Women and Sustainability:
Taking a Lead in China
Article by Wayne Visser
A few years ago, on one of my visits to China, I was invited to speak to a group in Shanghai called Women in Sustainability Action (Wisa). The organisation was set up by a former academic colleague, Jacylyn Shi, as a global network of professional women working in sustainability.
This got me thinking about the relationship between women and sustainability – and especially how this dynamic is playing out in China.
According to professor Kellie McElhaney, founder of the Centre for Responsible Business at University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, companies that empower women are more likely to be companies that act sustainably.
A research paper written by McElhaney and Sanaz Mobasseri found that businesses with more women on their board of directors are more likely to: manage and improve their energy efficiency; measure and reduce their carbon emissions; reduce their packaging impacts; invest in renewable power; improve access to healthcare in developing countries; have strong partnerships with local communities; offer products with nutritional or health benefits; proactively manage human capital development; offer transparent financial products; have anti-corruption policies and programmes; have a high level of disclosure and transparency; and avoid controversies such as accounting fraud, price fixing, criminal behaviour among top executives, controversial customer practices and insider trading.
But why is this? It’s a topic for hot debate and there are probably as many opinions as there are commentators. Do men have inherently unsustainable ways of acting in the world? Does testosterone fuel the exploitation of our planet and its people? Are women our best hope for creating a sustainable future.
Elle Carberry, co-founder and managing director of the China Greentech Initiative believes that women may be drawn to sustainability because of its social angle. “From all my 20 years in business, I have met more women in this area than in others [areas of business],” she says. “Be it in China or the United States.”
She adds: “It does strike me that women come to this with a view about society and business.
In China, women also appear to be playing an increasingly important role in sustainability and for one Chinese woman in particular, this “view about society and business” turned her into the wealthiest self-made woman in the world. Zhang Yin, also known by her Cantonese name Cheung Yan, is the founder and director of Nine Dragons Paper, a recycling company that buys scrap paper from the US, imports it into China, and turns it mainly into cardboard for use in boxes to export Chinese goods.
In 2006, she topped the list of the richest people in China and by 2010 her $4.6bn (£2.9bn) fortune placed her ahead of the likes of Oprah Winfrey and JK Rowling. She has said that she built her entire business empire on some simple advice that she received in Hong Kong in 1985: “Waste paper is like a forest – paper recycles itself, generation after generation.” …
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Cite this article
Visser, W. (2012) Women and Sustainability: Taking a Lead in China, The Guardian, 26 October 2012.