For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.
“One of the issues that has emerged most strongly…is the need to tackle inequalities and structural discrimination in the new [post-2015] development agenda, especially gender inequality and gender-based discrimination which was identified as underpinning and reinforcing all other forms of inequality.” – UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri, September 2013.
A women-centered approach is nothing new to international development. Microfinance’s beginnings, for instance, can be traced to supporting female entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, and women have remained an outsized reason for microfinance’s success as a development pathway. But as the CEO of international NGO Vital Voices reflected, “[While] we’ve seen…a significant amount of development dollars helping women start small and medium business enterprises… they only represent one percent of sales to multinational corporations in the global supply chain.” Vital Voices and its 21 partners, including Coca Cola, Walmart, and Intel, announced a commitment to scale-up the participation of small and medium-sized women-owned businesses in the global supply chain over the next five years. Although female-owned businesses may be minimally represented in companies’ sourcing to date, women have always had significant presence in global supply chains. As part of Oxfam’s ‘Behind the Brands’ scorecard released in 2013, the NGO called out the Big 10 food & beverage companies for their weak records on advancing gender equality and empowerment in their cocoa supply chains. In response, Mars, Nestlé and Mondelez have signed onto the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles and each made new commitments to understand the role of women in their respective supply chains and develop concrete actions to address the issues they face. Some corporate sustainability leaders, though, are playing catch-up on this issue. For example, Unilever’s VP of Global External Affairs admitted that when the Sustainable Living Plan launched in 2010, the company did not mention the important role women played throughout its value chain, pledging to explore the possibilities in 2014 and beyond to utilize women as “critical enabler[s].”
While the recognition of women’s role in development matures in the corporate sector, equally important will be understanding women’s roles as levers for sustainable development. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, a rights-based approach to gender equality and empowerment is not only the right thing to do, but given that female farmers “feed more and more of the world” as males move to cities, overturning longstanding gender norms is also an imperative for global food security. Women are similarly central to global climate change, “disproportionately affected” by its impacts, but have a “critical role in combating [it].” This year’s COP 19 marked the first-ever “Gender Day” in recognition. Expect to see more research and corresponding initiatives taking a gendered lens on sustainability issues and calling for the private sector to connect the dots between gender and sustainable development.