women in green sustainability gender equality

Cool Choices Executive Director, Kathy Kuntz, spoke at Women In Green, a celebration for International Women’s Day 2018, which was organized by USGBC Wisconsin, WSBC Women in Sustainability, Evolution Marketing, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, and Milwaukee Talks Green on March 8, 2018. Emphasizing the connection between the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and gender equality, Kathy urged women to lead their communities to a more sustainable and equitable future.

Sustainability is mainstream

While efforts to save energy or reduce emissions were once marginalized, these efforts are increasingly common business practices. For example:

  • In 2016 82% of Fortune 500 companies published a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report. That’s more than 4 in 5, and you can be sure the number will be higher for 2017.
  • A recent Shelton Group study of terminology found that 70% of Americans – left, right, young, and old – rated the term “sustainability”’ positively.

The momentum around sustainability is real and it comes from multiple sources.

Visionary business leaders who pursued sustainability before it was cool, increasing profits and reducing risk, showing others what was possible.

Increasingly, customers—individual consumers and businesses across the globe—are showing a preference for brands that demonstrate a commitment to environmental and social responsibility. Unilever recently shared some of its own research in this realm, showing that as many as 1/3 of consumer purchases take sustainability into account.

Beyond customers, employees are also pushing for sustainability. Large percentages of employees prefer working for companies that have environmental goals. Increasingly, employees are looking for opportunities to be part of their employer’s efforts around sustainability, as part of their quest for purpose-driven work.

Beyond the people, economics is also driving sustainability. We live in a global economy where a small business in Omaha might depend on raw materials from India or Columbia. Weather events—from unusually strong tropical storms to wildfires—disrupt supply chains and jeopardize business operations. Even hyper-local businesses face climate-related risks; you can’t make beer without fresh, clean water! Accordingly, a big driver for the increased business attention to sustainability is risk management. Savvy leaders, as well as savvy investors, are demanding that businesses assess and address climate risks associated with their operations, including supply chains.

The other big economic driver is, of course, profitability. Increasingly, we understand that the businesses that pursue sustainable practices—reducing waste, addressing customer preferences—are more profitable. One expert tells us that 70% of institutional investors look at a corporation’s Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) data when choosing investments. That’s a strong indicator that these investors see value in sustainable practices.

All of that helps explain why we’re at this moment when sustainability is mainstream, where customers expect brands to be environmentally and socially responsible, where job candidates ask about sustainability in interviews, and why investors look at a company’s sustainable practices before they invest. While some entities are definitely further along the sustainability journey than others, every entity is feeling pressure to accomplish something.

Sustainability is mainstream.

Women in Green: Sustainability is tied to gender equality

The United Nations has 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and the fifth goal is gender equality. The attention to gender is both pragmatic and aspirational.

Achieving aggressive sustainability targets – the change required to slow climate change – will require all hands on deck. Companies won’t achieve aggressive goals via a few technical staff. Instead, success requires action from everyone. In high performance buildings, for example, 55% of the total energy use is plug load – which is about everyone. And any sustainability advocate who’s working toward zero landfill will tell you that everyone has to be part of the solution there – that lunch room practices matter.

When we engage everyone in sustainability efforts it’s inevitable that new leaders will emerge. As the conversation expands from engineering to include the staff in accounting, marketing, and sales, we will see leaders from these various groups come forward – and a good number of those leaders will be women. There is a tremendous opportunity for women to not just participate, but to lead as these efforts expand.

Achieving aggressive goals will require new technologies, policies that support those technologies, and ultimately, culture change. We will need to change how people think, act, and interact. Sustainability can’t be a strategy, it has to be part of our culture. For generations, women have had a key role in keeping culture all around the world. At this moment, we need women to help integrate more sustainable practices into cultures to foster sustainable values.

The quest for sustainability creates a new emphasis on gender equality, and success in achieving aggressive sustainability goals will require women to participate and to lead efforts in workplaces and across whole communities.

Increased momentum on sustainability is already happening in many places. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we look forward to seeing more women participating in and leading these efforts in the coming weeks and years.

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