Cork conference hears: "Mother Nature needs her daughters"

Women working in sustainability shared their advice and knowledge at an inspirational event in UCC at the weekend. MARIA ROLSTON went along to She Is Sustainable Cork
Cork conference hears: "Mother Nature needs her daughters"
WOWConference organisers, Rosemarie Mac Sweeney, Madeline Murry, Tara Shine and Sinead Crowley at the She is Sustainable conference at the Western Gateway building UCC. Picture Dan Linehan

FORMER Irish President, human rights activist and climate justice campaigner, Mary Robinson, recently described climate change as “a man-made problem that must have a feminist solution”.

She qualified the statement by adding that: “Feminism doesn’t mean excluding men. It’s about being more inclusive of women and — in this case — acknowledging the role they can play in tackling climate change.”

It’s a premise that was reflected strongly last Saturday at the ‘She Is Sustainable’ conference in UCC.

The event was organised by four Cork women who had never met each other in person until the week of the conference but who had connected online through a shared desire to help sustain the planet. They then set about organising the entire event, which aimed to celebrate women working in sustainability in Cork, via WhatsApp group conversations.

Orla and Megan O’Shaughnessy at the She is Sustainable conference at the Western Gateway building UCC. Picture Dan Linehan
Orla and Megan O’Shaughnessy at the She is Sustainable conference at the Western Gateway building UCC. Picture Dan Linehan

The day saw almost 20 speakers from a broad range of backgrounds including scientists, local food producers, entrepreneurs, organisation managers, bloggers, broadcasters and a female dairy farmer, share their stories of learning to work and live more sustainably.

Inspired by a similar event of the same name that took place in Dublin last August, the organisers — Tara Shine and Madeline Murray, co-founders of Change by Degrees and Plastic Free Kinsale; Rosemarie MacSweeney, of the Tyndall Institute’s International Energy Research Centre, and Sinead Crowley, of Cool Planet Experience — were emphatic that the event was “open to all, not just women”.

Joanna O’Dowd and Diana McLoughlin at the She is Sustainable conference at the Western Gateway building UCC. Picture Dan Linehan
Joanna O’Dowd and Diana McLoughlin at the She is Sustainable conference at the Western Gateway building UCC. Picture Dan Linehan

But with 300 people registered for the booked out free event and just three men in the audience throughout the day, one could be led to assume that men aren’t too interested in hearing women’s stories or that events branded with a feminist title deter men from attending, but that’s another debate entirely.

The event was billed in full as ‘She Is Sustainable Cork: A Place for the people of Cork to discover Cork women changing the world’. In essence, I think it aimed not only to celebrate and share learnings around the work being done by women in the sustainable space but to educate and empower the Cork community in relation to sustainability.

Niki Tellios and Arlene Gutman at the She is Sustainable conference.
Niki Tellios and Arlene Gutman at the She is Sustainable conference.

 Ultimately, the women aim to change the conversation around sustainability in Ireland and create a more sustainable society, economy and environment. It was all about engagement, discussion and spreading the world about how to be more sustainable.

The day opened with an eye-opening interactive ‘true or false’ audience Q&A, revealing some startling sustainability facts (see panel at end) before Rosemarie MacSweeney, an architect turned energy researcher with a specific interest in sustainable buildings, took to the floor explaining what inspired her environmental conscience.

“My main inspiration now are my two children because I want to be able to look at my kids in the future and say I tried. We can’t all be 100% perfect and sustainable all of the time but the least we can do is try,” she said.

Clara Kavanagh and Jackie Dawson at the She is Sustainable conference at the Western Gateway building UCC. Picture Dan Linehan
Clara Kavanagh and Jackie Dawson at the She is Sustainable conference at the Western Gateway building UCC. Picture Dan Linehan

This sentiment was echoed throughout the day by various speakers, including Madeline Murray, co-founder of Plastic Free Kinsale — which aims to reduce unnecessary plastic use — and Change By Degrees which promotes and inspires sustainable behavioural change among individuals, communities and businesses. Madeline further dispelled any ideas that all sustainability activists live waste-free lives.

“Perfect is a bully. We try our best but we do not live zero waste lives. We try to stay authentic and live the best lives we can,” she said.

Madeline also defined the term ‘sustainable’ and explained the work of Change By Degrees.

“It’s about getting the balance right between the social, economic and environmental aspects of day to day life. Whether you’re a community, an individual or a business, it’s about making smart decisions, showing you care and playing your part. It’s about creating intergenerational empathy because every action we take has an impact today and for generations to come.

Sisters Tara and Ashling Griffin at the She is Sustainable conference.
Sisters Tara and Ashling Griffin at the She is Sustainable conference.

“Change By Degrees is creating a movement for convenient sustainability where people and businesses are informed and empowered to act differently. It aims to change the conversation on sustainability from: ‘Do I have to?’ To: ‘Where Do I Start?’

“We’re working for a healthy planet, a happy society and a thriving economy. Together, we can make these changes, one degree at a time,” the Change By Degrees promotional video states.

Madeline also stressed the importance of taking action now, as opposed to leaving the problems caused by unsustainable social, environmental and economic practices to future generations.

“We’re working toward a zero carbon future but we don’t want to overburden our children with the problems caused by carbon emissions and we consider it a massive fail if we leave it to them to solve,” she said.

All the women spoke inspiringly about their personal experiences developing an awareness around sustainable issues and shared tips with attendees on how to be more sustainable. Most spoke about the importance of making conscious choices.

Clare Staunton and Andrew Harper were also there.
Clare Staunton and Andrew Harper were also there.

Olive Finn, owner of the Olive Branch Health Emporium and Twig Refill Minimum Waste Store in Clonakilty, said that today, “surviving as a small independent business is challenging. What separates small independent family run businesses from conglomerates is that we’re in it to make a living, not a killing,” she added.

Food writer and broadcaster, Caroline Hennessey, mirrored these views, saying: “Shopping for food is a political action. Every choice matters and every choice can make a real difference to the producers, the economy and the environment. For every €10 spent locally, €24 is generated for the local economy.”

Sinead Crowley, a designer from Clonakilty working with Cool Planet Experience — an interactive climate action experience in Wicklow — said she began to set herself small ‘sustainable challenges’ when she realised she was producing an 18.9 tonne carbon footprint per annum.

“I swapped my plastic toothbrush for bamboo, sold my car and started cycling, and said goodbye to dirty electricity by finding a clean power provider using Bonkers.ie. These small changes helped me reduce my carbon footprint by 19% and I felt healthier and happier in the process,” said Sinead.

Also taking part were Eimear Hutchinson and Catherine Sheridan.
Also taking part were Eimear Hutchinson and Catherine Sheridan.

Deirdre O’Shaughnessy, 96FM Opinion Line producer, says that having children made her more aware of environmental issues and the need to reduce unnecessary waste. She challenged herself to ‘Plastic Free July’ and says she now tries to try to shop consciously and make better choices.

Taking this concept a step further, Ingrid De Doncker, who lectures in Procurement Management in UCC, said she also has “a dream to change the world, to enable companies and people to buy better.”

She highlighted the fact that sustainability does not cost more, and that in the greater scheme of things it actually costs less.

She also stressed the importance of telling the market that consumers want and need sustainable products and low carbon solutions.

Sadhbh McCarthy at the She is Sustainable conference at the Western Gateway building UCC. Picture Dan Linehan
Sadhbh McCarthy at the She is Sustainable conference at the Western Gateway building UCC. Picture Dan Linehan

This point was also emphasised by several other speakers including Sinead Crowley who called on audience members to “tell decision makers what you want, lobby government, call your TDs. It only takes two minutes,” she said.

And Dr Celine McInerny, a senior lecturer in finance at UCC whose research focuses on climate finance, who said: “Ask your bank, ‘Do you lend to fossil fuel generators. Ask them, ‘Do you lend to renewable businesses and if not, why not?’ Think about where your money is going.”

Margaret Desmond, a senior Climate Services Manager in the Environmental Protection Agency and committee member of the EC Climate Change Committee, said she thinks we’re just about “on the right side of history” in terms of making change and despite the already devastating impact of climate change, all is not lost, but we have to act fast.

Nicola and Marie O’Shea and Mary Kingston at the She is Sustainable conference at the Western Gateway building UCC. Picture Dan Linehan
Nicola and Marie O’Shea and Mary Kingston at the She is Sustainable conference at the Western Gateway building UCC. Picture Dan Linehan

“The devastation that climate change will bring is here, it’s happening already, it’s speeding up and the window of opportunity that we have to address it is closing rapidly.

“On the up side, we know what we need to do, we have the technologies, we have climate policy but we need the government to do their part from the top down by implementing existing policy and standing over it and we need change from the bottom up, within communities, in the form of everyone making small changes. We will not solve this climate crisis unless we all roll our sleeves up and do our bit,” Margaret said.

Summing up, environmental scientist, Tara Shine, who is co-founder of Change By Degrees and Plastic Free Kinsale, agreed.

“Policy work on its own is not enough. We need a new model of leadership. We need people at the centre of climate action and sustainability and until we have the will of the people, policy sits on the shelf.

“More than anything else, we need people power, conversations and engagement and that’s what She Is Sustainable is about.

“The type of Ireland I want my kids to live in is a better Ireland than we have now. No-one owns sustainability but Mother Nature needs her daughters. Let’s keep the conversation going, we can all do our part,” she said.

For more, see www.sheissustainable.org

Sustainability Truths:

  • One in three bags of food shopping gets thrown away. We’re throwing away money and damaging the environment at the same time.
  • One truck of unworn clothes goes into landfill every minute. Think about that before you go out and buy excess cheap, disposable clothes.
  • 63% of new homes built in 2018 were built to be powered by oil and gas.
  • You only need to spend 20 minutes in a park or green space to improve your health and happiness.
  • 73% of mums, rather than dads, maintain kids’ schedules.
  • Women make up 25% of STEM scientists.
  • Sea level will rise by 60cm by 2100.
  • It’s illegal to throw your food waste in your regular rubbish bin.
  • The sale of electric vehicles in Ireland has risen by 500% in the last year.
  • 1,600 people die in Ireland each year from conditions related to polluted air.
  • Around 16,000 litres of water is consumed to make just 1 kg of beef.

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