Men Vs. Women: Nitty-gritty
By Georgia Griffin
I was in need of some new first-date conversation topics and I became curious over this question: from birth to age—oh I don't know—17, is a boy or a girl worse for the environment? What are the differences between male and female impacts on the environment?
Asked by Chris Fedor, ’10, MS ’11, Palo Alto, Calif.
Whether men or women win the sustainability showdown depends on what you view as the greatest environmental problem—climate change, natural resources, pollution and loss of biodiversity, or water. The competition can be spun in either direction making it great for dinner conversation, so long as you don’t worry too much about coming to a conclusive answer. Do women have a greater impact on the environment because they outlive men by an average of six years? What about men as the instigators of war, the greatest form of destruction on the planet? But maybe there’s something deeper going on here: Thinking in terms of gender stereotypes highlights ways in which culture affects sustainable actions. Obviously not all women buy more clothing than men and not all men eat more meat than women. But society—and gender—influences the choices we make. So what can we learn from the opposite sex? I propose four simple actions that wouldn’t entail a wholesale change in lifestyle.1: Ladies, do you really need seven pairs of jeans? The jean industry—centered in China where labor is cheap—uses water, energy, silica, and the highly toxic permanganate to make jeans faded and holey. Sounds like a used pair of jeans to me. Thrift stores are growing in popularity, yet the Council for Textile Recycling estimates only 15 percent of the clothing thrown out each year gets recycled. This leaves 85 percent to landfills. Even if your clothes aren’t fit for store shelves, Goodwill, as the largest clothing recycler in the world, still recycles the textiles.
Buying second hand and taking advantage of hand-me-downs opens a closetful of fashion opportunities. My friends like to have a clothing swap each season. I look forward to possibly inheriting a cute cardigan that I have been admiring on a friend for years.
While eco-clothing—made from organic cotton, hemp or bamboo—is a good choice, it is often more expensive and still requires water and energy to produce. The current fashion trend is unsustainable—if not for our pocketbooks, then for the environment. We can get better at purchasing fewer, more durable garments, using detergents that work at lower temperatures, air-drying our clothes on laundry lines, extending the usable life of clothing, and recycling textiles when they are too holey for comfort.2: Gentlemen, just think how much your lady friends would be impressed if you started recycling. If you already recycle, think about other ways you can be more sustainable in your daily lives. Women are twice as likely as men to feel “green guilt,” reveals a recent study by Tiller LLC, a consulting firm on advocacy marketing programs. Perhaps “green initiative” would be a better goal to strive for. This could include buying bulk foods so you have less packaging to throw away or recycle; unplugging electronics when not in use; checking your car tires to maximize fuel efficiency (Not to add to gender stereotyping, but check HERS, too, for extra swoon effect.); and reading up on climate change and what you can do about it.
4: Gentlemen, you do not have to suppress your love to grill in order to eat more responsibly. Here’s a modest proposal: focus on choosing local meat—and perhaps eat vegetarian a couple times a week if you are up to the challenge. Yes, humans are omnivores and eating meat is not inherently bad. But if the entire world were to eat like an average American, there would not be enough food.
Let’s look at the numbers. World meat demand is expected to double by 2050 as third world countries develop—though the average American eats over twice as much as the global average. Energy is lost in the conversion of grain into animal protein. Consequently, livestock production places incredible demands on the world’s arable land, ground water and fossil fuel. As food, water and energy are becoming increasing problems throughout the world, we may be forced to reconsider our consumption habits. Why not start to make those adjustments gradually now?
In the process of devouring these precious resources, livestock production causes pollution of our waterways with manure, fertilizers and pesticides, and our atmosphere with greenhouse gases, in addition to soil erosion and nutrient depletion. The FAO reports that raising animals for food produces 18 percent of all global warming emissions. Compare this with the entire transportation sector (13 percent) and all of the world’s homes and offices (8 percent). A previous SAGE column covers the impact of eating vegetarian on global warming in more detail. So does your diet really impact the environment and public health? Yes. Here’s what you can do: cut back, cut it out, or at least, switch to more sustainable types, like local grass-fed beef.
Ultimately, we will be most successful in reducing our environmental impact if men and women join forces to combat stereotypes and cultural norms that are unsustainable. Stereotypes lead us to believe that there are huge differences between the behavior of men and women. But research demonstrates the contrary. Women tend to own more pairs of jeans then men, but compare the meager difference: seven pairs for women versus 6 pairs for men. While women are twice as likely to be vegetarian as men, less than 3 percent of either sex are vegetarian. And in spite of the common assumption that women take inordinately long showers, the 39-second difference is, well, a drop in the bucket when you consider that the average shower length is eight minutes. All this is to say that gender may play less of a role than we think in human environmental impact. In the end, everyone can make positive changes to put the planet on a more sustainable path.
Georgia Griffin, ’13, is an Earth Systems major.
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