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 and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at and @anewell3p on Twitter.

37 responses

  1. Andrea, thanks for asking why and how marketing like this continues. I hope the world view of someone like John B. can be moved from seeing women as eye candy to viewing each woman as a individual who’s worth is greater than her external appearance.

    1. Can’t someone appreciate their inside and outside beauty at the same time? they are not mutually exclusive, are they? Come now, don’t take your life so damn seriously.

  2. You so hit the nail on the head, Andrea. The fact that this misguided “sex sells anything” idea is still so prevalent in the traditional business world is one thing, but.. come on… to demean women in the renewable energy space is beyond short-sighted. This is not a one-off product you go buy, renewable energy is about a behavior we are looking to change in people for the long term. Having an almost nude woman sit on a solar panel will change citizen/consumer behavior only in that some guys will anxiously await next year’s.. and have no plans to switch to solar. IF sustainability is to be truly sustainable, we can’t be polarizing stakeholders. We’ve got to come up with unifying messages that motivate and engage over the long term. Humor often works well, for one. And, there is a lot more being researched and reported on with regard to sustainability behavior change that can inform “marketing” or education efforts in this space. Just Google it.

    The guy who did that calendar wanted to sell sex, and he has every right to do so (It’s America after all!) but he’s got to give us credit for seeing through his lame argument that it’s doing anything toward sustainable attitude or behavior change. Great article – thanks for writing it all up so well!

  3. Why do we have to call this “sexist”? Why can’t we just call it retarded? I mean it’s just dumb. Barreling on with some complicated feminist philosophy is really annoying. Almost as annoying as the ads.

    Then again, maybe they’re just supposed to be silly any ironic? I’m not really bothered by them, but they are kinda dumb.

    1. dude, I don’t want to pull the gender card but that’s easy for you to say. The issue is that it’s not just a dumb one off idiot project in a vacuum, it’s an idiot project that comes on the back of millions of idiot projects that ultimately add up to my being taken less seriously when I walk into a board room than you are.

      I think Digg user specimen7′s comment “We need to “objectify” women because we like to have boners” proves my point. You or I might look at this campaign and say that is idiotic, full stop. We might even appreciate the irony of it. Specimen7, charmer that he is, looks at that calendar and says “Me Man. Me Deserve Stimulation, at Women’s Expense” He might be an idiot in his mom’s basement now, but he’s going to grow up to be an adult with economic and social power who contributes to society- and from the looks of it, I don’t think I’m going to like his politics.

      1. My point is that over thinking something like this is part of the problem. Laugh or roll your eyes and move on. It’s just a silly calendar… a charade of a joke. Not particularly sexy anyway…

        1. Dave, I agree. Most likely his marketing stunt will flop. It’s NOT an injustice, nor is it sexist. Though I have to say, I love the different approach. I just hope the woman with the solar phone doesn’t wait too long for her husband if he works long hours and the solar charger is flawed. Then how would he call her?

  4. I really don’t see the big deal. If the women were compensated, and know what they were getting into, they were not exploited. I also don’t see how these comments were offensive–no more offensive than the banter thrown around a Modern Family or Glee episode. Let him be tacky–and don’t buy from him.

    If this guy’s marketing tactic flops, than he’s a fool. If he gets a few sales, well, good for him. So what if he doesn’t have all the specs about his solar panel scheme? Many companies, including those in the “Green” space, tend to obfuscate their products and promise more than they can deliver, so this is nothing really new. As long as he’s not delivering the girls, of course. Now that . . . would be a no-no. Unless of course they were the ones actually installing the panels.

    And folks in the “green” sector have done plenty of exploiting, by the way. Many folks with their fledgling companies or “consulting” services hire “interns,” offer “sweat equity,” and string out strand after strand of b.s. over “partnering” and “community,” but not compensating fairly for hard work. So before we are quick to judge, maybe we should take a look at ourselves and see how we’ve “exploited” or “screwed” people in achieving our goals.

    What is really dumb is that he created a print calendar. Do people still pin them up on their walls in an age of desktop calendars and smartphones? I mean, isn’t it easier to just choose your favorite month and make it your desktop’s wallpaper?

    The problem with so many folks in the “sustainability” movement isn’t their message, it’s their tone. There will never be a unifying message in the sustainability movement–there is no right answer to anything.

    Finally this should be no surprise at all. I’ve met my share of solar industry sales reps and engineers who are the walking definition of the guy’s guy; many are interested in seeing their technology succeed and sell, “sustainability” be damned . . . actually my shock is that I’m surprised no one tried the pin-up scheme sooner. Why didn’t I think of that? Read “Mean Genes” and you’ll get it . . .

    1. Good points Leon. I think we can and should talk about multiple forms of injustice at the same time? Just because there are other inequalities happening in the movement doesn’t mean that talking about any one is a waste of time.

      1. I’m all for writing about injustice. But there is no injustice here, unless these women were forced to take these pictures and were not compensated for their time. Injustice? Injustice is hearing about people forced to work at low wages, locked in factories, making fab products for us in wealthier countries. Injustice is what happened behind the scenes with the financial crisis, or how well connected companies have embedded themselves into our government . . . yada x 3 . . .

        Why not pick on the Goldman Sach’s (or easy target) like BP that have done all kinds of harm to our environment and our economy? Why are we picking on a small businessman? He’s going against the grain in this space–it may be silly, tacky, and definitely unorthodox . . . but let him fail or succeed on these merits.

        I also find it condescending to assume these women are “objects” when we have no idea who they are? They may be way smarter and accomplished than any of us posting here . . . or not.

        I have an idea? Why not invite this fellow to write a guest post about why he did why he did . . . or even better . . . track down one of these women (if any are under 18 I retract everything I wrote here, obviously), and have them share their thoughts and experience?

        I’ve met plenty of models, men and women, gay and straight, who have modeled. Let’s not be so quick to pigeon hole them and their experience. Most of them have gone on to do great things, and are some of the smartest, talented, people I know, who were “used” by Mr. Bob Solar or whatever his name is.

  5. Really? Exploiting women?

    What part of ‘This woman volunteered of her own free will to pose in a provocative manner for monetary compensation,’ implies ‘exploitation?’ Since when does personal responsibility factor into this equation?

    It’s sort of disgusting to see people monicker this title of ‘exploitation’ to any woman who’s objectified in the media. Really, if they didn’t want to pose half naked, they wouldn’t. If you want to blame anything, blame ignorance, and your own insecurity in seeing confidence portrayed by women who don’t feel objectified by offering a visually appealing image to the opposite sex. Stop trying to martyr yourself because of your own weak convictions. It just makes you look insecure. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being confident with yourself and with what you look like.

    Que the rants about the evils of the modeling industry.

      1. What seems even more hypocritical to me is exactly what you stated above. When we automatically assume these women are seen as objects, what does that say about the person that’s pointing out the assumption?

        Does this mean that while you’re trying to fight some self-righteous war against the inequality of women and men in the media industry, that you automatically see them and assume that they’re nothing more than objects? Obviously this seems the case if you lend no credit to their capabilities and talents that may or may not exist outside of their obvious career in modeling.

        Equal rights is a very real and apparent issue in America. Focus on something more meaningful, like leniency in corporations for pregnant or nursing mothers. Help and/or compensation for mothers of large families where they are the sole source of income. Improving government programs to aid women seeking shelter from abusive boyfriends and husbands. Any number of REAL issues that don’t address some petty calendar that makes no difference here or there.

        This whole article seems like a one-sided rant bent on projecting some skewed idea of reality that’s been self-validated by copious amounts of hypocrisy and misguided intent.

        1. Well put, especially what you wrote in your 3rd paragraph. We have a lot of work to do (such as your note about how we can help women experiencing real duress), but in many ways, this is one of the best times ever to be a woman. Women have more choices before than they ever had, and that is how it should be. And that includes modeling. I say we let the guy’s business rise or fall on his company’s merits and strategy . . .and move on…

        2. “Equal rights is a very real and apparent issue in America. Focus on something more meaningful, like leniency in corporations for pregnant or nursing mothers. Help and/or compensation for mothers of large families where they are the sole source of income. Improving government programs to aid women seeking shelter from abusive boyfriends and husbands. Any number of REAL issues that don’t address some petty calendar that makes no difference here or there.”

          So…in your paradigm, women have value as mothers, girlfriends, or wives, am I following your argument okay? But the issue of the objectification of women is disconnected from their problems with abusive employers or sex partners, is that right? Am I understanding your argument? Could you clarify?

  6. When you say “sexist” do you mean exploiting women or exploiting men? I’m not sure which is the case with this calendar, if either. Perhaps you just mean exploiting “sex”?

    How in the world is this exploitative of women? As mentioned above, I’m sure they were well paid and seem to be enjoying themselves. You could argue, however, that this exploits men since they’re the ones buying them due to their poor taste and simple minds. But would that pass the thought police screening?

  7. Why not try and make green sexy?

    Lets get our sustainability champions (male and female) in the buff and see if we can win over some more of the mainstream market.

    I cant think of anything better than Al Gore and David Suzuki in their birthday suits!

  8. Aye yai yai…

    Personally, I also find these ads more silly than offensive, but I think it’s legitimate to raise the issue any time sex is overtly used to sell something. After all, it’s pretty darn irrelevant, despite its ability to sell beer. Smart people think about these things and smart people are interested in renewables. Odds are this won’t be a long lasting match. Keep the discussion going, but keep it polite folks…

    In the words of Nigel Tufnel, “what’s wrong with being sexy?”

  9. I think that we are well past the point where the way that women are portrayed in advertising, et. al., is having any significant effect on how seriously women are taken “in the board room”. Seems to me that women are having very little trouble, in that department, lately. Meg Whitman and Nancy Pelosi come to mind.

    As a matter of fact, have you seen the way that men are portrayed on TV, especially in commercials? The husband or boyfriend is almost always portrayed as an idiot that can’t do anything right, without a woman to show him how. If you think I’m joking, just watch a few hours of network TV.

    If I were to blame anyone, it would be the same “old boys network” of rich white men that were responsible for the financial crisis. They control the keys to the kingdom.

    I really think that this calendar was meant to be tounge-in-cheek. Unfortunately, it wasn’t done very well, and comes off just being tacky. Freedom of speech being what it is, I still defend his right to try and sell tacky calendars.

    I only have one question to the author: what did/do you think about Obama Girl? I don’t remember too many people complaining about her methods…

    1. Totally true. except that, ironically, the dumber and fatter the guy on TV the hotter his girlfriend/wife. That always drives me nuts! If only I were fatter and dumber!!!

  10. This seems like an over analysis of the calendar and demonstrates that the author has a lack of a sense of humor. The calendar is all in good fun.

    As a man, I look at these pictures and think “those are attractive women”, and I simultaneously understand that they are people who are posing for this calendar voluntarily. I find it offensive that someone puts words in my mouth to say that I am objectifying women by finding them attractive. Finding women attractive is just natural for a straight male such as myself, and I also understand that women are humans just like myself which is something that this too-serious author cannot seem to comprehend.

    Here’s a question: are the firemen calendars with shirtless, buff male firemen morally objectionable? I sure don’t see anyone such as this author caring about that.

  11. What’s sexist in sustainability is NOT this calendar, but the fact that women earn less, are promoted less, and given less media coverage than men.

    In addressing sexism, we need to not confuse objectification with disempowerment. If women want to use being hot to get somewhere, fine. If we want to not have to be hot to get somewhere, absolutely. Just seems a little Puritanical to be crying “sexism” because we see women’s sexuality used by the media, implying that people are wrong for finding them attractive and the models are somehow not feminist by posing in the pictures, particularly in this case where the models are in no way being subjugated or demeaned in the composition of the photos.


    Readers of many news aggregator websites appealing to a female demographic often feature the day’s “hunk” because they know it draws eyeshare. How they present the hunk is just as sexist as any pin-up calendar pushed by a company selling tools to a primarily male audience.

    All this means each gender must realize the “fault”– if any must be found– rests with both male and female readerships who are also potential buyers. Both male and female audiences respond consistently and predictably to babe and hunk ads, just as greeting card vendors insist on putting babe and hunk cards among “Greetings to Grandmother” cards.

    But fault surely rests with those who believe their products so lame and unappealing in content or function they must hide it behind a photo of a human being who, years later in an interview, probably will be forced to admit– “Yeah, I posted for that photo. I needed the money.”

  13. Andrea, I’m glad you’re tackling this issue, as I’ve been seeing it popping up (forgive the double entendre) more and more, and am confused as to why marketers or producers of so-called “green” products do not understand that the despoiling of the planet is a stereotypical masculinist position, and that audience would not be interested in their products, thus they are turning away anyone whose sexual turn-ons run beyond the cartoon. Answer from John B. seems to be that the guy is just trying to cash in on a trend.

    @smolove – The problem is, this isn’t *women’s* sexuality – this is women’s sexuality *defined* *by* *capitalism*. The men lose too. Their loss is just as great as the women’s, only different. Take John B., for instance. He seems horribly befuddled and lost.

  14. Unfortunately, sex sells. I am a model, and the agency I work with is doing a calender for cancer awareness. Some of the photos are very racy and risque because that’s just how it is: women as sex objects sell. If a woman wants no part of it I definitely believe in that. And I do not believe that women should be TREATED as objects. But these gals, like us, agreed to this objectification for a good cause. And I am sure they make money. It is all up to the individual really. If you don’t want to be sexually objectified, don’t put yourself out there. But heck, I would get naked to save the planet! :D

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