Sexism Isn’t Cool, Even in the Name of Renewable Power

Which Month is Megan?

Do we need to objectify women to sell green products? According to John B., founder and owner of Renewable Girls (RG), and the creator of the calendar that features Megan and her bananas, the answer is “yes.” There is even a name for it: ecosexism.

Let’s be clear- women are not universally exploited in green culture and we would never claim such a thing. There are great examples of feminist and green culture being mutually beneficial, like Cultivating Capital founder Carolina Miranda who writes about the powerful effect the growing numbers of small businesses owned by women could have on sustainable business. Sadly, on the opposite end of the spectrum is John B. and his pin up calendar exploiting women in the name of green.

I am not sure if  the calendar is meant as a sales tool to get people to buy solar panels (there is a widget on the website for a free quote), or a campaign to educate people about solar power. No matter which task it is striving to accomplish, it fails at both.

Doesn’t Sex (Always) Sell?
Yes, companies have used sex to sell products since the beginning of time and it does work, but let’s be honest – it works best when sex actually has at least a tangential relationship to the product (lingerie, clothes, perfume, etc.) Sex sells, but in product marketing as in life, I would argue that sex has its place, and sex without substance shouldn’t sell anything.

The fact of the matter is, draping a nearly naked woman over a product does not automatically translate into blockbuster sales.  Would you buy a certain brand of raw hamburger if you saw a commercial of a naked woman rolling around in a vat of it? (Please say no.) What about an image of a wrench positioned between a woman’s breasts? Would you buy it just because of the picture, or would you at least want to know if the wrench was any good?

Where’s the Meat?
At least one of the problems with the RG calendar is that it’s all tacky sexuality and no substance. The women are the dominant object in the photos and the panels are an afterthought. Calendars of women draped over classic or muscle cars/trucks/motorcycles have been popular for decades, but the difference between those calendars and this one is that those calendars are only selling a dream. No one expects to learn anything or buy anything because of them.  Most of the people who buy those calendars will never own the cars in them. If the point of the RG calendar is to promote renewable energy or sell solar panels, there needs to be product or industry information somewhere. And the inclusion of the women is still exploitative in both cases.

I don’t have a physical copy of the calendar, so perhaps it is a wealth of renewable energy information, but I can tell you that the website certainly isn’t. It is simply an empty website with lots of pictures of women and no substantial information, facts, or even a link to another company website for panels.

Where are the benefits, features, statistics, testimonials, or even pictures of installed panels? On actual buildings? Can they be used in a city? The calendar shows a woman in New York, but the panel is in the street. How can they be used in urban settings? What about other regions? Commercial buildings? What else can panels do?

Yes, I can input my address for a free quote for my house, but why would I want to without knowing more? It not only doesn’t appeal to me, it doesn’t tell or teach me anything. Despite the similar controversy surrounding the sexy PETA ad campaign, at least when you visit their website it is full of information about their campaigns.

That’s why these photos are gratuitous, not to mention exploitative. The focus is entirely on the half-naked women – not on solar panels at all. They are just an excuse. RG missed a huge opportunity to show everyone what solar panels can really do.  I believe solar energy is still far enough outside the mainstream that more than a small subset of the buying public would like to know more about it.

The Argument for Excluding Female Consumers – Right?
If you are going to use such an outdated, one-sided, offensive (if the photos aren’t, the accompanying text certainly is), demeaning campaign, you should be aware of the size and power of the buying audience you are choosing to exclude. In this case: women.

For the business-to-business (B2B) argument, see Miranda’s article. “[W]omen owned businesses are a force to be reckoned with…If U.S.-based women-owned businesses were their own country, they would have the 5th largest GDP in the world.”

Miranda goes on to talk about the meteoric rise of both sustainability and women-owned businesses in the last 20 years, and asserts, “The opportunity that we have with women-owned businesses is this: to harness that entrepreneurial activity and steer it in a sustainable direction.”

Female business owners who are being encouraged to move in a sustainable direction, who collectively have the financial assets of a large country? I can see where RG definitely would not want to appeal to those consumers.

For business-to-consumer (B2C) sales the figures are even more compelling. According to numerous studies, women make more than 80 percent of consumer buying decisions (and I would think that is especially true of a home improvement purchase such as this). Over 80 percent. Evidently that number didn’t impress RG either.

Target Audience = The Big, Strong Man
On the one page on the RG website that actually talks about solar panels, the copy characterizes “renewable girls” as not being “interested in save the world crunchy types…or men that wear shorts with zip on pant extensions. They tend to go for the bling. Be it on their finger or on their roof. So if you’re going to please her with panels, you have to make sure the price is right.”

Why would this man (target audience) even buy solar panels based on this argument? The renewable girls in this description, the materialistic ones concerned only with “bling,” don’t sound like they would give a flying leap about conservation anyway. Even if this is supposed to be facetious, it makes no sense at all. It neither sells nor educates.

Mission Accomplished?
Despite all this, in a letter to the editor of Ecosalon in response to Sara Ost’s Sex Still Sells – Sells What Exactly?, John B. says that he accomplished his goal. “The mission is on target, we reached an audience that otherwise looks down on solar, and did not really turn anyone off from it; none of your readers will no longer believe in solar because of this calendar.”

So his intention was to target a small, male buying demographic who previously scorned solar power? That’s an actual customer profile? From a business perspective I ask: why? Why go to such lengths to alienate such a large percentage of the solar buying public to reach a tiny, biased one? John B. goes on to say that he is “passionate about the sustainable movement.” But if the calendar is simply a ploy to get people’s attention to learn about the benefits of solar, where is the information?

Wait – There’s a Message? What is it?
I’m not getting John B.’s “we love sustainability” message from the Renewable Girls campaign or website, but I completely get the message that women are invisible and unimportant. Half of the U.S. workforce, rocketing numbers of business owners, and the vast majority of consumer purchasing decisionmakers – all eliminated from the target buying/learning audience. Interesting strategy.

In the face of negative reactions from Ost, Ms. Magazine, TreeHugger, and WIMN’s Voices (oh please read that exchange – it’s priceless), among others, John B. still says that the majority of the responses have been positive. He goes on to add that basically, there are so many exploitative ads about women out there, what’s the big deal about another one? (Isn’t that like saying hey, there are so many exploited women out there, what’s the big deal about another one?)

Not only is this a poor selling tool and a poor solar energy campaign – Renewable Girls is taking advantage of the green label to demean women. Period. Women are a part of the triple bottom line. (I’m sure I read that somewhere – oh yeah, see The Girl Effect, 10,000 Women, and the Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative.) John B. might be interested to know that studies (yes, actual facts you can read on a reputable website that has no pictures of women in bikinis) show that empowering women is vital to strengthening our global economy. Just ask the Nike Foundation, Goldman Sachs, or ExxonMobil. It’s unfortunate that along with a good trend always come people that exploit that good. Sex might always sell (something) – but it shouldn’t.

So, the people who order these calendars. Where do they hang them? In their office, in the kitchen…where?

On second thought – don’t tell me.

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.