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A Sustainability Mystique for Women

[fa icon="calendar'] Apr 4, 2011 9:30:00 AM / by Cynthia Figge

By Cynthia Figge


In a recent study by the White House on the status of women, its first since 1963, women now make up 57% of college enrollment. Yet in 2009, at all levels of education, they earned only 75 percent as much as their male counterparts. How far have we come, and where are we going?


1963 was the auspicious year of Betty Friedan’s publication of feminism’s cornerstone text, The Feminine Mystique. Revisiting the book, I was surprised to discover new meaning in Friedan’s message—one with a decidedly progressive bent, even for 2011.


Stephanie Coontz’s book A Strange Stirring provides a compelling critique of the impact of The Feminine Mystique as an impetus for the profound changes brought by the women’s movement in the 60s and 70s. In the event you think women are not doing well enough, she outlines that we have come a long way since 1963. Clearly Friedan encouraged women to embrace, rather than repudiate, their aspirations for a life beyond the home.


What I did not know was that Friedan urged both women and men to use their education and talents in meaningful work that served a higher purpose. It is this call to integrate our work with a higher purpose that may be one of the most critical drivers of the sustainability movement.


Considering the vast transformation required to evolve our global economic system towards sustainability, the yearning for social utility in work is motivating many young people today to be a part of the solution. At both Harvard and Columbia Universities’ business schools, about 25% of all students are members of their environmental and sustainability clubs. Demand for work in this area is intense and many MBA graduates say they would sacrifice pay for work where they can solve social problems and make a difference in the world.


Although all are welcome, women may be particularly called upon to lead the sustainability movement. I recently joined with other sustainability leaders in the Northwest to launch the Seattle chapter of the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future (WNSF). Last fall, Jean Brittingham kicked off the inaugural gathering of over 70 women by saying that female memes have been absent for the past five to seven thousand years, and now is the time to bring our feminine traits – passion, curiosity, a solutions-first focus, intuition, relationship-based action and multitasking—to the sustainability movement.


Costco’s head of sustainability, Sheri Flies, added that we must understand the balance of women’s and men’s traits, and that she has seen some 30-something year old men embracing their own feminine attributes in their work styles.


Gifford Pinchot, co-founder of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, spoke about the risk facing our civilization, pointing out that as we move from knowledge work to creative work, women are the drivers of sustainable organizations, enterprises, and culture.


In her article Gender and the Sustainable Brain, Andrea Learned argues that encouraging the relational and empathetic aspects of human thinking [those aspects which are more typical of women] – and “better balancing that which has been perceived as masculine and feminine – will lead us to a more sustainable, enduring and productive global economy.”


So is this the time for women to “dominate” and “take over” to lead corporations and the world to sustainability? The recent article, The End of Men, in The Atlantic, indicates that this may be “our time.” Women’s growth in leadership has been barred by the dearth of women in the pipeline for the C suite, and too few female mentors. However, this is finally changing.


Joanna Barsh (a classmate at Harvard Business School) raises provocative issues in her book, How Remarkable Women Lead, such as whether feminine leadership traits (for women and men) are better suited for our fast-changing, hyper-competitive, and increasingly complex world. The good news is that women are tracking into sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) roles, and bringing a rich reservoir of strength, optimism for the future, and grounded ways to change the world. After five to seven thousand years, it’s about time.   


Cynthia Figge, Cofounder and COO of CSRHUB is a forerunner and thought leader in the corporate sustainability movement. In 1996 she co-founded EKOS International, one of the first consultancies integrating sustainability and corporate strategy. Cynthia has worked with major organizations including BNSF, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Dow Jones, and REI to help craft sustainability strategy integrated with business. She was an Officer of LIN Broadcasting/McCaw Cellular leading new services development, and started a new “Greenfield” mill with Weyerhaeuser. She serves as Advisor to media and technology companies, and served as President of the Board of Sustainable Seattle. Cynthia has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Cynthia is based in the Seattle area.

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Transparency and the Mega Trend

[fa icon="calendar'] Apr 30, 2010 5:41:16 PM / by Cynthia Figge

By Cynthia Figge

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by David Lubin and Daniel Esty should bring cheer to anyone who has been concerned about how slowly corporations seem to be adopting sustainability strategies.  The article titled “The Sustainability Imperative” argues persuasively that incorporating sustainability practices into corporate behavior is a “mega trend”.

A section titled “Reporting and communication” made me especially happy.  The authors say, “Developing metrics that allow companies to measure benefits and understand costs is essential to adapting and refining their strategy, as well as communicating results.”  Companies need an external measure of their sustainability progress —and they need benchmarks that compare them to their competitors, so they know how much further they need to go.  We have spent two years developing a measurement instrument we call CSRHUB—a tool we hope can provide this type of broad and uniform metric.

The authors go on to point out something I and my partners at EKOS International have seen in many of the companies we have worked with.  “When the assessments were based only on publicly available information and a company’s external reporting, we got scores that were almost always lower, and often significantly so, than scores developed in consultation with the company and with full inside information.”  In other words, many companies may be doing better on sustainability issues—and on their corporate social responsibility performance in general—than is publicly known.

For example, if you look at the default ratings on the CSRHUB site for Wal-mart and Costco, you will find Wal-mart gets a score of 56 and Costco gets a 48 (on a scale of 0 to 100).  As a Costco customer I hope that this difference may be overstated, but it’s difficult to know. Some of the difference our sources perceive between these two companies may be driven by their varying policies of disclosure. One explanation for the rating difference is that it’s the penalty for lack of transparency.   Costco is followed by fewer data sources:  Only twelve sources report on Costco compared to seventeen for Wal-mart. Wal-mart has expanded its website coverage of CSR, while Costco has only recently published a first report on sustainability.

If you are a subscriber to our system, you can see more of the picture.  Subscribers will see that Costco gets a 39 on its corporate transparency and reporting compared to 52 for Wal-mart, and 45 on its environmental policy and reporting compared to 63 for Wal-mart.  In contrast, we show closer ratings for a more fundamental element—environmental resource management (Costco gets a 51 rating while Wal-mart gets a 59).

I hope more companies come to understand both points this HBR article makes regarding communication. First, companies need to develop metrics that enable them to track their own progress.  Second, companies should contribute to the metric-forming process by revealing their policies and practices.  Doing both will strengthen transparency, and give good-performing companies credit where due for the improvements they have made, and hopefully serve as a catalyst to “manage sustainability as a business megatrend”.

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[fa icon="comment"] 4 Comments posted in benchmarks, comparison, competition, corporate social responsibility, Costco, CSR, CSRHUB opinion, Cynthia Figge, Harvard Business Review, megatrend, sustainability, transparency, social performance, Wal-Mart, corporate communications, environment, measurement, metrics

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