W&E: Women in Eco-business


The first panel of the Women and the Environment Symposium focused on women in eco-business, which, as the name suggests, denotes business that factors environmental awareness and sustainability into its practices.

The panel included Deb Steketee of the Aquinas Center for Sustainability, Renae Hesselink, Vice President of Sustainability for Nichols Paper & Supply, and Angela Topp, Owner of Tree Huggers, a green retailer with stores in Holland and Grand Rapids.

Dr. Deb Steketee

Steketee, an associate professor of sustainable business at Aquinas College, opened the panel by discussing “a global perspective on eco-business” and the list of trends that she focuses on in her teaching: biomimicry, “using nature as a model and a mentor,” carbon-free power, “power that won’t fry up the planet (her words),” green chemistry, and power of organization. For each trend, she cited a woman who has exemplified and embodied its efforts, including 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, who Steketee listed as an exemplar of the power of organization. Steketee went on later to talk about the importance of getting women in political leadership to have more of an impact on many of these issues.

Angela Topp recalled drawing inspiration for starting Tree Huggers from her foray into vermicomposting. “I ordered my first worms from Amazon.com, and from there came the Facebook updates about how my worms were doing, then people began calling about it.”

Realizing her passion for environmental work, Topp wanted to go further with it. “The average woman out there wants to do more,” she said, “but often they don’t know how to get started, then once they do they really get going.” Hence her desire to open a store that offers environmentally friendly products.

“Tree Huggers offers a great sense of community,” Topp said proudly. “It’s more than a store, it’s the front of something bigger.” According to her, 40% of the store’s products are made locally, and most of the rest come from somewhere within the country, leaving only a very small percentage coming from abroad, and the greatest care is given to ensuring that these comply with her business’s standards of sustainability.

“There’s a lot that goes into picking our products,” she said. “It shouldn’t just be made locally but made of recyclable materials. We are also very proud of our free-recycling service. If you want to recycle something instead of just throwing it away you can bring it to Tree Huggers.”

One key question, directed at Renae Hesselink, asked how larger-scale businesses like manufacturers and health care institutions are creating system changes and “greening their processes.”

“In the sustainability market we’re seeing a lot of rethinking going on, circling around experiences in communities, and people making their values known by their purchases,” Hesselink responded.

Hesselink stressed the importance of having the support of management in any business or company when it comes to pushing said business or company towards getting greener. “It makes it a whole lot easier when you have commitment from the top. It’s important to continue to educate along the way, because you have team leaders that may or may not believe in some of the things we’re working on and they’re going to have an influence on the rest of the team.”

She also emphasized getting as many people as possible involved in the effort to make business practices more environment-friendly. “We have a green team in place, at least a couple people that focus on it, I focus on it all the time but it sure is easier when you have help and you’re not going down the road alone.”

Crucial to this effort, said Hesselink, is getting new employees in on the action right away, before they become another worker whose been around for 25 years and is set in their ways. “Communication is a big part of it. It’s really important for people to understand why we are doing this, we can sit and talk about all the things we need to do but it sure makes a difference when they understand why.”

“My eco-business is really working with students,” said Steketee, “And a big challenge is to engage them in new ways of thinking. So much of what we learn is just from being in the world that surrounds us. And the thrill is when they do see in new ways, it’s absolutely thrilling to see graduates going on to do great things because I know that’s a lifetime of difference that they will be making.”

“The thrill,” said Topp,“is knowing that all the little changes that we do make are making a big difference. I get so excited when a family comes in and says they haven’t thrown away a bag of garbage in two weeks because of the service we provide.”

Women often have trouble placing value on their work and being taken seriously in the workplace. Hesselink faces this challenge too. “There are two women on our executive management team, and coming from a pretty male-dominated industry I think sometimes I’m laughed at for some of the ideas I bring to the table.”

“Another challenge,” she continued, “is a mentality I run into a lot, that we’ve always done it this way, and not thinking about new ways of doing things, because there are many ways of doing things, and it’s very frustrating to me when people don’t even want to consider them…and the thrill is when somebody actually will.”

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