BSR Conference 2012: Fast Forward / October 23-26 / New York

Women’s Health: A Missing Sustainability Issue?

One-Hour Conversation Session / October 26, 2012



  • Lack of access to contraception has both social and environmental implications: Beyond maternal and infant mortality and women’s empowerment issues, an expanding population is putting increasing pressure on the planet.
  • Satisfying the unmet need for contraceptives globally would reduce health care costs and save more than US$1.5 billion a year.
  • It is important that companies, governments, and other stakeholders work to ensure that women (and men) have easy access to contraceptives and family planning resources and are empowered in their communities.

Memorable Quotes

“If you can plan your fertility, you can plan your life.” —Jill Sheffield, Women Deliver

“If women had complete capacity to decide on the timing of their pregnancies, we would get below replacement fertility. We wouldn’t immediately stabilize the population, but it would level out before the 9 billion that we are expecting … And [many of the] sustainability issues would be easier simply because women had the choice.” —Robert Engleman, Worldwatch Institute

“Companies should ensure they don’t have binders full of women, but boardrooms full of women.” —Robert Engleman, Worldwatch Institute


Yeager framed the women’s health and sustainability session by saying that a staggering 200 million women around the world still lack access to the contraception that would enable them to plan their families. This lack of access to contraception has not only social implications, but also environmental implications because access to contraception could slow population growth significantly enough to reduce carbon emissions between 8 and 15 percent, or roughly the equivalent of ending tropical deforestation. Yeager introduced both speakers and asked them to describe their work and provide recommendations for how companies, governments, and civil society partners can integrate women’s health into broader sustainable development conversations.

Sheffield began by saying that—as her organization’s name claims—women deliver in both a literal and a figurative sense. Literally, women deliver babies. Sheffield noted that every minute and a half, a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth. Figuratively, women also deliver within their economies. Given the tremendous influence that women have both as producers and consumers and the fact that they invest 90 percent of their income back into their families (compared to 30 percent for men), it is crucial that companies, governments, and civil society organizations take action to empower women around the world.

Next, Engleman introduced the Worldwatch Institute, which was founded by Lester Brown in the 1970s to bring the world’s attention to threats to the sustainability of civilization. Brown focused on the issue of world population growth as a component of the sustainability challenge, which is what drove Engleman to join (and ultimately lead) the Worldwatch Institute. Engleman said that his travels across Latin America have had a strong influence on him and that he has incorporated the lessons he learned from those experiences into his work on the intersection between gender and sustainable development. He believes that it is crucial to fully integrate women into all aspects of society and ensure that they have access to general health care, reproductive health care, and family planning. He also discusses these issues in his book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want.

Yeager then asked both speakers to share their visions for truly sustainable societies from both an environmental and social perspective. Sheffield spoke about the importance of education and vocational training to ensuring a sustainable world, saying, “When you invest in girls’ education, those girls grow up to be mothers who send their children to school. And when children go to school, amazing things happen in our world—in our environment, in our families, all around.” She then spoke about the importance of vocational training with an example from the agricultural sector. Although women play a huge role in agriculture globally, they often do not receive the same amount of training and tools that men in the agricultural sector receive. If women did have the same access, the increased yields would feed almost 20 percent more of the world’s hungry people. She referred to the World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report: Gender Equality and Development and recommended that session attendees read the report for more information about the benefits of gender equality from social, economic, and environmental perspectives.

Engleman built on Sheffield’s response, arguing that we are leaving an era that was best suited to risk-taking, traditionally a male attribute, and entering an era that will rely more on collaboration, traditionally a female attribute. He then explained that Worldwatch Institute is interested in the connection between women’s health choices and population growth and stressed that it is important to ask the question: “If every pregnancy in the world was the result of a decision to have a child, what would the implications on world population be?”

Sheffield responded by saying that 200 to 220 million sexually active girls and women don’t have access to family-planning services or commodities, and many unintended pregnancies result in complications that cost health care systems money. She said that satisfying the unmet need for contraceptives would reduce health care costs and save more than US$1.5 billion each year.

Thank You, Sponsors

Executive Sponsors

Cisco Hitachi PwC Target UL Responsible Sourcing

Associate Sponsors

Anheuser-Busch InBev

Supporting Sponsors

Adobe AT&T ExxonMobil Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc.

Participating Sponsors

American Express Baker & McKenzie LLP Best Buy BNY Mellon Ford Hyatt Hotels Corporation The Walt Disney Company UPS Vale

Contributing Sponsors

Chevron icix Levi Strauss & Co.

Convening Media

Bloomberg Business Week Weber Shandwick

Marketing and Media

3BL Media BEF Caixin Media Corporate Knights Globescan GreenBiz Group Inc. Hemlock Responsible-Investor Sina Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) Tomorrow Partners