Gender equality for a sustainable future: ‘Good start, but a long way to go’

On Women’s Day, e4m asks women business leaders what they think of this year’s theme, and how gender-just workplaces can deliver inclusive sustainable development

e4m by Mansi Sharma
Published: Mar 8, 2022 8:48 AM  | 10 min read
women's Day

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day celebration is ‘gender equality for a sustainable future’, an attempt to advance gender equality in the context of the climate crisis and disaster risk. As per a statement by the United Nations, “Women are increasingly being recognized as more vulnerable to climate change impacts than men, as they constitute the majority of the world's poor and are more dependent on the natural resources which climate change threatens the most. At the same time, women and girls are effective and powerful leaders and change-makers for climate adaptation and mitigation.” 

With a focus on the same, interacted with some senior and some young leaders from the marketing, advertising, PR, and brand world to know their thoughts on sustainability, how gender-just workplaces can deliver inclusive & holistic sustainable development, and if the corporate world of today is able to deliver on its sustainability promises. 

Gender & sustainability: An interlocked matrix

The leading ladies of the Indian corporate world believe that sustainability is the most crucial aspect for any business and individual and has a strong connection with gender equality at workplaces.  

Duroflex CMO Smita Murarka shares, “There are numerous studies that have established a linkage between gender equality and sustainable activities. Women are more sensitive to conservation and mindful usage of resources because traditionally they have been responsible for resource management of households and the community. Research has also found that the countries that have a more balanced gender ratio in their parliaments have more efficient environmental policies than their counterparts that don’t.”

Wunderman Thompson, South Asia Chief Talent Officer Roopa Badrinath elaborates, “More often than not women, girls and children are the most impacted in times of a catastrophe caused either due to environmental, social, economic or political reasons. If their suffering has to be alleviated or if their voices have to be heard loud and clear, we need to have people who understand their struggles.” 

“When organizations are mindful of their responsibility towards this under-served and under-represented community, by following gender-equal and gender-just practices, it starts showing in the products they develop and the practices that they follow to ensure that the changes and the impact thereof are long-term and more sustainable.  It also starts making an impact on the top line of such companies. More and more companies embracing this would mean fewer and fewer women have to struggle with exploitation.  This in turn ensures the basic right of any human being – to live with dignity.  When the voices of women are heard more at the workplace, the solutions become more human-centric,” she added.

Lamborghini India Head Marketing & PR Meghana Dave further notes that incorporating gender equality in sustainable business strategy is imperative now. “Gender-equal & gender-just will come under human rights, and any change in this direction will bring positive impact on economic growth & overall well-being of society. The cause and underlying drivers of unsustainability and gender inequality are deeply interlocked. The negative impact it has on social, environmental and economic (aspects) is now increasingly becoming evident. For eg: Women’s access to and control over agricultural assets and productive resources is important for achieving food security and sustainable livelihoods or female education and women’s share of employment, can have a positive impact on economic growth, although this impact is dependent on the nature of growth strategies, the structure of the economy, and the sectoral composition of women’s employment.”

FoxyMoron (Zoo Media) National Head of Client Partnerships Prachi Bali agrees and shares, “It’s not that all women are better decision-makers or more aware about sustainability issues. Saying that would be very unfair to men. But having more women voices in the positions of power will definitely add more perspective to the discussions. And it is very important to have a varying point of view to make more holistic and inclusive strategies to attain sustainable goals.” 

Brands onto a good start but long way to go

There are a number of big, global brands that, over the past few years, have made big promises around their sustainable goals; be it Coca-Cola working towards water positivity, Tata aiming for zero carbon emissions, LÓréal’s promise on cutting down emissions by 50 per cent, or HUL, Nestle etc moving towards eco-friendly packaging. But are they actually making a difference or most of it goes down the purpose-washing lane?  

To this question, all of these female leaders responded with a positive outlook highlighting that the corporate world is on to a good start. However, they agree that there are a lot of loose ends that need some tightening. 

Godrej & Boyce Head – Environment Sustainability Tejashree Joshi notes, “I think that most companies are now taking a more focused approach to sustainability goals. Not every sustainability goal can fit in with every business’ ethics and culture. There has been a  realization that materiality is very important. And with that realization coming in, the first hurdle to sustainable development is already crossed. The discussion has become mainstream. But we have to realize that most of these goals are long to medium term. Therefore, there are some hiccups and some mistakes are also made. But I believe that the intent is very strong on modern businesses’ part. They are really serious about holistic, inclusive, and sustainable development.”

Kisanserv Controller Finance & Payments Durga Shirali likes to believe that companies are taking the right steps. “India, on the whole, has set an ambitious goal of being carbon neutral by 2060. On an aggregate level, I am positive we will attain the goal. For example, a lot of Indian companies have played an important role in greening the cities or near their campus, the result is overwhelmingly positive, you will be pleasantly surprised to know that emerging countries like India and China are greener than they were 30 years back. Also, the tiger project was much supported by corporates, and their population tripled as a result. Corporates form a group of influencers. And with power and money comes huge responsibility as well, like what Spider Man said – Let’s do it together!” 

On the other hand, Hansa Research SVP – CX/UX Practice Lead Piyali Chatterjee feels that many big brands make green promises but fail in backing them up with adequate implementation data.

She says, “The intent exists but the execution still needs improvement. Many large Indian industries have already set science-based climate commitments. As many as 57 Indian companies have committed to more than 95 emission reduction targets. Promises are already made but implementation needs to be faster.”

Monofys Media Founder & CEO Misbah Quadri also sees the negative side of these big promises, “Greenwashing is a crime a number of brands nationally and even internationally have been accused of. ‘Customer is the king’ is a popular saying in business and so it is up to the public to decide how invested a brand is in its claims to remain sustainable. For example, fast fashion brands that employ child labour for quick, easy and cheap output are the major culprits here. How can brands continue to remain self-centred and insensitive even in today’s day and age? Consumers should demand that their loyalties are not for free or for how much a brand invests in its marketing mix but depends upon the real-time efforts they are taking to build a future worth growing old for.”

Scenic Communications Co-Founder Anindita Gupta shares a wider view, “For starters, MNCs have woken up to the ‘sustainable’ trend a little late and most of them have done more so in response to the changing consumer mindset. Having said that, it would be presumptuous to discard all of these as fake or have only been done to garner a marketing value. As a brand communication person myself, I’d like to highlight that ‘green washing’ has become a major challenge in the fight to build a more sustainable and climate-conscious business ecosystem, but not all of it is 100 per cent true. If claims are being made, brands are at least fulfilling a part of it, maybe in the range of 40 to 60 per cent of what is promised and to be honest, that is good too!”

So what can be improved? 

The ladies also shared some interesting suggestions as to how brands can better deliver on their sustainability promises and goals. 

Grapes COO & Strategy Head Shradha Agarwal notes, “I think brands should use advertising as their tool to promote and be aware of their consumers. Their campaigns can inculcate the value of sustainability while their major campaign builds a sense of responsibility among consumers. In times when digital is at its peak, it has become much easier to reach a mass audience and impact their lifestyle choices.”

Tejashree Joshi says that brands must only pick causes that fit well in their business agenda. “Sustainability caters to a lot of aspects – it’s not just about the environment or inclusivity. Businesses must pick causes that they can really deliver on. For example, ecological sustainability has been a core business principle for Godrej & Boyce since its founding days. Even the office campus (in Vikhroli, Mumbai) has been designed on the idea of cohabitation, wherein nature and humans could stay together. We have done so much work in mangrove preservation and are now working towards involving more corporates in the mission with our partnership with CII and WWF.”

She adds, “Another thing that needs to be done is involving a lot of MSMEs and supporting them in aligning their business goals towards shared sustainable goals will be of great help.”

Piyali Chatterjee highlights that brands need to be more honest in their approach when it comes to sustainability, “Companies should make claims that are clear and easy to understand.  Overpromising and underdelivering can have adverse effects. When comparing your product's sustainability to a competitor's, make sure to compare the same product type so you're not misleading consumers. Sustainability claims should always be backed up with data for gaining trust among consumers. If possible, include credible third-party certification from sources such as the Carbon Trust Standard, Forest Stewardship Council, Rainforest Alliance, or Energy Star. 

“If you are promising sustainability to your consumers then it should be part of your business model. Institute sustainable practices in your manufacturing, waste disposal and distribution operations. It should be seamlessly implemented through the business cycle. Make sure images on ads and packaging are not misleading. Don't use the colour green or images from nature, like trees and flowers, to imply that your products or brand are eco-friendly if that's not the case."

The Ayurveda Company co-founder Shreedha Singh concludes, "With great authority and stature comes a lot of responsibility. Big brands with their deep resonance with the consumers and strong ability to influence, can make a change in the consumption pattern of customers by making them more aware of sustainability. Since they have larger resources and higher risk-taking ability, they can lead by example. Sustainability can be incorporated in multiple aspects, such as: Doing away with plastic packaging wherever possible; Providing equal opportunities for men and women; Ensuring equal pay for both men & women."

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