Is sustainable consumption a woman’s issue? Why is it problematic?
According to the Cambridge dictionary, gender is ‘the physical and/or social condition of being male or female.’ It is not biologically natural, but rather a social construct, an arrangement of relations, that is subject to change overtime.
Drawing on the 1987 Brundtland definition, sustainable consumption could be described as ‘the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimizing the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations,’ while keeping in mind that consumption is much more than just buying.
So you might ask yourself: what do the two concepts have to do with each other? When it comes to sustainable consumption, academics argue that there is a lack of attention paid to gender, especially in the global North. They deplore this lack of intersectionality, as they believe that existing gender structures can be an enabler or a barrier to sustainable consumption. In this article we will see how important gender is for sustainable consumption.
First of all, gender stereotypes and pre-conceived ideas within society influence the way individuals consume. According to statistics, ‘men are less likely to be eco-friendly in their attitudes, choices and behaviors.’ So why is that? Brough et al. test the hypothesis that ‘both men and women mentally associate greenness with femininity.’ They found that this green-feminine stereotype is deeply embedded in American society, causing American men and women to approach going green from functionally skewed perspectives. It partly explains why green marketing tends to be more targeted towards women, and where the tendency of men’s resistance to consume sustainably comes from.
This stereotype also relies on the idea that ‘environmentalism and conservationism reflect caring and nurturing of the environment, which are prototypical feminine traits.’ In dominant discourses, women are indeed meant to be ‘more compassionate’ and therefore willing to be more sustainable. Moreover, the symbolic dimension of gender tends to associate production and public sphere to masculinity, while femininity is linked to consumption and the private sphere. This is why analysing the implicit dimension of gender is crucial when it comes to sustainable consumption.
What is also important here is that this green-feminine stereotype affects how individuals perceive themselves and others. It means that consumers’ response to gender stereotypes depends on both individual and situational factors. Gender identity is relevant for sustainable consumption because it plays a major role in one’s choices. Brough et al. argue that men’s engagement in typically ‘feminine’ activities and buy ‘feminine’ products depends on whether their masculinity is affirmed or not at the time. They will therefore have a tendency to reassert their masculinity through non-green behaviour, or on the contrary, feel more comfortable to engage in green behaviours when their masculinity is affirmed. (see figure 1) For this reason, the solution to facilitate sustainable consumption would be to focus on attenuating men’s inhibitions in marketing techniques, through masculine branding or masculine affirmation. This research on gender stereotypes and perceptions is important because it helps understand why a gender gap exists in sustainable behaviour.
Moreover, there tends to be a connection between women, ethical consumption, and responsibilities, especially for mothers. Indeed, statistics continue to show that women carry more responsibilities than men in taking care of the household and children: cleaning, cooking, shopping… This ‘invisible labour’ is not as valued for women as the work they would do in the market sphere, but is still considered as normal, every-day nurturance.
And this unequal gendered partition of responsibilities appears in sustainable consumption as well. There is undoubtedly an added pressure on women to consume responsibly, since they are usually the ones who consume to provide for their family’s needs. This is what Weller refers to as the ‘feminization of environmental responsibility.’ From the late 1920s, marketing campaigns have played on this image of the ‘middle class housewife’ and ideal home to achieve, in order to advertise household goods. But in the twenty-first century, there has been a shift towards the ‘perfect ethical consumption’, meaning the pressure to always be greener, more sustainable, and help by ‘voting with your money’.
About this idea of ‘voting with your money’, let’s talk about CRM and its relation to women. Roberta Hawkins analysed a type of ethical consumption called cause-related marketing (CRM). CRM is ‘where purchasing a certain product in the North triggers a donation from the company selling that product to an NGO working on a development issue in the South.’ We have already established that ethical consumption is a gendered act, but it is especially striking to see how CRM campaigns almost always appeal to women. Hawkins analysed the case study of Derlea’s Spread & Save, about a margarine that contributes to install mosquito nets in Africa to prevent malaria.
The emphasis of this campaign is on ‘saving lives’, as most CRM campaigns are, but especially on ‘moms helping moms.’ The Spread & Save campaign press release explains the gendered dimensions of malaria to consumers, in order to appeal to Canadian mothers, the target audience for this product. Belinda Stronach, a co-founder of Spread the Net, declared:
As a mom, I know moms are very concerned about the health and welfare of women and children around the world. (…) By participating in the Spread & Save campaign, moms can help to save lives in Africa.
This example shows how great a role gender may play in CRM campaigns.
But this type of message is problematic because both men, and women who are not mothers, are left out of it, as these CRM campaigns ‘frame motherhood as a prerequisite for understanding and feeling compassion for environmental issues and crises around the world.’ We have to highlight this bias in order to reach more people and speak to everyone when it comes to sustainable consumption, not just women or mothers.
Another problematic aspect of these discourses is that they reinforce once again the power of individual action and responsibility when it comes to complex environmental issues. Alongside the increasing popularity of ethical consumption, since the 1990s, there has been a focus on consumers’ power to provoke social, economic and environmental change. However, recent research shows that private consumers actually have little impact, having to work within systems already set in place, and that a big part of consumption is inconspicuous or part of a routine. Similarly, Weller warns us that this focus on ‘feminization or privatization of environmental responsibility’ distracts our attention from other actors.
This is partly why many feminists are critical of neoliberalization, at a time when being green goes hand in hand with privatization, responsibilization and feminization.
Val Plumwood underlines the problem eloquently: The attempt to lodge responsibility with women as household managers and consumers should be rejected because it continues to conceive the household as women’s burden, because it misconceives the power of the private household to halt environmental degradation (...).
This privatization and feminization of environmental responsibility is especially problematic in today’s business and profit-driven capitalist system. Indeed, these gendered discourses ‘reduce women to consumers rather than collective citizens’ and diminish their scope of action and the networks they are a part of. We must also question the use of this notion of ‘global sisterhood’ (moms helping moms) to sell products.
But more than analysing gender norms at an individual level, it is important to also look at it at a structural level, and how it impacts sustainable consumption. Indeed, gender inequalities are prevalent in terms of access to resources (e.g. time, wealth…). There is in particular a gender pay gap and a gender division of corporate power. Income levels have a central importance in sustainable consumption, which ‘raises the so far unanswered question as to what impact, on average, the higher incomes of men and the lower incomes of women have on sustainable consumption.’ Moreover, ‘the basic pattern of gender-specific divisions of labour and power has not radically changed.’ The word power is key here, because it is ultimately a question of power, about who in society will have the power to lead and to make decisions (at a corporate level, a household level etc). These power inequalities inevitably impact the way people consume. For example, if a mother lacks time and/or money to cook a homemade meal every night, she will most likely buy more easy pre-made meals, which come often in plastic packaging. And what about people (often single mothers) who use fewer resources because they do not have access to them? In that case, from the perspective of social justice, could we say that being sustainable is a choice? These are gendered factors that we need to take into account when we analyse the intersection of sustainable consumption and gender.
All in all, this article discussed the significance of gender for sustainable consumption. Gender is of prime importance in this field, because of the impact of gender stereotypes on sustainable consumption but also the connection between women, ethical consumption and responsibilities. We also have to take into account that an unequal access to resources impacts sustainable consumption. We have seen that there is indeed a close link between the construction of gender and consumer behaviour, especially in men’s gender-identity maintenance, which contributes to their relatively low engagement in green behaviours. We have also analysed women’s invisible labour in the household and their added burden when it comes to sustainable consumption. Gender is therefore crucial in the research on sustainable consumption, because gendered subjectivities affect environments, as well as the other way around. 
 Cambridge Dictionary, Gender <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/gender>.  Raewyn Connell and Rebecca Pearse, 'The question of gender', (Cambridge: Polity, 2015), p. 11-20.  Ines Weller, 'Gender dimensions of sustainable consumption', (London: Routledge, 2017), p.332.  Roberta Hawkins, 'Shopping to save lives: Gender and environment theories meet ethical consumption', (2012), p.750.  Weller, p.341.  Aaron Brough, James Wilkie, Jingjing Ma, Mathew Isaac and David Gal, 'Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption.', (2016), p.567.  Ibid., p.569.  Ibid., p.568.  Ibid., p.568.  Ibid., p.568.  Hawkins, p.752.