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Why Is Sustainability a Woman's Burden?

As I was scrolling through Instagram the other day, I saw an advertisement for reusable period pads. The targeted ad made me consider a plethora of my own speculations surrounding a term known as eco-marketing, or the advertisement of sustainable products and services. I have an environmentally-focused major and have studied issues surrounding the current climate crisis extensively. My studies have harbored immense eco-anxiety throughout the years and have consumed many aspects of my life. I feel tremendous guilt eating meat, shopping online, and taking long showers to name a few things. I’ve always assumed most people live similarly and make the effort to cut back where they can. However, seeing this advertisement encouraging women to wash their period blood off reusable fabric made me wonder if the same pressure to be sustainable is equally placed upon men. 

Sustainable products are marketed primarily to women because women are more easily swayed by eco messaging than men. A 2018 UK study showed that 71% of women have increased their commitment to ethical living, compared to 59% of men. The research shows not only a disparity in attitudes, but also action with 77% of women committed to recycling compared to 67% of men, 38% of women committed to using less water compared to 30% of men, and 64% of women turning down the heat when not home compared to 58% of men. With the knowledge that women are substantially more environmentally conscious than men, it makes sense that companies attempt to exploit this gap and market sustainability primarily toward women. But the real unanswered question remaining is how this gap was created in the first place. 

gender roles typed on paper in green typewriter

I brought this concept of eco-marketing toward women up to my dad to gain a male perspective. He believes the trend can be explained by the fact that women are naturally more caring and considerate, so they would be more likely to care about the environment. This idea was the popular reasoning for the gender gap in the past, with research from the mid-90s to early 2000s pointing “to women’s greater tendency to be prosocial, altruistic and empathetic; to display a stronger ethic of care; and to assume a future-focused perspective.” While women's naturally inclined social responsibility may be a factor in the eco-gender gap, the issue is far deeper than it appears.

The real issue contributing to the eco-gender gap is not women’s supposed inherent qualities, but rather the ever-prevalent role of gender norms in our society. A recent study conducted by University College London found that women perform approximately 16 hours of household chores every week, compared to six hours by men. In 93% of the couples surveyed, women undertook the majority of domestic duties. All the household responsibilities typically fall on women, and it becomes their burden to make ethical decisions while performing domestic tasks. Since women’s chores often consist of shopping for personal and family products, female consumers are disproportionately subjected to the societal shun and guilt of using plastic applicator tampons and non reef-friendly sunscreen. Fitting the mold of a “perfect woman” now requires more than just domestic responsibility. Women also face immense social pressure to be eco-conscious.

girl laying in bed feeling stressed out

This cognitive association with sustainability and femininity has created adverse effects in mens’ effort to be sustainable. Terms like “real men need their meat” create toxic masculinity surrounding sustainability and discourage men to make sustainable sacrifices. Similarly, a study conducted by Penn State University revealed that men are resisting eco-friendly behavior for fear of other people questioning their sexual orientation

Gender norms and toxic masculinity have made it difficult to present the action of sustaining our planet as an equally shared responsibility. Fighting gender norms and encouraging sustainability are one in the same. Being green does not make a man less manly, and practicing sustainability should not be a way for women to gain social approval. The moment we begin to realize that saving our planet is the responsibility of all humans, regardless of gender, is the moment when we can truly start solving the climate crisis.