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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sustainable food has a gender edge, in a very nice way

I know it’s dangerous territory for men to presume to opine about what women like or want. So let’s just say I have a thesis to advance, backed by a few observations, and I’ll have to cop it sweet if I cause any offence.

Here goes with the thesis. If you want gender traction of the female variety for sustainability, then food is a killer app.

For UN World Food Day (October 16th), I’ve pulled together some thoughts and proof points on why this might be so. Here’s what I’ve been observing:

  • My partner, Natalie Isaacs, responds very positively when I work on developing a new home vegetable garden, and she’s pretty keen on her matching set of worm farms as well (one was an anniversary present, worms being truly romantic)
  • Natalie’s organisation, the 1 Million Women climate action campaign, gets great responses whenever it posts on its Facebook about food, and food has always been a strong performer for its website forums
  • The major humanitarian and disaster relief organisations, especially Oxfam Australia and CARE Australia in my recent experience, place much emphasis on engaging women and directing aid towards women, with food and water related assistance paramount e.g. small-scale farming, village wells, low-polluting cooking stoves
  • Women in the developed world make 70% or more of purchasing decisions that affect household environmental footprint, including food, and, using Africa as an example of the developing world, women there produce 80% of the food
  • Now that I find myself engaging sustainability professionals with a corporate employee engagement model for organic home food gardening, its women who are responding most strongly, positively and intuitively. No disrespect guys, but it’s a standout difference.

I’ll never forget a speaking panel gig I did a couple of years ago for a Living Green festival hosted by the City of Sydney, a civic sustainability leader in Australia.  I was part of a serious sustainability debate on greenwashing, with a very modest audience (including a dog), while over at the Sustainable Food tent with celebrity chef Kylie Kwong there were hundreds of people, the majority of them women, spilling out of the big marquee.

Moderately intellectual discourse is all very well, but the Living Green punters were feeling the traction of a greater attraction.

Why make this case? My thinking is that selling sustainability and especially behaviour change for sustainable living is hard enough, so why not find the paths of least resistance? Food is elemental sustainability and it engages everyone, though on my analysis women even more than men.

Food and beverage account for about a third of the carbon pollution in our daily lives. So food is a crucial pathway for mass-market sustainability, and women are a vital conduit for using the centrality of food in our lives to drive change in our households and communities.

Right now I’m helping a small business Cityfood Growers to spread the word about an innovative opportunity to combine successful home food growing with supporting Oxfam Australia’s East Africa Food Crisis Appeal, for World Food Day and Oxfam's Gather to GROW week (October 15-22, which is actually 8 days if you count them). I won’t be the least bit surprised if women find it most appealing, but guys I’d love to be proven gender deluded!

If I’ve offended anyone with these observations and analysis please be gentle. I mean well.

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