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Zero waste, zero men movement?

This article was first published in 2020 for Zero Waste Stockholm

We could not help but wonder, why is there such a majority of women advocating for the ZW movement? In this article we take a look at the gender gap in the zero waste movement: the preconceived ideas around gender and how they impact our approach to sustainability.

Over the past couple of years, more and more articles and research papers started to talk about an eco gender gap: More women are adopting eco friendly behavior than men and this is happening across most of the developed countries, whether they are environmentalist leaders or not. Research also shows that women litter less and recycle more than men while having a smaller carbon footprint. At Zero Waste Stockholm it did not feel blindingly obvious right away, partly because we have lots of great men volunteering, but also because we are working as a virtual team. But when we stopped to look at the numbers, we could not help but notice that most of us were women. One could ask, does it matter? Well, it does if we are trying to get more people to move toward zero waste and we are somehow missing the point with half of the population. And just to be fair, it’s not just women claiming this, I highly recommend this article by Liam from The Rubbish Trip. So we decided to dig deeper to try and understand why. And so It seems that while we are busy recycling, we are recycling stereotypes as well. And like most bad habits, they die hard. See, somewhere along the way, the zero waste movement became perceived as feminine. And of course, businesses jumped on the zero waste bandwagon too happy to keep making profit while earning their green badge by targeting women more than men, and thus reinforcing the idea that zero waste is a women’s turf. It might be subtle but this shift is strongly impacting the way men engage with the movement. Why do you ask? Because no matter how much progress we believe Society has made since the 50s, societal and cultural conditioning feeding off gender stereotypes have ingrained in us habits we barely notice anymore.

Boys will be boys...

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari makes a great case explaining the imagined order humans have created for themselves, including, defining man and womanhood and assigning each with roles, rights and duties that have nothing to do with the biological male/female chromosomes assigned as we are created. He explains male and female are biological categories, man and women are social categories. Harari calls it an intersubjective order, one that exists simultaneously in the common consciousness of the majority of humans. Even if society is evolving (and some countries are doing much better than others), we are still more often than not, consciously or not, attaching particular feelings and behaviours to gender. It is no surprise that femininity is associated with emotions such as care, empathy, altruism. Women are seen as caregivers, they are mothers, they carry the children and it also seems at times, the weight of the world on their shoulders. Studies (1) show they are also more prone to feel guilt, and feel more pressure to be perfect. (Something that is also constantly hammered home via social media platforms).

Illustration by Lucie Váňová

On the other side of the spectrum, masculinity resonates with being strong, earning money, eating meat and keeping emotions in check. Some of you are cringing but look around at the commercials, the fashion ads, the romantic comedies or hero movies on Netflix. Progress is there, but it is slow. So there is that. Then on top of it a hierarchy has been introduced valuing masculine attributes higher than feminine ones. And down the rabbit hole we went; a hole we have been trying to climb out of for decades. Unfortunately the fight towards gender equality have woken up a lot of insecurities within men who turn out to be way more sensitive (ironically supposedly a woman attribute) about their gender representation than women. Men are much more worried about not being manly enough than women worry about being feminine enough. So ‘of course’ when we start talking about saving the earth, a planet that itself has been associated all across human history with femininity (Gaia the greek goddess of fertility, Tonantzin the Aztec ‘mother’ or the Incas PachaMama, mother earth) it would make sense to think of it as being ‘the women's job’?

The second shift

The second shift refers to the household chores that are left to do after a full day at work: cleaning, laundry, grocery, meals… and you guessed it, this mentally heavy unpaid shift falls on 79% of the women in the households in the EU. Even in a country like Sweden, the number one country in the UE for Gender Equality in 2019, 74% of women still cook and clean at least one hour a day compared to 56% of men. Now if you look at the main areas in the household where you can apply efforts to go zero waste, it is easy to realise that those are the areas where women are still mostly in charge: bathroom, kitchen, cleaning. And with that, they tend to take care of the groceries and shopping for house supplies. So yes, women might shop more, but for whom? The kids, the household, the present for the cousin’s birthday she remembered. Because women don’t only tend to do more household work, they carry the mental load meaning that they have to ‘manage’ the household: remember to add items to the shopping list, pay the caretaker, organise playdates… and on top of that, women now starts to feel that they also have to deal with the less known ‘morality load’...the ecological responsibility of the household. Marketing experts are familiar with these concepts and exploit them, feeding the vicious circle that brands the zero waste movement as a feminine movement and pushing lots (not all!) of men to consciously or not, feel the need to defend their masculinity. And so we observe that, It's not that men don't do anything about the environment. It is just that they do things differently.

Illustrations by Lucie Váňová

Think global act global

Because of stereotypes, because of history, because of marketing or whatnot, men (in general) seem to prefer to do their bit for the planet on a more macro/global scale. If they are under represented in the zero waste movement, they are on the other hand very present when it comes to the business, research, science, smart buildings and tech sides. Global or local, there is no right or wrong here. Both approach are needed. Yes it should not only be on the individual to do all the dirty work but we live in a world where unfortunately nothing will be done top down if the individual don’t push or fight for it. Our modern society also seems to have created generations of men who prefer to lead but more often than not neglect the small actions that can make a big impact and while they use all the right words, they sometimes forget to walk the talk (which can lead to greenwashing)… Many men want to do things to gain something on a personal level, to get recognition beyond a simple ‘good job buddy’. They are generally used to expect: a raise, a parking spot, a title… something that tells Society they are accomplished, they are on the right path to success. When that is the standard, it is obviously much harder to ‘stand out’ by doing the ‘little thing’ that no one will notice rather than the big change that will be admired. Why is it so important that men start caring about and doing the small things as well? Because awareness is grown by doing, and only a global awareness will lead to a system change. It’s easier to question animal exploitation when you have started to reduce your meat consumption or to reduce flying if you have already started to plan more local vacations. The human brain doesn’t like contradictions and it will find any kind of arguments to explain our behaviors. Even a small change in your behavior make see yourself as part of the transition more than the opposition. A better world won’t happen without a system change, but a system change won’t happen without the support of a large part of the population aware of the problems and working on a transition at their levels. Conversely, many women have the tendency to act more local, within their communities while men think ‘bigger’ and ‘further’. Being kept on the sidelines of power and global decision making for centuries, women took power where they could, primarily in their home and neighbourhood. They have also developed less trust in government institutions to do the right things, while men (caucasian men at least) tend to believe more in a system that has repeatedly favored them. This creates even more of a gap between women who are ready to engage wherever they can believing they can make a change, no matter how small it starts, and men who have a harder time questioning the norm, being confronted on their doing and are just not used to have to justify their actions and choices the way women are. As a result, it might simply be harder for men to go against what is established as the norm. And for a very very long time, the norm was not to worry about going zero waste. And so that topic was left to the women. Which might be one of the reasons why men are less represented in the movement today.

Role models and lack thereof

To start off, it might be good to remember that women are more present than men on social media platforms such as Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter or Instagram. If you type in zero waste movement on any of these platforms, chances are you'll be greeted by Bea Johnson, Lauren Singer or many other female bloggers and or youtubers. After going through the research, It is easy to understand men can quickly be overwhelmed and put off by the lack of male presence online they can identify with, that would reassure them that going zero waste will not strip them from their manhood. It took Arnold Schwarzenegger ‘coming out’ as vegan for many men to finally accept veganism does not rhyme with skinny and feminine bodies. What will it take to break the stereotyped feminine spell around the zero waste movement? So far not even Jason Momoa seems to be convincing enough.

Do we need gender neutrality to get carbon neutrality?

Sadly and ironically it seems as if men have got themselves stuck in a patriarchal straitjacket, seemingly narrowing their options and choices. In order to save itself and embrace global movements that go beyond gender, not only does society need to stop seeing feminine characteristics as weak but it also needs to let go of the stereotypes of what makes a man a man. Like everything else, closing the gender gap in the zero waste movement will not be done by blaming or shaming men but through better communication and understanding of unconscious biases, educating about the second shift and the mental load, refusing gender based marketing, encouraging more male role models...and ultimately, focusing on the issue at stake: reducing our waste; to allow for new generations of humans to come after us, regardless of their gender. Author's note: Thank you to all volunteers who helped me with this article, especially Jeremey Meteyer for his precious input. ---------- (1) among others:

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