I live by the sea. While much else that floats around our shores is dead or inanimate, ecofeminism should be alive and kicking. Why? Largely because women’s lives are especially adversely affected by environmental pollution caused by (usually) male-dominated corporations. However, while I see plenty of beach-side activism, women do not seem to be linking sustainability issues with the exploitation of women.
Simply being a woman means I potentially access more cleansing and cosmetic products than most men. Our bodies and how they are managed do not make us naturally eco-friendly. We are expected to clean up and beautify, most of us acceding to this. Tampon applicators, sanitary towels, and cleansing wipes all go somewhere, and often, it’s through the sewerage system into our oceans. Many cosmetic products, directed at women, have contained plastics we were not overtly informed about. Inadvertently, many of us have been contributing to marine degradation, which sits rather uncomfortably for anyone opposed to exploitation.
On the plus side, while in the 21st century, we know that the environment is in a bad way; we also know that women are increasingly at the forefront of environmental campaigns but also that women sustain their action once the initial fanfare is over; they are in it for the long haul. There are many inspirational environmental women activists out there.
In developing countries, environmental catastrophes regularly impact upon women first, so it is often women who are proactively dealing with the problems. According to Sherilyn MacGregor (University of Manchester) women experience the world in “qualitatively different ways to men” which is fair comment, yet most would still not proclaim themselves to be ecofeminists.
Ecology is growing in importance as green issues grab the headlines. People (more so since the plastic bag tax) are becoming interested in the natural world and the havoc humanity wreaks upon it. Beach cleans and plastic disposal events are now massive along our coastline, with women at the forefront of localised campaigns. Re-usable coffee cups are the current target ‘movement’ where I live (North Cornwall/Devon coast) and indeed nationally but will it lead to more awareness of the links between the environment and feminism?
The term ecofeminism is as it sounds. It was coined in 1974 by Francoise D’Eaubonne during second-wave feminism, a time of a resurgent green movement and several environmental disasters. It asserted that there are critical gender, socio-economic and environmental connections between the exploitation of women and exploitation of nature. MacGregor discusses d’Eaubonne’s assertion “that this new global movement within feminism draws upon the specifically feminine power to combat the ecological crisis and the systems of male dominance that have given rise to it”. However, as a movement, it is not without its criticisms.
1974? Yes, it all sounds slightly dated to me, too, but the issues remain. Maybe my awareness has increased because of my locality, but it seems there has recently been a massive growth in ecological concerns, a big leap forward in the UK and globally, with problems previously ignored now at the forefront of our lives.
It is difficult to call any branch of feminism holistic, but the environment affects us all, so ecofeminism could potentially be a unifying thread. Still, despite the internal sexism of many green organisations and despite product targeting at women by big business, women are, I reiterate, still struggling to make the overt link between environmental and female exploitation. While many women are understandably concerned with social justice and a sustainable world environment for their children to inhabit, they are not yet necessarily embracing the full political dimensions of this. Most female environmental activists I know would sadly still hesitate to call themselves feminists.
Modern ecological activists are as likely to be women as men, maybe because consumer capitalism has made cosmetic products a gender issue, its products directed specifically at women: plasticised cotton wool buds, sanitary products, micro-plastics in exfoliators, and sun-screens, leading to a build-up of plastics in our waters, and even as far away as Arctic waters. But also because women use the sea. Does it matter if you are hit in the face by a piece of plastic, or a used sanitary towel while swimming or surfing? Well, yes, actually, and women are fighting back in a practical way because they do surf and swim, as do their children.
In areas like Mexican Yucatan, women are also engaging in different types of waste management. They organise environmental clean-ups not for money but for health gains. Living among garbage in Mexico, women are galvanised by concerns for their children’s health. Here, similarly, women have a vested interest in keeping our oceans clean. I accept that one of the reasons I engage in local beach cleans is so that my daughter can surf in cleaner seas. It’s not all altruism.
So, it’s great that women are getting angry, which is beginning to refuel the ecofeminist fire. Increasingly, women are heading companies, realising that capitalism and concern for the environment do not necessarily have to mutually exclusive. Women were asking why companies introduced microbeads, too small to be filtered by the sewage system, into so many products. They are now banned here. Did we need to scrape our faces with them? They ended up in the sea. Fish ate them. Mammals, including humans who eat the fish, were also ingesting them, complete with the toxins which they absorb. They are now still in global waters, often in huge accumulations and they remain a massive pollution problem.
There are natural alternatives to beads such as ground up nuts, salt, and other natural products which companies have been forced to use. But exfoliation and other skin care products are a big deal in the market, so companies were reticent to ditch undesirable plastics in products. They did not make it easy for consumers to vote with their feet. As feminists, if we are concerned about environmental exploitation and degradation we need to actively seek out – and reject – contents in items such as polyethylene and polypropylene (read the small print).
The call, therefore, for women to use only green products (including good old-fashioned soap and water) has an impact at an ecofeminist level, for such choices empower women to have a small but important positive impact on the environment. Not interested? Fine, but therein lies the rub.
Who do you prefer to help save the planet? Women or big business?