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The intersection of ESG and reproductive rights

Suzanne Biegel, a longtime respected advocate of “gender-smart” investing, on why corporate sustainability teams should double down on their understanding of gender equality and women’s health issues.

women's march in May 2022

Protesters gather for the “Bans Off Our Bodies” march in Washington, D.C., in May in support of abortion rights as Roe v. Wade is poised to be overturned by the Supreme Court. Photo via Shutterstock/Rena Schild

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to set aside the constitutional right to an abortion has sparked a global debate about the role and value of reproductive rights — and about the role of corporations in a post-Roe v. Wade climate.

To explore the implications for corporate sustainability teams and ESG strategists, I spoke with Suzanne Biegel, co-founder of GenderSmart and a global leader in "gender-smart" investing that mobilizes investors to unlock capital at scale for initiatives and projects aimed at advancing gender equality.

As a GreenBiz columnist, Biegel explores the link between gender issues and the world’s ability to address climate change. I spoke with her about the impact of climate change on maternal health, where companies can turn for resources and the link between reproductive rights and labor issues.

Heather Clancy: What are the climate implications of limiting reproductive rights?

Suzanne Biegel: There is less access to healthcare overall when there are extreme weather conditions and heat conditions. So, that's one direct implication. …

Then, of course, the connection to business is that if you have women who are vulnerable in pregnancy and childbirth, then their ability to work and be part of a productive labor force is going to be disrupted. There's no question about that. And if people don't have access to reproductive health services overall, that's going to affect their ability to work. If we want women working and leading, working in good green jobs and leading climate-smart companies and climate-smart investment funds, we just have to be paying attention to what the implications are from a reproductive health standpoint. Labor force participation is the biggest implication from a business standpoint, in addition to just core human rights to bodily autonomy.

Clancy: Where do reproductive rights intersect with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? How does this area get impacted there as well?

Biegel: We know, of course, about SDG 5. That's gender equality and very specifically we're talking about access to health [rights]. 

SDG 3 — "Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for people of all ages" — is directly talking about ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, and that includes family planning, information education, access to services. So, that's clear.

And then, because lack of access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services and information disproportionally affects people in poverty and people in a low-income situation and people of color … who are in poverty, you have SDG 10, which is "Reduce inequalities." And so, we just know that the burden of lack of access will fall unequally on women and people of color in low-income communities. There's no question.

I think overall from an ESG standpoint, we should all be aware of companies' political lobbying, but on this specific issue that's a place that you can look.

And then, the connection to poverty, SDG 1, when people are not in control of when and how many children they choose to have, then that puts an economic burden on women especially. And so, [for] especially women, single head of households, you're going to have a magnifying effect. So, it's really connected to at least four of the SDGs.

Clancy: Going back to the business world, how might reproductive rights affect a company's ESG strategy? Let's make this real for the corporations out there.

Biegel: So, according to some really excellent work from Rhia Ventures [a U.S. nonprofit focused on sexual, reproductive and maternal health] and from Adasina Social Capital and a number of others, we have a good list. Considering access to family planning education as well as health coverage in company insurance plans, that is absolutely No. 1. So, do people have access? Do they have access to paid leave and [well child] coverage for family planning purposes as they do have access to paid leave and … coverage for other health issues? Is that explicit? And in today's context we're talking about access to abortion, specifically.

You can also be thinking about employees in supply chains. If you think about the direct employment of a company, that's one piece, but another piece is you're a multinational and you've got supply chains. There are companies that have done very well on making sure that there's education and access to services from a family planning standpoint.

Then you get to something that people don't think about so much, which is the political lobbying side. This, I think, has been exposed in the last couple of weeks, that [a company] may come out and say that they are absolutely willing to cover access to travel and the time away for abortion services if they need to go to another state, for example, in the United States, but … their political lobbying may be completely in support of anti-abortion and-family-planning measures. So, you really have to look at the company's political lobbying. I think overall from an ESG standpoint, we should all be aware of companies' political lobbying, but on this specific issue that's a place that you can look.

And then, finally, [look to] companies' community engagement. Are they actually supporting healthcare clinics … are they making grants or having any kind of employee engagement with community clinics or places where people get access to reproductive health services? So, from a business standpoint there are a whole set of things that people can do.

Clancy: Are there programs or initiatives out there that could help a corporation kickstart this more quickly or maybe that enable more than one business to get together to support this sort of thing?

Biegel: Companies are leveraging each other's policies and practices. A good place to find resources is on the Rhia Ventures #WhatAreYour ReproBenefits database, because that really gives a whole list.

People literally want to know, "What language should we put in our policy, and what should we be asking for on our healthcare policy?" I think what's really great about that and this other database that's been created,, [is that it] really gives people a list of who's participating and willing to be public about it. And then, you can go and see what their policies are. So, I think that's an immediate thing that corporates can do right now.

Clancy: You mentioned political lobbying a moment ago, and we know that this is a political, a very highly charged political issue in places like the United States. I'm sure elsewhere too. What strategies can companies use to discuss what they're doing? How can they show their support in a way that isn't going to become highly political?

Biegel: There are some people who are really mobilizing shareholder engagement on these issues. If you look at, which you are probably familiar with, but also Whistle Stop Capital has been very active, and Rhia Ventures has a team that's really working on this. The political lobbying conversation goes to all kinds of issues, not just reproductive health.

Clancy: To look more closely at what you do, which is talk about sustainable investing, where can corporations invest to help their communities and across their supply chains, their value chains? Where can they put their money to work to address or provide more access to reproductive rights and reproductive health?

Biegel: From a grant-making side, there are really good lists that have been generated by a number of foundations. But again, I'd go back to Rhia Ventures for their recommendations. From an investment side, there are venture capital funds that are really investing in access, affordability — and affordability to quality reproductive health products and services. And there are some dedicated funds — Rhia Ventures has a venture fund, for example, that just one — and then there are some funds that just include access to family planning as an area of femtech.

I think the key is to look for those: They tend to be gender-lens funds that have an explicit gender lens but just also have a femtech, health tech or health and life sciences angle. Look at those funds and see what they're investing in. There are some really exciting innovations that are happening. Access to being able to get contraception online, making it really easy and accessible for people, because needing to go to a doctor, get a prescription, etc. — this is hard. This is part of the innovation that we've seen in the last couple of years …

I think the most important thing for businesses is that if you limit reproductive rights, it's going to impact labor force participation. But it is also fundamentally a human rights issue.

I'm an investor in a company in Africa called Kasha, which is providing access and affordability through e-commerce to reproductive health products and information as well as other as well as other areas of women's health. They have a three-part model; one of them is direct-to-consumer, one of them is working with small shops — they ship products and services, products to small shops. They do a lot of education as well. And then, they do have a relationship with manufacturers where those manufacturers are looking to get their products and services out into the market in hard-to-reach places. For now, they're in Kenya and Rwanda. And I just think we're going to see a lot more of this continue to grow.

Clancy: Is there anything else that we should cap off this conversation with?

Biegel: If a company really sees themselves as a responsible business, then they want to be supporting people and planet. If you want to get really serious from a business standpoint, it's a human capital issue. If you think about the longer-term implications, if we are not addressing this now, then all of those unwanted pregnancies are going to result in a burden from an economic standpoint that is going to not only be on the U.S. but globally. Because the global repercussions are going to be that many more people may not get access to education, nutrition, they may not get access to economic opportunities because families just can't handle … having more children than they were really planning.

From a longer-term perspective, I think from an economic and social stability perspective, we really need to have access to affordable, quality, accessible reproductive health services. Any company that sees themselves as a responsible citizen really needs to be thinking about this.

And I do think that younger people are making choices about what companies they go to work for and do business with. I think this is going to be an issue where people are going to start to say, "I really want to know what side of being part of a sustainable planet this business that I might go to work for or shop with or do business with is on."

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