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Sustainability described as women's work, responsibility

Simran Sethi, the 2013 Bonnie Jean and Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, made several classroom visits ahead of her lecture Wednesday night.
Simran Sethi, the 2013 Bonnie Jean and Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, made several classroom visits ahead of her lecture Wednesday night.
Photo by Maria Ignacio '13.

Environmental journalist and educator Simran Sethi came to St. Catherine University to talk about the role of women in sustainability. But she offered “no singular definition” of that widely used term.

Instead, Sethi presented the Bonnie Jean Kelly and Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence lecture on March 13 with a series of eye-catching, black-and-white slides revolving slowly behind her on the stage of The Shaughnessy auditorium. (Click here for the presentation, and scroll to the March 2013 link for “Women’s Work: The Role of Women in Sustainability.")

The various scientists, business women, politicians and environmental activists all contributed to her understanding of sustainability, Sethi said. They included neuro-psychiatrist Louann Brizendine (author of The Female Brain), philosopher and environmental activist Vandana Shiva, artist Candy Chang, former prime minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland — and even Sethi's mother and sister, whom she called "my most powerful change agents."

“Everything we care about exists within this eco-system,” Sethi explained before launching into an articulate, fast-paced, fact-filled lecture that both challenged and charmed the audience of students, faculty members and friends of the University.

“’Female’ is nature’s default setting,” said Sethi, a former journalism professor and self-described storyteller who majored in sociology and women's studies at Smith College (which competes with St. Kate’s for the distinction of being the nation’s largest college for women).

Conceding that she was painting “in broad brushstrokes here,” Sethi declared that women’s tendency toward “empathy, altruism and personal responsibility” makes them inherently more interested in safeguarding the environment.


  • Women tend more than men to worry about global warming, to believe it will affect the planet in their lifetime and to believe that the media underplay the risks, she said.
  • Women are more likely to be concerned about environmental degradation — issues such as deforestation “that are slower moving and have wide-ranging implications,” Sethi explained.
  • Books such as Mid-Course Correction by the late entrepreneur and environmental advocate Ray C. Anderson “talk about the ascendancy of women in business,” said Sethi, who earned an MBA in sustainable management from Presidio Graduate School. Women’s “nurturing nature” is helping them create business models that “care about human capital as much as financial capital,” she explained.

Agents for Change

Sponsored by the School of Business and Professional Studies, Sethi’s talk offered numerous examples of change agents who have altered business practices to benefit the “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profits — “or pocketbook,” she said, “if you want to bring it closer to home.”

The vice president of social and environmental responsibility at GAP — a woman named Kindley Walsh-Lawlor, who was included in Sethi’s PowerPoint presentation of change agents whom she admires — has influenced the clothing maker’s recognition of the “embedded water” used in the “entire supply chain” of growing cotton, making fabric and creating clothing.

Walsh Lawlor “views work as I do,” Sethi said, “as a seamless expression of her cares.”

She talked about world-renowned chef and restaurateur Alice Waters, who started the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, California, to help urban children connect with nature and the food they eat. “The children get first-hand experience of planting seeds and growing food,” Sethi explained. “It’s an integrated, interconnected approach.”

Citing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, Sethi said too few women are in positions of power in business. She noted the differences women can make when they serve on corporate boards of directors: “Companies with one or more women on their boards are more likely to be interested in sustainability. Women are more likely to ask questions on boards than men. They’re less bound by convention. That tends to increase accountability.”

Having appeared on talk shows hosted by Oprah Winfrey and comedienne Ellen DeGeneres, Sethi said she is accustomed to being asked for “tip lists” about sustainability. And she concluded her hour-long talk at St. Catherine with some sage advice:

  • “Start with small changes that lead to bigger transformation.”
  • “If you’re a foodie, then grow something and cook something.”
  • “Change the light bulbs, drive less and bike more. But fundamentally — listen to yourself and to one another.”

Creating a sustainable environment — and sustainable businesses, communities and families, Sethi said — requires understanding people’s stories, their daily worries and cares. “The truest definition of sustainability does not involve the few but the many,” she said. “We cannot achieve sustainability if we do not achieve it for all. So, the question is not: ‘What is sustainability?’ but ‘What sustains us?’”

Click here to learn more about Simran Sethi and the Bonnie Jean Kelly and Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence program.

March 16, 2013 by Amy Gage

See also: Business, Leadership, Liberal Arts, Social Justice