As more women get their feet under the table in the boardroom, environmental concerns are starting to top the agenda. Here, Cassie Steer meets three trailblazing leaders who are hell-bent on changing the world
Lord Byron famously liked to align women with nature – “Dear Nature is the kindest mother still… From her bare bosom let me take my fill” – and this idea of connecting the female sex with the environment goes back to the beginning of time. But while we’ll take the flower references any time, thank you very much, the idea of women as passive tenants of the natural world is slowly being stamped out. It’s surely no coincidence that the #MeToo and climate action movements are the dominating forces for change in recent years, and that female influence is moving from purely a grassroots level to being impactful in the boardroom. A study by the University of Adelaide, for example, found that companies with a balanced mix of male and female board members are more mindful of protecting the environment and less likely to be sued for environmental law violations.
And it’s in the boardroom that women are really coming to the fore – if we hark back to some floral symbolism, like staunch little dandelions pushing their way through the concrete. Which brings us onto our select triumvirate of kick-ass women at the helm of the green movement, making waves in an ocean that’s clearly benefitting from their input. Feeling maverick? Read on…
The Fashion Industry Saviour: Cyndi Rhoades, CEO/founder of Worn Again Technologies
Forget spinning straw into gold, with 53 million tons of textiles buried in landfill sites every year, Cyndi Rhoades may have earned her place in ecological folklore with her pioneering polymer recycling technology that can literally turn your old fabrics into new ones.
“I come from a creative background directing music videos, but started developing an interest around social and environmental issues in my mid-20s when I became more curious about what was going on in the world and embarked upon a path of self-discovery. I realised I wanted to do something that actually made a difference and textile waste was a huge global challenge not being tackled. Worn Again was set up in 2005, initially upcycling existing textiles until we realised we weren’t actually tackling the problem. Serendipity put me in the path of Adam Walker – now our chief scientific officer – who’d been developing technology that allows you to identify and separate out a polymer to recycle it back up to its virgin quality. We filed for patents, but we needed time and funding – they can cost in the region of £5,000. The breakthrough came via a few big brands, including H&M and Puma, that were using these textiles and shared similar concerns about sustainability. They got involved very early on. Being a female leader has been very challenging, especially because I don’t have a scientific or business background. I spend a lot of my time being the only woman at the table. But my view is, if men currently run the world, then let’s harness that power to redirect the route of where we’re going. I think men tend to avoid admitting their mistakes and don’t like showing vulnerability, but when working in such a new territory I think that kind of openness is crucial for a successful business. I have a vision and that’s getting that first industrial plant up and running, producing large-scale output and transforming a great idea into an actual global solution. That would be success to me.”
The Charitable Concern: Camilla Marcus-Dew, founder of The Soap Co
“Soap” and “charity” may not sound like the most glamorous of bedfellows, but Camilla Marcus-Dew has single-handedly proven that not-for-profit, eco-friendly, paraben- and cruelty-free beauty products that, by the way, have also been produced by a mostly disabled workforce, can absolutely be synonymous with luxury.
“Saying ‘soap can change lives’ sounds ridiculous, but our proposition is a bit different to other businesses. It’s not about making money, it’s about generating employment for people with disabilities and showing other companies this is a model that can be applied to bigger brands – you can create a luxury product that can still smash it out of the water from an environmental and ethical point of view. To me, luxury brands have the biggest responsibility to be ethical and as an eco-focused consumer I saw a bit of a gap in the market. It wasn’t easy though. In the first three years of starting The Soap Co, I’d be turning up at networking events, invited or not, telling people what we wanted to achieve. Before this, as well as working with disabled people and women entrepreneurships, I’d done management consultancy for brands such as Vodafone and Lloyds Bank, so I understood how big business worked. But it wasn’t until 2015 when I started working for a charity called Clarity & Co, which has employed disabled people for 165 years, that everything fell into place. It makes everything from perfume for Sarah Jessica Parker to conditioner for the Ritz Carlton, and I set up The Soap Co using its infrastructure, while also becoming the charity’s head of sustainable growth. I didn’t have specific experience, but I knew I wanted to change things. Fortunately, social media has helped so much. With such a small team trying to do everything, often I’ll just put out a call on social media saying, ‘We need a formulation chemist who can design us a new body scrub’ and someone will come forward and help us for free – it really renews your faith in humanity and means more revenue is going directly to the people with disabilities we employ rather than marketing, etc. From my point of view, everything will become much easier if we can get a bigger retail and business footprint so we can create more jobs and get some scale. As a woman in the male-dominated social enterprise sector, I think I’ve probably had to shout a little louder. Call it tenacity or dogged determination, I’m not bad at making noise about the things I believe in. Women are really good at questioning purpose and I’ve always believed that the solutions are already there, they just might not be commercially viable yet.”
The Corporate Conscience Supporter: Susan McPherson, founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies
Susan McPherson visits the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan
Described as a “communications consultancy for corporate businesses and NGOs to convey their social impact and inspire action”, McPherson Strategies is a team of nine women who have worked with everyone from The Tiffany & Co Foundation to Intel.
“I always say I’ve had nine lives, but the one thread running through my entire trajectory, even when working for corporate America, was wearing my heart on my sleeve and having a connection to philanthropic causes. Fifteen years ago, I started working in corporate responsibility where environmentalism played a big part, and, at the same time, I had an eight-year romantic relationship with a member of the Cousteau family who taught me a lot about climate and the ocean world. It was the perfect storm really of everything coming together. In 2013, I launched McPherson Strategies, quitting my job on the Friday and starting on the Monday, taking a couple of clients with me. As a company we’re absolutely aware of our effect on the environment – we work remotely, for instance, to reduce our carbon footprint. The hardest part? Keeping up with everything is my biggest challenge – just in the world of social impact, I have to be knowledgeable about abortion rights, prison reform, what’s happening in the government… It’s such a broad arena and our clients are so diverse. The US came late to the environmental party – maybe only five or six years ago. I think climate has been on the minds of European businesses much longer. So while I’m realistic enough to say that I don’t think we’re going to solve the environmental crisis at this point in time, we actually feel excited about coming to work each day and there’s no substitute for that. Collectively we can get on a path to start rolling back climate issues. For that to happen I’d like to see more venture capital going to women who desperately want to launch important companies in this arena and corporations investing in sustainability rather than just paying lip service to it.”