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.’[1] It is not biologically natural, but rather a social construct, an arrangement of relations, that is subject to change overtime.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4] They deplore this lack of intersectionality, as they believe that existing gender structures can be an enabler or a barrier to sustainable consumption.[5] 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.’[6] So why is that? Brough et al. test the hypothesis that ‘both men and women mentally associate greenness with femininity.’[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

This stereotype also relies on the idea that ‘environmentalism and conservationism reflect caring and nurturing of the environment, which are prototypical feminine traits.’[10] In dominant discourses, women are indeed meant to be ‘more compassionate’ and therefore willing to be more sustainable.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] It means that consumers’ response to gender stereotypes depends on both individual and situational factors.[14] Gender identity is relevant for sustainable consumption because it plays a major role in one’s choices.[15] 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.[16] (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.[17] This research on gender stereotypes and perceptions is important because it helps understand why a gender gap exists in sustainable behaviour.

Figure 1: Brough et al. p.575

Moreover, there tends to be a connection between women, ethical consumption, and responsibilities, especially for mothers