As responsible citizens, most of us recycle, bike more, use cloth bags – in short, we try to ‘do our bit’ for the environment.
So what compels some women to go above and beyond everyday efforts towards sustainability? It’s tough to completely upend your professional and personal lives, in search of planetary improvement. Where does the drive come from to set up an environmental charity or social enterprise?
Darcy Roehling, an American in France, started recording individual women’s endeavours to change the world during lockdown 2020.
“Coming from a corporate sustainability background,” says Darcy, founder of the Women17 podcast, “I was fascinated by what drives women to embark solo on these environmental missions.
They are incredibly motivated and entrepreneurial, often starting off unpaid and from scratch. I wanted to find out more about these women and what motivated them.”
A painful health condition led to sustainable menstrual products
First stop – Gujarat, India - to meet Geeta Solanki, founder of social entreprise Unipads India. Unipads are reusable sanitary pads, sustainably manufactured by and for underprivileged women in rural India. But what led Geeta, MBA and former marketing professional, to design and set up her own sanitary pad factory?
“Unipads was not planned”, she says. “It just happened naturally. In 2016 I was diagnosed with a vaginal cyst that required surgery. My usual disposable sanitary pads were super painful to wear and my mum suggested I used her traditional cloth pads.
“To my surprise it felt really comfortable. I did some research and found a few suppliers of reusable cloth pads in India, but they were expensive and only available online. This makes them completely unobtainable for nearly 90 per cent of Indian women. That’s when the idea struck – why didn’t I start making affordable and sustainable sanitary pads for all?”
Menstruation is such a taboo in India that when Geeta first started recruiting the women in her village to make pads, she could not even tell them what they were making. Fast forward to 2021, and Geeta has employed 135 women, previously living in rural poverty, to make pads for over 800,000 women. She saves thousands of kilos of waste, as the average woman throws away 125 to 150 kg of disposable sanitary pads during her lifetime.
A devastating typhoon became a green living project for islanders
Over to the Philippines, where a natural catastrophe was the catalyst for a unique sustainability project. It’s 2013 and Axelle Jorcin, ex-BP supply chain manager and avid diver, is holidaying on a tiny island called Malapascua when a massive typhoon hits.
“All the houses were destroyed and we had to leave the island immediately. We returned home to France and felt a sense of helplessness. We wanted to do more than just send money to rebuild houses…because what would happen the next time a typhoon hit? Nothing would have changed.
“That’s when we decided to set up People and the Sea, a charity that works simultaneously on marine science, environmental education, zero waste, economic resilience and sustainable fisheries – all on a tiny island just 2 square kilometres in size! The idea is to bring sustainability to every part of the islanders’ life – fishing, at school, in the home, and managing dive tourists.”
For those who have recently watched the Netflix film Seaspiracy, sustainable fishing in this case means supporting small-scale fisherfolk to take an active part in marine resources management. This includes mapping of fishing grounds, fish stocks assessment, registration of fisherfolk with government agencies and fisheries monitoring.
From kids in the toy aisle to a series of environmental children’s books
Innovative eco-friendly projects aren’t always born from crisis. For Canadian ex-journalist Cheryl Rosebush, it was a simple trip to the supermarket.
“I was in the grocery store with my four year old, explaining why I was not going to buy that cheap plastic toy that every kid wants. It’ll break in the next couple of days, I said, you’ll be sad, we’ll put it in the garbage, some garbage ends up in the ocean, a whale might see that piece of plastic, think it is food, eat it, and that will make the whale sick.
“That night at bedtime my son explained every single one of those steps back to me. This was my lightbulb moment. I realised that we can and should be talking to really young kids about environmental problems. So I started the What the World Needs Now series, starting with Trees, then Bees, with Less Plastic coming shortly.”
Cheryl was determined that her book should be as sustainable as its message. Which means not only 100 per cent recycled paper, but also biodegradable lamination, vegetable-based inks and carbon-balanced printing. In ten rollercoaster months she researched, sourced and delivered a book that adheres to the highest standards of eco-printing.
Three women, three lightbulb moments - what do they all have in common?
Circling back to Darcy Roehling, who has interviewed dozens of women for her Women17 podcast, does she see any common ground between her pioneering interviewees?
“Curiosity and determination” she says emphatically, “They see a need, or something they don’t like in the status quo, and they ask themselves what needs to change. Then they harness their personal experience, coupled with professional expertise, to be the change makers themselves.”
To hear more stories from women all over the world, who have gone the extra mile for sustainability, listen in to the Women17 podcast.