that activists and policymakers who are trying to promote pro-environmental behavior may want to consider these pressures to conform to gender roles as possible barriers.
The future

The latest generations grow up with greater exposure to environmental and social issues. Diversity, inclusion, gender fluidity are more familiar concepts than previous generations. With less force than the traditional concept of masculinity, younger people may therefore feel less threatened by perceived attacks on gender identity.

Sustainability awareness campaigns should be aimed at everyone, removing the underlying aura of “female” exclusivity. It is certainly a broader cultural and social change, linked to the dismantling of traditional stereotypes, for which the road seems to be only at the beginning. In the meantime, we can contribute by making our messages more inclusive, taking the gender of our audience less for granted, considering the spread of fluid gender so that little by little these analyzes could make less and less sense and the green-female stereotype slowly weakening.
Corso moda sostenibile
*Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Chiara Kovarik, and Agnes R. Quisumbing, 2014, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC.
**Brough, Aaron & Wilkie, James & Ma, Jingjing & Isaac, Mathew & Gal, David, 2016, Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption, Journal of Consumer Research.

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