The W+ Standard is the first globally recognized framework that measures and monetizes women’s empowerment. Empower Co. is engaging with companies keen to cement their women’s-empowerment programs with robust data — and shift the mindset around climate action from mitigation to net positivity.
If we want to solve the climate crisis, we must empower women — just ask the United Nations and SB Brands for Good, both of which have called it out as a top priority in creating a flourishing future. Giving young women and girls an education and support in family planning, and bolstering women-run businesses are fundamental to adapting to our changing planet and reversing global environmental destruction.
Don’t take our word for it: Women’s empowerment as an effective climate solution was also highlighted by Paul Hawken’s climate-mitigation plan, Project Drawdown, dubbed “the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming.” In it, he describes 100 solutions — ranking them in order of their potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Alongside the usual suspects — shifting to renewable energy and regenerative agriculture, and reducing food waste — are educating girls and family planning, ranked sixth and seventh, respectively.
Of course, reducing population growth is good business for carbon reduction. But the focus on women goes way beyond maintaining how many people we have on Planet Earth. Today, universal education and sexual health understanding are severely underfunded, particularly for women and girls in developing nations. And this leaves them vulnerable — at heightened risk of violence and labor exploitation, and more likely to suffer when climate-related weather events hit. By embracing family planning, women have more control over their lives and can make better decisions based on their needs and those of their families. According to Project Drawdown, “dedicating climate adaptation financing to include girls’ education and modern voluntary family planning as part of multisectoral climate adaptation approaches would help ensure that those most vulnerable to climate change and its impacts have access to basic human rights.”
On its launch in 2017, Drawdown’s spotlight on women resonated with many people working in sustainability. For Rachel Vestergaard, it was a life-changing moment that reinforced what she’d been thinking for a long time: “Until Drawdown, I was having a hard time finding compelling data. Drawdown just validated what I already knew to be true,” she tells Sustainable Brands®.
Scaling up empowerment efforts
This year, Vestergaard launched Empower Co., which she hopes will provide a mechanism for scaling up global efforts to empower women. The firm sells credits to companies that are committed to supporting projects that bring about lasting positive change for women and girls. In return, the companies can be satisfied that their contribution has had the desired impact because the outcomes are verified and measured by the W+ Standard. Each W+ unit represents a 10 percent improvement in a woman’s life. And through Empower Co.’s profit-sharing model, at least 50 percent of proceeds from the sale of W+ units go directly to women engaged in the projects being supported.
Developed by Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (WOCAN) in 2014, the W+ Standard is the first globally recognized framework that measures and monetizes women’s empowerment. Endorsed by the UNFCCC, UNREDD and the World Bank Climate Funds Management Unit, among others, the Standard measures women’s empowerment across six domains — including health, food security, and income and assets. “The Standard was developed with women themselves, on the ground, to effectively understand what real empowerment looks like,” Vestergaard says.
From Wall Street to Borneo
Back in the early 2010s, Vestergaard was on the verge of giving up her successful career as a Wall Street trader. Unfulfilled by her work, she went travelling and landed in the rainforests of Borneo, where she saw the destruction of the environment firsthand: “I remember saying to my best friend who I was hiking with that I was going to spend the rest of my life protecting what was left of the natural world.”
On her return, she joined forces with the team at California-based Wildlife Works and set about using the emerging marketplace for REDD+ carbon offsets to protect forests, wildlife and communities.
“Through that work, I got to see how meaningful development can happen. I also saw that, every time women were involved in the decision-making or given a leadership role, the community development side of our REDD+ projects tended to be more successful and more sustainable,” she explains. “It was clear that women were actually the key to sustaining climate projects; it was a real kind of flip in my thinking. Once that happened, I knew that that was what needed to be unlocked.”
The world is, quite rightly, caught up in the data, science and measurement of carbon. But Vestergaard has realized that the machine to sustain environmental protection and carbon reduction centres around women.
Fast-forward to today, and Empower Co. is ready to engage with brands and corporates keen to cement their women’s-empowerment programs with robust data.
“There’s a lot of pink-flag waving, but there’s no real sustenance to go with that. Now, companies that have targets associated with UN SDG 5 or 13 can now understand the type of impact that has occurred, where it has occurred, and with what group of women,” she says excitedly.
A diverse range of projects to support
To kick off, Empower Co. will offer the chance to support three different projects, each providing W+ credits. In Nepal, a biogas project is helping communities switch to clean cookstoves — which, in addition to health benefits and carbon-reduction opportunities, saves time for women, who no longer have to find wood for their fires. In Kenya, it has a project focused on ensuring farmers are able to do more with less.
“Deforestation is driven by very small-scale farming operations with people just trying to feed their family. The project is not only about providing farmers with education, but also giving them access to insurance. Now, women can insure their crops — so, if a catastrophic event happens — whether it’s pest- or climate-related — they can still survive and feed their families.”
Although buoyed by the potential of the W+ Standard to fuel women’s empowerment through the selling of credits, Vestergaard is all too aware of the bad rap that offsetting has received over the years: “Let’s be clear: Offsets are a neutralization tool. They don't take away the negative impact of what an organization has already done.”
Instead, the world needs to move to providing a net-positive impact in the form of an onset, she adds: “An onset is an entirely positive contribution to community and climate. It’s a next level of engagement that’s emerging; an opportunity for companies to get involved in projects that are more aligned with outcomes that create net-positive impact.”
It's going to be a busy 12 months for Empower Co. as it strikes the right balance in catering to both supply (supporting more projects) and demand (attracting more clients). Vestergaard’s end goal is not simply to sell W+ units forever but to see meaningful investment continue to flow into supporting women.
“I hope that within the next ten years, billions of dollars are being funnelled into this type of work that is measurable and quantifiable — just as we’re seeing with carbon.”