The power of one

A unique group of Abu Dhabi women say individual action is the key to environmental awareness.

Unlucky was the man who recently littered in the presence of an Eco-Chick. Michelle Stephens, a member of the Abu Dhabi environmental group, caught the passenger's surreptitious shove of a trash bag under his car as she was pulling into work on one of the rainiest days of the year. Ignoring the downpour, she shot out of her car, scooped up the offending object and shoved it back into the hands of the startled culprit.

"We do not litter in Abu Dhabi," said Stephens, a project manager involved in sustainability design for the emirate. "I thought: 'Here's just another example of someone who doesn't think they're responsible for this place. As long as everyone thinks of themselves as residents and not as citizens, there will be no accountability and this behaviour will never change." In an emirate that produced nearly six million tonnes of waste last year, her concern is not without reason. Nor is it without support. Eco-Chicks is an all-women's group begun by Abu Dhabi residents who want to spread environmental awareness at the grassroots level. Having worked on top-down sustainability initiatives in their professional lives, its founding members want to encourage awareness in the public sphere.

"All of us had this shared idea that we wanted to reach out to normal people, particularly to women, who can then impact their children," says Holley Chant, the corporate director of sustainability for KEO International, a global consulting firm. "It's an extremely important area of advocacy that's not really being dealt with here." Women are, in fact, the key to the operation: the group began when five of them met over lunch to discuss their environmental concerns. Two of them were particularly frustrated by the lack of progress at the Emirates Green Building Council, a now defunct environmental group made up mostly of men. Trying to communicate at the meetings was, according to some members, like walking on free-range eggshells.

"The EGBC was more work-based," says Genevieve O'Farrell, a senior environmental consultant from the UK. "It was very much clients, consultants and developers. You were kind of aware you were in a room with potential clients and you might be working alongside these people, whereas this is more informal." Members also recall fighting for floor time in a male-dominated environment. "There were a lot of enthusiastic people who wanted to do things but there was no ability to translate that. With us it is more practical," says Elham Monavari, a sustainability project manager from Australia. After participating in an Eco-Chicks movement in Sydney, she thought the name was appropriate for a fun, female group and hoped it would attract like-minded individuals.

"We gathered, we got along, we shared ideas and it was fun and informative," says Chant. "It was very Eco-Chicks." Although they've decided on a name, they are still in the early stages. More Neo-Chicks than eco at their two-month mark, they've held a handful of events but are still formulating a game plan. Their most recent event, a candlelight vigil to support the Copenhagen climate conference, has left much to be digested. "Since we had the event, we haven't had the opportunity to debrief and come together and set our strategy for next year," says Gisela Boavida, an environmental consultant from Portugal. "I think this has the potential to become very big, but we need to be prepared as well. We need to know how we intend to tackle this."

Despite rainy weather, the vigil produced a steady stream of interested residents, from families to taxi drivers. "It was so inspiring," says Chant. "People wanted to know." Translating concepts such as 350 - the number that corresponds to a carbon dioxide target in atmospheric parts per million - into Urdu and Arabic proved difficult, however. Members expressed the need for an Arabic "cheat sheet" in the future.

"I think I felt the same way that a lot of those people felt," says Priya Patel, a New Zealand native and one of the few Eco-Chicks founders who doesn't work in the environmental field. "I felt there was something to be done to make people more aware of environmental issues. I wanted to do something rather than just thinking about it or talking about it, and I think that's why a lot of people were interested. They were interested in doing something but weren't sure what they could do."

With hopes that participants from the vigil will volunteer for future projects, the Eco-Chicks have an agenda that includes conservation, public health, environmental awareness and education. Some members have a clear picture of where they'd like to go. Chant, whose milieu is public health and environmental toxins, wants to reach women in charge of their households and children whose curriculum does not include environmental education. She is quick to point out that, although she doesn't want to exclude men, women interest her because "there isn't really a fluid path to women here yet. The hazards of plastic water bottles, the use of toxic cleaning products and water conservation are a few of her pet subjects.

Other Eco-Chicks, such as Monavari, hope to partner with local artists and media, as well as organise events to coincide with environmental themes such as the United Nations's International Year of Biodiversity this year. Conservation is also on Monavari's radar. As a plastic bag boycotter, she remembers being met with utter confusion at her local grocery shop when she moved to Abu Dhabi a few years ago. "They were like: 'No, it's OK. It's free.' And I would say: 'No; I don't want a bag.' And they would say: 'No, really. It's OK.' But now I go there and they go to put something in and they say: 'Oh, sorry. No bag.'"

Chant remembers being barred from Ikea when she brought her own bags to the store at Marina Mall last year; Boavida recalls a security guard at the Madinat Zayed co-operative stapling her shopping bag shut. "I spent quite some time explaining to him, but he said: 'I have to staple it.' I was laughing. He was looking at me like: 'Is this woman stupid?'" The stories highlight one of the challenges many of the women have observed: when it comes to knowledge about the environment, everyone is on a different level. "While most of us say no to a plastic bag, for some people, it's getting something for free," Boavida says. "A lot of it also comes down to economic disparity."

But Monavari has no compunction when it comes to cutting down. "I don't feel that way; there are a lot of plastic bags out there in the world." (If the Executive Council approves, she won't have long to wait - the Center of Waste Management in Abu Dhabi hopes to ban plastic bags in shopping malls this year, with a Dh10,000 fine to boot.) It may not possess the razzle-dazzle of Abu Dhabi's other green projects - such as Masdar City and the International Renewable Energy Agency - but banning excess plastic is one of many initiatives the emirate sees as a way to up its sustainability profile as it plods towards the goal of total landscape transformation by 2030.

Indeed, ridding the emirate of its effluvia proves no easy task if conspicuous consumption reigns king to the degree the Eco-Chicks say it does. "People think that having more of something is better," says Patel. "It's really exciting to see the government do something that will affect ordinary people." Chant hopes that working in conjunction with such policies will counterbalance the furore over energy consumption that has dominated headlines of late. While cap and trade is an important topic of discussion, she says, focusing on it as the primary solution to environmental problems threatens to overshadow the power of individual action, especially in a country like the UAE.

"With Copenhagen and the fact that the emirate is trying to bring down demand on the grid here, there are a lot of messages about reducing energy use," she says. "But there's very little out there about environmental toxins, products that are used in the home, and how they affect health and lifestyle. I'm sure that there are people every single day who are heating things up in plastic." She shudders with the knowledge of one having drunk the contents of a hot water bottle left in the car. "It's just scary."

Tupperware lovers can take heart, though. Banishing microwaveable crockery is one of the lesser challenges the Eco-Chicks must contend with in the immediate future. After all, sustainability is not the easiest of propositions to sell in a country with a highly transient population. "People come here for a short time, so it's hard to make a long-term kind of change," says Patel. "Even as a group, we don't know how long we'll be here."

One thing seems certain, though: gender is in their favour. Speaking about a sheet that people signed in support at the candlelight vigil, O'Farrell slowly breaks into a smile. "I think it really helped being women there because there were a lot of guys going: 'Can we sign again?' I think we could be a powerful group for quite a number of reasons."