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Green Spending and Gender

When it comes to fighting climate change, gender looms large.

Key points

  • Consumer spending habits can have a significant impact on climate change and the health of the planet.
  • Sustainable consumption depends on factors including wealth and gender.
  • Men tend to have larger carbon footprints than women and gender-nonconforming individuals, but that doesn't have to be the case.

Consumer spending fuels the global economy and is the biggest single cause of climate change. Much of that spending is discretionary, so changing consumption habits can help protect the planet. However, men and women approach environmentally conscious spending in different ways.

How to Be a Responsible Consumer

Not all consumption is environmentally equal. It is better to drive an electric vehicle than one with an internal combustion engine. Heating one's home with a fuel pump is better than an oil furnace. These preferred options do less harm to the environment than the alternatives and are referred to as Sustainable Consumption (SC). SC takes many different forms. Some relate to the engineering design of a home in terms of heating and insulation. Others deal with the minutiae of product choices, whether it is purchasing small towels to minimize energy used in the laundry, selecting green laundry detergent, or shopping with reusable bags.

While climate change is aggravated by all consumer spending, some choices are far more damaging than others. This reality presents consumers with many choices about SC in their daily lives.

These choices are not just a matter of environmental rectitude. They also involve issues of self-presentation. In particular, these choices are affected by gender self-presentation.

Gender Differences in Green Spending

We live in a world where gender still matters a great deal, even in areas such as climate change that threaten the well-being of everyone.

SC is surprisingly split down lines of gender interests. There is an almost comical division of SC interests and responsibilities between women and men that mirrors the continued division of labor in many homes. Women choose many household products and are assumed to have greater expertise in purchases related to the home. This means that they are expected to take greater responsibility for purchasing environmentally responsible foods and household products, such as detergents and cleaners.

In general, SC is associated with reduced social status. Wealthy people have larger carbon footprints due to ownership of many vehicles, including pleasure crafts, and the occupation of multiple homes. As developing countries become more affluent, their carbon footprint increases, and they are more likely to behave in environmentally reckless ways. For example, they eat more meat when they can afford it because meat is a prestige food.

Men have larger carbon footprints than women given that they monopolize most of the world's wealth and are more preoccupied with purchasing status symbols like sports cars and boats. This is changing as women achieve higher earning power and inherit more assets, given that most outlive their husbands.

Men who experience masculinity threats may avoid buying green products, an interest that is stereotyped as effeminate. They are also made uncomfortable by women who discuss caulking their windows or checking the pressure in their tires to save fuel.

Gender-nonconforming individuals and women are much less likely to categorize various SC activities by gender than heterosexual men are.

What This Means for Climate Remediation

On the surface, reducing our carbon footprint is important whoever we are and whatever our pronouns might be. It should not matter whether this is achieved by line-drying our clothes or by placing solar panels on our roofs.

Yet, many men who invest in solar panels and pay the extra cost for an electric vehicle would not dream of buying green detergent or placing their laundry on a line. Whereas solar panels and electric vehicles are prestige possessions, green laundry is threatening to masculinity and social status.

In a world challenged by climate change, such distinctions are absurd. Yet, it is clear that men and women respond very differently to climate change in their daily lives, reflecting deep-seated differences in psychology and behavior.

However gendered, hopefully our efforts will be enough to stabilize the planet. It would be better if we could forget about gender so that everyone could fully embrace all of the remedial measures at our disposal. Unfortunately, this is not happening.

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