It is no coincidence that the earth (or nature) is often personified as a mother in different cultures. In Greek mythology, Gaia was the mother goddess who presided over the earth and was essentially the mother of all life. The Algonquian people believe in an earth mother who feeds plants, animals and humans alike from her bosom. Closer to home, Dewi Sri is the goddess of both rice and fertility in Javanese and Sundanese mythology.
Since the nurturing and protective qualities of a mother are often used to symbolise our symbiotic relationship with our planet, perhaps women, or mothers specifically, might offer a different perspective when it comes to the ongoing conversation about climate change, its impact and what must be done moving forward.
The air around the climate change discussion has often revolved around grim, fact-based predictions that science has made about our future — from the global temperature increasing more than 1.5 degrees Celcius to reports from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), that Arctic ice sheets are being eaten up by the sea every second. But the way these facts affect our everyday reality in a more immediate way largely depends on both our geographical and socio-economic position.
For those in particularly affected areas — such as those who experienced the Australian and Californian fires, Venice’s over-flooding canals and Japan’s typhoons — the impact of a deteriorating earth hits close to home and ramifications are immediate.
Women around the world also tend to be at a disadvantage when it comes to the repercussions of such environmental disasters, especially in places where the socio-economic status of women is particularly low. When the deadly 1991 North India Cyclone hit the shores, 90 per cent of the victims were women, according to the World Health Organisation. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, single mothers were among the worst affected by the resultant flooding in New Orleans.
When it comes to the question of environmentalist actions to fight against climate change, it is often the wealthy and powerful who can afford healthy and sustainable alternatives. The pressure to go green can actually take a psychological toll on those who simply can’t afford to do so.
It is also a myth that action on a personal level alone will make a significant dent on the globe’s collective carbon footprint. Those in many developed nations, are now conditioned to think that altering their daily habits like reducing plastic usage, ordering less takeout, and driving electric cars are the key to minimising climate change. Those who won’t (or can’t) uphold these values are dubbed eco-sinners.
“The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had tweaked our consumption habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous,” writes climate essayist, Mary Annaise Heglar. This “greener than thou” mentality divides fellow victims from each other while distracting the community from taking collective responsibility for bigger-scale problems. “The weight of our sickly planet is too much for any one person to shoulder. And that blame paves the road to apathy, which can really seal our doom,” says Heglar. She emphasises redirecting personal sacrifice to a focus on systems. This sentiment is backed by an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2018, which pinpoints large corporations for being responsible for more than 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Around the world, entrepreneurs are spotlighting climate change in a way that emphasises science, not controversy. Women are crucial to the conversation on several levels. While climate communications is a male dominated arena, as men fill the majority of leadership roles for spearheading climate action, a number of reports have shown that the participation of women in these fields have demonstrated more favourable outcomes.
Feminist values have always highlighted women as the ones primed to lead with compassionate solutions. Even more so, women’s stories and experiences of living intimately with climate chaos equip them with a heightened perceptibility in accessing risk and vulnerability, which eventually translates into innovations that are essential for climate action.
Since 2006, Cartier has dedicated an initiative to help women reach their full potential in their social and environmental endeavours. This year, the Cartier Women’s Initiative is bringing together a new group of women entrepreneurs from all around the world to leverage their businesses as a catalyst for action.
T Singapore focuses on the stories of three women — all of whom happen to be mothers — who are leading their communities towards a more promising future planet as they set their transformative ideas into motion.
Charlotte Wang on Energy
Courtesy of Cartier
Founder of EQuota Energy Technology, Charlotte Wang, optimising new technology for a better air quality for generations to come.
Charlotte Wang’s childhood was filled with images of coal mines and power plants. Growing up in the rural village of Bei Piao, China, Wang was exposed to the effects of a polluted environment at a very young age. “I had sinus issues very early on; struggling with breathing especially during the winter time as coal was the only single energy source,” she says. It wasn’t until a decade later that Wang caught her first glimpse of the atmosphere outside of her village, when her family finally moved to a city on the coast. Her sinus problems — that she’d battled for most of her life — went away within two weeks of moving to the United States for college. This experience led her to set her mind to develop a non-intrusive operation to help large factories reduce energy consumption.
Climate change has thoroughly altered the lives of many. As a Chinese woman and a mother, Wang felt an intense urgency and responsibility for her work. “Coming from China, I’ve witnessed first-hand the environmental damage and waste caused by coal-fired power plants,” she says, “I feel a strong wake-up call to do something for existing energy systems in order to achieve a low carbon future — it will help my children to live on earth comfortably.”
Enter EQuota Energy, a revamped energy system with artificial intelligence and Big Data as its central driving force. For Wang, personal sacrifice takes on an entirely different meaning. Her initiative has seen her and her team work relentlessly to perfect this digitised process, which tracks the life cycle of services and provides optimal solutions for organisations to adopt seamlessly. For a regular consumer, Wang describes her initiative to be that of a fitness tracker, in which information of your health in relation to movements provokes an active change of lifestyle. “If you wait until the annual doctor’s visit, it may be too late,” she says. “Just like an energy fitness tracker, EQuota is able to help large energy consumers — like steel, cement, chemical and power plants — understand their per-minute energy consumption and adjust operations in real time.”
As one of the largest developing countries in the world, China is also one of the countries with the highest carbon emissions. Wang has since introduced the idea of innovative technology to the China market to reduce its dependency on coal-fired power plants. In an era when technology is receiving a bad rep for its detrimental effects, Wang is determined to box out a new category of technology as the solution. “I truly believe that innovative technology gives different views to climate change, striving for harmonic balance in the environment,” she says.
To date, EQuota has seen the fatalities decrease by 12 to 20 persons per year, 5.78 million MWh of saved energy consumption, and reduced 350,3570 tonnes of CO2 emission and 5.8 million MWh of coal-fired power supply. “This is definitely a male-dominated field I’m working in,” Wang says, but points out that the “solid results” have opened up a platform for her to speak about her services without “letting them focus on my gender.”
Adriana Luna on Ecosystems
Courtesy of Cartier
With a new food production system, Adriana Luna gives new life to the indigenous agriculture landscape.
Becoming a mother is an identity shift that changes one forever. For biologist Adriana Luna, the birth of her child also signified a new life for her career in agriculture. Growing up in Mexico, Luna witnessed the heavy cost of food production. A growing demand for food around the world had prompted unhealthy measures for the maximum yield of crops. This, to Luna is a “short-sighted solution” that has in turn caused damage to human and environmental health. “Like medicine, you can control a disease with pills, but that won’t make you healthy, just less ill,” she says.
In countries with high agricultural densities, agrochemicals used for pest controls have been shown to lead to high risks of brain, breast and lung cancer. According to WHO, many developmental problems, like hydrocephalus, child blindness and deformed extremities, have been identified among farmers and their families who have been exposed to pesticides. And the scale of damage to the environmental ecosystem is even steeper because of bioaccumulation. Luna says, “The dosage (of poisonous substance) to kill a beetle is harmless to larger animals, but those who feed on poisoned beetles will eat many of them, scaling the ingestion to lethal levels.” And the effect ripples out as Luna explains, “That effect not only kills non-target animals, but radically reduces the population of predators, making it harder to control pests.”
The effects of agriculture include the release of greenhouse gases in the process of producing agrochemicals and because of the use of fuel to feed carbon to the soil. With the buffering effect rapidly disappearing from the natural ecosystem, the rise in temperature inevitably impacts the life cycles of insects and pests, causing them to reproduce faster. And with the lack of predators, the chemically-induced cycle repeats.
In 2009, Luna moved to Mexico’s largest agricultural region, where she observed the practices of large, funded agribusinesses and indigenous agriculture. A bulb inside her head lit up when she identified the gap between the two, and the disproportionate impact it had on the poor. Somewhere between nurturing plantations that fail to meet the high demands of wholesalers and high-producing food factories, Luna saw a new type of business that “produces high-quality, high-cost, and low-yield products sold within the upper middle class and above, making healthy food only accessible to a small minority.”
With her years of accumulated knowledge, Luna has introduced a new framework of agriculture called Tierra de Monte “to make organic the new normal, not luxury”. She says, “We usually forget that pathogens and pests were there before we arrived, and probably will remain after we leave.” In her new business, she aims to exploit these elements in the ecosystem as production aids. Through the lens of technology, Luna saw the elements that once threatened the lives of each other as microorganisms that could work together. “We were able to make a set of products that enhance crop yield and protect it from pests and diseases without eradicating any species.” Instead, she has “put them to work together, like a community of good neighbours.”
Food has always been a source of sustenance and survival. To Luna, agriculture should have been a partnership between nature and life, not an ugly business for profit. As a mother, Luna finds her survival instinct to be even stronger than before. “My two kids were born allergic to many substances,” she says. “For them, conventional food was poison but we could not afford organic.” Choosing between buying “bad” food or too little food, Luna made it a personal quest to produce healthy food for everyone while simultaneously bettering the environment. It is in this vein that she decided to work with conventional farmers with her technological venture as “it is unfair to [hold them] responsible for not producing sustainably without giving them the support to do it without endangering their livelihoods.”
At Cartier Women’s Initiative, Luna is met with similar voices to help her set her quest in motion. In Mexico, businesswomen are often marginalised or discriminated against. For Luna, this brand initiative is “a safe space opened for us women entrepreneurs to create, make new rules, learn from each other and create networks and scale the impact of our ventures.”
Stephanie Joy Benedetto on Materials
Courtesy of Cartier
In her work, Stephanie Joy Benedetto seeks out various sources of fabric waste in the fashion industry and connects them with sustainable buyers in exchange for cleaner land and clear water.
One of the biggest sources of waste lies in the fashion industry. According to search engine data, the term “sustainable fashion” has a significant and growing number of audiences. Yet how many industry organisations or consumers truly understand the nuances of this term?
“Women’s choices impact up to 85 per cent of purchasing decisions, making women the single, largest economic force in the world,” says Stephanie Joy Benedetto, the founder of Queen of Raw. Her company is an online platform where mills, factories, brands and even fashion students can buy and sell unused textiles and deadstock fabric. Essentially it acts as a global marketplace to connect all these players and reduce the wastage of fabric. Benedetto’s takeaway from that statistic wasn’t that of perturbation but one of remarkable perception. “That, to me, is power! And that makes women a key player in solving the world’s climate crisis,” she says.
Since the early 2000s, the fast fashion business saw a dramatic increase thanks to its ability to match runway trends with low-priced clothing on a vast scale with the snap of a finger. According to the New York Times in 2018, a number of power plants in Vasteras (the town where H&M founded its stores) relies on burning defective and unsellable products to create energy.
In her quest to turn fashion into profit, Benedetto dug deep into the issue of wasted textiles. Aside from land and air pollution, textile pollution has also impacted our drinking water. Benedetto says, “One shirt takes 700 gallons of water to produce. If we continue at the current pace of textile production, by 2025, two-thirds of the entire world population will face a shortage of fresh water and be exposed to hazardous chemicals from textile production alone.”
Benedetto’s challenge with her business is reducing customer costs while securing sustainable materials in real time. “Unused textiles can still fill orders on demand and away from areas that are impacted by disruption, while supporting commitments to sustainability,” says Benedetto.
At press time, Queen of Raw has saved over a billion gallons of water and kept over 500 tonnes of wasted material out of landfills. Benedetto is currently aiming for higher ground — to save more than four billion gallons of water and two million tonnes of textiles from landfills by 2025. As she continues to take strides towards a greener future, Benedetto finds a greater motivation behind her work. “Many women leave work for a variety of reasons, including having children. I launched my business the same time I had my first child. I am doing what I’m doing to make a difference in the world, not just for myself anymore, but for my children, and my children’s children. I want them to have clean water to drink and clothes that aren’t toxic to wear — this mission helped me find the strength to meet any challenge,” she says.
Maternal instincts are indeed powerful enough for these women (and many more worldwide) to seek solutions to ensure there’s a liveable planet for the next generation of children. Benedetto says, “We can’t have organisations just publish statistics and hire people to check a box. Companies need to engage in meaningful conversations to have a lasting impact on these issues.”
Paris, 16th June 2020 — The 2020 Cartier Women's Initiative has culminated in a noble selection of laureates by an independent international jury committee. Out of which, Wang, Luna and Benedetto emerge has three of the seven laureates to receive a monetary grant as well as continual support in business mentoring, opportunities and a chance to join the INSEAD (one of the world's largest and leading business schools) executive education programme on scaling impact.
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