Why Do Women Experience More Eco-Anxiety Than Men?

Illustrated by Lily Fulop
I’m hunched over the sink, scrubbing the blood from my period undies. As I scrub, I consider all the women I know. Most of them are like me; trying their hardest to make good consumer choices, however small, in the urgent fight against climate change. 
For me, making the swap from tampons to more sustainable alternatives was a no-brainer, given the 10,000—12,000 (mostly plastic) disposable period products discarded by Australian menstruators in their lifetimes. For one of my friends, cutting red meat from her diet was an attempt to reduce her CO2 emissions. Another friend won’t even contemplate buying an almond milk flat white if she’s forgotten to bring her reusable cup. She's worried about the turtles.
In fact, most women in my life have added “not doing enough to save the planet” onto their list of things to feel guilty about. It seems that eco-anxiety is informing a growing number of the decisions we make each day. As for cis-gendered men? Let’s just say it may not be keeping them up at night.
That’s due to the “eco gender gap”; a term British market research company Mintel coined upon finding that 71% of UK women were committing to living more eco-friendly lives compared to 59% of men. According to a study out of Sweden, single men are more likely to use “consumption-related” energy than single women, while another study notes that cis-gendered men are also more likely to eat meat, resulting in higher greenhouse gas emissions.  
So, if men seem to be contributing more to the destruction of the planet (hello billionaires going to space) then what makes women more likely to take on the guilt-ridden brunt of earth-saving? 
Zara Bending, a researcher at the Centre for Environmental Law at Macquarie University and a board director for the Jane Goodall Institute Australia, believes it’s a question of presumed responsibility. The expectation that women should be environmentally aware is just another cultural symptom of the gendered mental load
“Green-branding may as well be pink-branding,” Zara says. “Are we setting up this paradigm now where we brand sustainability as more invisible women’s work?” 
An even more powerful question when you consider the number of sustainable alternatives offered in the women's market. More environmentally friendly clean-beauty and household brands are popping up every day and in fashion, the majority of sustainability conversations are geared towards women. 
And while three-quarters of all retail transactions in Australia are made by women, Zara wonders if eco-friendly swaps targeted specifically to women are contributing to the eco gender gap. 
“On one hand I get that brands are trying to be conscious and also turn a profit, but are they projecting a message that this [environmentalism] is a woman’s responsibility? And that gets passed down from generation to generation.”

The looming cloud of climate anxiety

Globally, women are also more likely to feel the effects of climate change, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The organisation found that as extreme weather events such as droughts and floods become more frequent, the impact on people in poverty—70% of whom are women—will only worsen.
“Women are vastly more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change but we need to ensure that the responsibility of achieving climate justice is achieved equitably across all genders,” says Zara. 
Asitha Samarawickrama is a Queensland-based environmental scientist and koala conservationist. It was during his time volunteering for youth-led environmental group, Roots and Shoots, that he first encountered the eco gender gap in action. “When I first joined, I was elected to a leadership council. There were about 11 of us and I was the only guy there for two years,” he says. “I found it really difficult to get guys into the council. Either they weren’t interested or their applications didn’t shine through compared to the women that applied.” 
While Asitha now works in the environmental industry, he says, “It’s quite rare that I talk with my friends about eco-anxiety. I don’t talk about it to anyone really. With climate change, I might bring it up depending on what the topic is, but I see myself talking about it a lot with my family. And of course at work.” 
While Asitha already makes sustainable switches such as going palm oil-free and buying clothes made from sustainable fibres, he says he doesn’t feel marketed to as a man. “As consumers, it’s important for us to do a bit of research and know what we’re buying. I think we have a great way to vote with our wallet so why not put it to use?” 
Like all gendered social norms, it seems that the guilt women may feel around “not doing enough” for the planet is learnt; a logical yet inequitable extension of expectations to bear the brunt of the domestic mental load, do the bulk of child-rearing, and dish out emotional labour like free candy. All while being paid less. Given this capitalistic conditioning, companies and their marketers know what women are more likely to purchase. In other words, the sustainability gender gap exists because gender inequality exists. 

Closing the eco gender gap

The good news is that as a new generation gains financial independence, eco-friendly products will be increasingly seen as the norm rather than an alternative lifestyle choice. According to IDG Communications, 54 percent of Australia’s Gen Z and 43 percent of millennials believe that a company’s social and environmental efforts are “extremely important”. Here’s hoping that goes for all genders as time goes on. Because we all know that climate change doesn’t practice gender discrimination.
So how do we close the gap? 
Asitha believes that speaking about the issue with more people may shrink the gender divide. “Try to connect with like-minded people. You’ll realise that there’s a lot of people who actually care but maybe they don’t talk about it or they just do things by themselves. It becomes such a strong emotion when we come together.”
And while women shouldn’t be expected to provide (even more) emotional or mental labour, being willing to lead frank conversations with the men in our lives could go a long way. If you’re in a family dynamic or straight relationship where you do the majority of the grocery shopping, try dividing up (or outright delegating) the task, so your partner or a male family member can better understand, and respond to, both the barrage of gendered eco-marketing you face as well as the importance of sustainable consumer choices when you can afford them.
Apps like Shop Ethical! and Good On You are educational brand-rating tools that can help remove the temptation to purchase environmentally damaging products. If you only have the green light to buy one brand of reusable cling wrap (as opposed to five types of plastic ones), you eliminate the risk of decision fatigue for all genders.
And to the cis men who may be reading this: please throw us a line in the fight against climate disaster because it’s coming for all of us. The world is on fire and it will take way more than 49.6 percent of the population to fix it.
As brands become more green-savvy, it’s up to all of us as consumers to distinguish between what’s actually helping the environment versus what’s cynical green-washing, designed to line the pockets of big business.
For the moment, however, Zara says it’s about “having equal representation at the table when it comes to better standards for consumers. Because right now, it feels like we are taking on the lion’s share of that. Which is quite apt. Because with lions, it’s the females that do the hunting.” 
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