March 30, 2023Print | PDF
On Wednesday, March 8, 2023, Wilfrid Laurier University, the Wilfrid Laurier University Alumni Association, and the International Women’s Forum Waterloo Chapter hosted the sixth annual International Women’s Day event. The theme for 2023 was Planetary Health: Women Leading Sustainable Solutions.
Hosted at the Delta Hotel, with a special emphasis on sustainably and locally sourced food, the luncheon brought our communities together to celebrate the impacts of women in science, community organization, education, and activism – especially as it pertains to sustainable initiatives, strategies and research.
The opening keynote, by Laurier’s President & Vice-Chancellor, Deborah MacLatchy, highlighted a number of Laurier initiatives and how they align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) – notably the Laurier Centre for Women and Sciences (SDG #5: Gender Equality), the Sustainability Office and Sustainable Hawk Fund, including student entrepreneurial project and Laurier Enactus initiative PolliNation (SDG #11: Sustainable Cities and Communities), and research across the institution that supports a number of other goals for a sustainable future.
"Adopted in 2015 by the UN as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. These goals cover a wide range of challenges from ending hunger, to promoting gender equality and combatting climate change. The SDGs recognize that health of people and planet are interconnected. Universities are integral to advancing the 17 goals, given their roles in education, research, and as community anchors,” said MacLatchy.
“For many years now, Laurier’s been a leader in sustainability and our faculty, students and alumni have demonstrated leadership in creating sustainable cities and communities. It’s a great point of pride for me to watch our students tackle sustainability challenges with an entrepreneurial spirit,” she continued. In closing her address, MacLatchy told the audience, “When I look at the work that’s happening at Laurier and the many ways it’s supporting the UN SDGs, I’m inspired and filled with hope for the future, and I hope you are as well. In collaboration with communities and businesses, we’re taking real action to create the sustainable future our world needs.”
Lunch was followed by a lively panel discussion featuring women leading sustainable solutions in our local communities. The Lazaridis School is proud to recognize three of our alumni amongst the group.
The discussion was moderated by Carinne Chambers-Saini (BBA ’01), CEO and Founder of Diva International – a global company that is providing eco-friendly solutions for feminine hygiene products. Chambers-Saini has received numerous awards, including the Lazaridis Alumni Steve Farlow Entrepreneurship and Innovation Award (2016), EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards in Ontario and Nationally, Canada’s Top 40 under 40 (2017), and Bay Street Bull’s Women of the Year (2021), and continues to be a tremendous champion of the Lazaridis School and our programs – including participating in cohort six of the Lazaridis Institute’s ScaleUp Program.
“Following my graduation from Laurier’s BBA program, I founded Diva International with my mom, Francine Chambers, and we have been at this for the last 22 years trying to educate the masses about sustainable menstrual products, namely the DivaCup. Part of our mission is to foster greater menstrual equity, where periods care is affordable and accessible and no one is minimized by the stigma. It’s an honour to moderate today, this panel of exceptional women are active leaders in their fields, boldly promoting planetary health,” she said.
The panel included:
Marissa Vettoretti (BBA ’20), Co-Founder, EarthSuds, a social enterprise that aims to reduce plastic in cosmetics, and Senior Consultant, ESG Advisory Committee at Deloitte. EarthSuds was recognized as the 2020-21 Enactus Canada National Champion and was recognized in the top 10 for National Geographic’s Global Innovation Plastic Challenge.
“EarthSuds are single use tablets of shampoo, conditioner and bodywash that, when you crush them and add water, turn into normal liquid products. Since they are solids, we don’t need plastic packaging, so we consider ourselves a zero-waste product,” explained Vettoretti. I started the business during my first year at Laurier through an online competition I entered. In my second year, my Entrepreneurship professor really encouraged me to continue the idea and then we brought the idea through Enactus, and then grew it from there.”
Dr. Alison Blay-Palmer, UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity and Sustainability Studies, Director for the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, and Professor in Geography and Environmental Studies at Laurier. The focus of her community-defined research is on supporting and building more sustainable food communities to foster community capacity. The goal is to use food as an active lever to address diet-related health challenges, climate change and biodiversity loss. Her research and teaching combine her passions for sustainable food systems and community viability through civil society engagement, and innovative governance.
“I get to work with a lot of cool people to help make the food system better. We’re interested in doing research that helps make food systems more regionalized – so you can get food from farmers directly, so more food gets processed locally, and the way food is produced, consumed and delivered to people in a way that treads as lightly as possible on the landscape,” Blay-Palmer told the audience.
Priyanka Lloyd (MBA ’11), Executive Director, Green Economy Canada - a national non-profit working to accelerate Canada’s transition to a vibrant and inclusive net-zero future. Lloyd was named to the 2017 Clean 15 and was selected in 2022 as one of the 100 Women in Energy Transformation as a powerful and inspirational leader in Canada.
“I’m Priyanka. I’m a wife, a mother, a daughter, and I’m really passionate about trying to make our communities and our planet a better place. My background is actually not in environment, but it’s where I’ve ended up, and I think that’s similar to many people in this room. Green Economy Canada was co-founded with Green MP for Kitchener-Centre, Mike Morrice, out of the organization Sustainable Waterloo Region, who many of you are familiar with, and that organization was born from a business plan that was created at Laurier. We’re trying to show that sustainability and good business go hand in hand.”
Lazaridis School Interim Dean, Kalyani Menon, joined current student leaders from the Lazaridis Students' Society (LazSoc), and the Laurier Economics Club (LEC), for the luncheon. Thank you to Julie Tanna, outgoing LazSoc co-president, Celine Cheung and Alya Najla, incoming LazSoc co-presidents, and Cleo Nguyen, LEC president for bringing your perspectives, discussion, and leadership to the event.
Keep reading to hear these inspirational leaders’ responses to our insightful discussion questions:
Vanessa: I’ve always had a personal passion for sustainability. I’ve always cared about the environment and doing things that are better for the planet. I really saw throughout my undergrad that when you find the best way to do business sustainably, you have then also found the most profitable way to do business. I feel like that’s lost so much of the time because people think that doing things that are good for the environment costs money, but really, if you’re saving resources and being more efficient, then you are saving money. There are so many benefits to sustainability, other than just to the environment, with products in general. I find that when you have a sustainable product that is really well done, it’s better quality, there are more benefits. With EarthSuds for example, we have travel benefits because it’s not a liquid product so you can take it on an airplane. That’s just a small example but sustainable products really are the best way to live.
Alison: My journey toward sustainability began when I had children and I started to realize that it wasn’t just about me. On the food side, I come from a farming family and I’m very interested in how food gets produced and how we can do that differently. Right now, the way our food system is set up contributes about 30% of greenhouse gasses, it’s responsible for 80% of biodiversity loss, and it uses about 70% of our fresh water resources. So, there’s a lot of opportunity for change. Shout out to whoever’s doing the food today. There are lots of ways we can address these issues and I find all of them very inspiring.
Priyanka: There are a few threads to getting into this field. One of which took place in fourth-year university when I spent six weeks with a sweet potato in an environmental philosophy class. When I did my masters in biochemistry, I got really annoyed with all the waste I was seeing around me - in the biomedical space everything is disposed of, so I started an initiative on campus to reduce lab waste and do something on campus. When I got to Laurier for my MBA, there was a professor, Barry Colbert, who, in my first class, put up a slide that said, “a mind once stretched never stretches back” and mine still hasn’t gone back the other way.
We have a lot of social and environmental problems in the world right now. Deb, you shared the world’s to-do list (the 17 SDGs), and it can be really daunting – we didn’t necessarily expect the way we structured our economy to create some of these unintended consequences, but the economy is a construct that we created and something that we can change to make sure that it’s serving us in the ways that we want it to. So, the idea of how to harness capitalism to solve the world's problems rather than exacerbate them really got me hooked. For those of you who know BCorps – business as a force for good – so when an opportunity came up like Green Economy Canada to help businesses realize a better way of doing business, I got really passionate about it.
I also think of the Indigenous principle of the Seven generations. We can’t just be thinking about tomorrow or until retirement. We have to have something to leave for our future generations.
Alison: Women experience the effects of climate change more than any other people in society – so it’s important to have that voice at the table, along with the voices of LGBTQIA2S+, I think it’s becoming a more inclusive conversation which is really welcome. In terms of policy, we’re thinking about the people who put the structures in place that we work within to have our businesses, to do research, to have grants – whatever we’re doing it’s all within the constructs of the politics of the day and the structures that are there. So, policy is really important and making sure there is a connection between policy makers and people on the ground.
Marissa: I think the biggest challenge we had for EarthSuds was creating the product. When we started, there was really nothing on the market. When you compare that to now, there are so many more options. Being a business student, I had no cosmetic chemistry background and didn’t know anything about science. It took us about two years of experimenting and testing to get our formula. I tried to reach out to others for help. Others in the space were closed off to trying something new in terms of cosmetic chemistry, but being a business student almost helped me because I didn’t know if it was ‘breaking the rules’ and wasn’t bound by technical aspects.
Starting so young – while I was in first year – there was almost an added challenge of being young and being a student, you have a lot of resources as a student, but when you speak with people outside of the university space, they may treat you as though you’re not qualified enough. People see a 19-year-old and write them off. In partnerships, we started intentionally not mentioning we were students. People underestimate the amount that a student can do.
Priyanka: Why don’t we have more organizations across Canada taking action on climate change and working on sustainability? There are a few things that I see we can do to get businesses mobilized and one of those is just knowledge and awareness. There's a whole new kind of terminology that we need to learn as a society, which makes learning about something like climate change feel very abstract or overwhelming. How can we bring that down to a level that every person or business can understand? Another challenge is priorities, a lot of people and businesses have competing priorities, and especially in our current economic climate with inflation, talent shortages – how can we get businesses to see that climate action and sustainability is actually the thing you can use to help solve a lot of your other business problems.
Priyanka: Ultimate success would be that we have 1.2 million businesses in Canada that are just sustainable and green by nature. We know commitment from senior leadership is important because it creates the tone at the top, sets the direction and frees up the resources. It also means the business really understands not only the impact they can have not only on society and the environment, but how society and the environment are now impacting them. You know diversity and inclusion issues are not just nice to have and a check mark for the business – if you’re not paying attention to some of these social issues that are not being addressed, they’re going to impact your reputation, your ability to do business, and what consumers expect of you.
From a practical perspective, we talk a lot about clean tech, but the vast majority of solutions already exist, we just need to adopt them. Things like avoiding buying that thing you were going to buy, asking ‘do you really need it’, that’s a simple step you can take that can put you on the path to sustainability. Active transportation, retrofitting your homes – there are a lot of things that we can do with a little education and support and what gets me excited is knowing that those things already exist.
And because I’m here with Laurier, I just want to say about the importance of education and how we’re equipping the next generation of talent to address these issues. When we talk about wanting to have green and sustainable businesses, you know businesses are made up of individuals, it’s all of us, so it’s not just a sustainability person’s job, we need to be educating our workforce so that every person sees how their roles can connect to a greener, more sustainable business. It’s such a key role that institutions like Laurier play to make sure that students have the right skills and knowledge to contribute to that regardless of what field they go into.
Marissa: In terms of success, and especially within social businesses, we’re looking at profit and then impact for your social business, and one added piece to that that I think is very important for social businesses is the influence that you have over general market trends. EarthSuds isn’t a massive business, but we still do have influence over the market and it was really interesting to see while we were growing the company, how the environment scan changed as we’ve been developing the product. If you’re inspiring other businesses to make products, then that’s kind of a win-win for society. Big companies are realizing that small companies are innovating and they need to innovate to keep up.
Carinne: To add from my own experience – when we started with the DivaCup, there was really nothing like it on the market and it was like pulling teeth to get buy in into the concept, and now we’ve seen hundreds of brands come on the market globally, which can be challenging because we’ve been really forced to look at our strategy in the market place and continue to innovate in sustainable products, but it's also been really exciting to see that the concept has taken off to that level. We as one small company could never manage to reach all those people, but with hundreds of brands, it is making a huge impact on the planet so I agree with Marissa that it’s a win-win, and it kind of puts some fire under your butt a little bit to keep looking at what’s next. This is how we’re going to move the needle in sustainability. And also becoming a BCorp – as a BCorp organization, that helps inspire other organizations, and it helps us internally to do better, so that’s another great thing that can look like success.
Alison: First, find out what you’re passionate about. There are so many challenges that we’re facing in the world right now and I think we have three excellent examples here of women who have found things that really drive their passions that have allowed them to move forward over an extended period of time, and that’s why passion is really important. And then, once you’ve identified that, find your group. Find other people who are interested in doing what you’re doing. Find mentors and networks who can support you and help you grow.
Marissa: To all the students in the room, people may underestimate you, but you really do have so much potential. There are so many resources available to you while you’re in university in terms of funding, mentoring supports, or anything else that can help you at least start towards your ambitions and dreams, so take advantage of that while you are in school and get as much help as you can. As you start to grow things, use your voice, get into those conversations, take up the space that you deserve in the conversations you’re a part of and make sure you’re speaking for every single person who’s not in that room with you.
Priyanka: If we want a more caring, purposeful economy/community/sphere, we have to participate in making that change. The antidote to despair is hope and what brings us hope is finding our purpose and acting on it. Find what brings you joy, meaning, purpose and just go.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. It’s ok not to know, it’s ok to feel uncertain, its ok to be scared on the path less travelled. Embrace that. Sometimes you have to just GO and trust that you’ll find your way and do it with great people.
As we look into the future, can each of you share a small step that we can take individually towards planetary health.
Marissa: I think that’s the whole premise of this, we’re not going to fix everything about the world, but it really is about the small changes and doing what you can that fits with your lifestyle. I think one of the big things you can do to change your behaviour is to make vegetarian choices more often. Not even cutting out all meat forever, but more often choosing a plant-based meal. Your diet is the largest impact you can have on the environment as a singular person.
Alison: Try to reduce your food waste – we waste between 30 and 50 per cent of all the food that is grown, so if we can get that down a little bit that’s good. If you can, grow food. One of the problems I think we have is that we’re not connected to the living world, apart from ourselves, and if you grow something, even sprouts on your counter or a tomato plant on your balcony, it puts you in touch with the sun and the water cycle and gives you something that you can nourish yourself with. And those are really important things to connect yourself to the natural world and that’s really what sustainability is all about – realizing that we’re all connected together.
Priyanka: My advice would be, as individuals, to use your voice – have the conversations. If you go to a restaurant, or to a retail store, and they have excessive packaging, or Styrofoam containers, ask the question: do you have compostable packaging? If two or three people start asking, they’re going to start looking into compostable packaging and how they can get it. If you’re in an interview and it’s your turn to ask a question, ask “what are you doing on sustainability?” This is the thing that influences change, it’s not just about the right thing to do, they respond to consumers, employees, which all of us are. Talk about it at the kitchen table, with your friends, your kids, when people know that something is important and the more we can keep it circulating, the more we do about it. And it’s something everyone can do regardless of who we are.
Corinne: Use your dollars as your voting power. Especially if you support BCorp organizations – the more BCorp organizations you support, you’re using your dollars as a vote. What those companies go through to get certified is quite extensive, it’s a big commitment and it looks deep within the organization and all aspects of business to be sustainable. It’s not enough just to have a sustainable product, so definitely look for that BCorp symbol.
Priyanka: A big trend, and even the acronym ESG – Environment, Social and Governance, is there term that’s in right now but you know, sustainable development, social responsibility, corporate social responsibility there have been a whole bunch of iterations of this. The term ESG has really picked up because in the last five to six years in particular, the financial institutions and investment community have now recognized that climate change poses a clear and present danger to our economy, our financial systems, and the stability of all the things, not to mention the Earth. As soon as the financial markets start taking interest, that’s when changes start to happen – we're starting to see more regulation coming down, for example, public sector institutions will need to start disclosing their climate risks and opportunities. As soon as you have the financial markets talking and regulations happening like that, it’s going to trickle all through society.
The other piece on the social side – justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, is not something that can be ignored. Performative exercises don’t cut it anymore. There’s a social awakening and an expectation that organizations and all of us are doing better at not just implementing the things but actually unlearning and relearning what we need to shape society in the way that we want, and that includes Indigenous reconciliation. So that’s another area that’s not just a trend, but particularly millennials and gen z are pushing in a really wonderful way to get us to change the way we’ve been thinking about these things.
Alison: I think we’re moving in the direction of systems thinking. Instead of operating in silos we’re starting to work across and put things together in a way that they can actually solve these problems. I’m really heartened because, as Priyanka was saying, we’ve got the tools in our toolbox, what we need to do now is put them all together to solve the sustainability challenge across the board and there are amazing examples out there of how that’s happening. So I think the trend for the future is going a more systems direction.
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