Has The Nature Conservancy Gone Too Far with the SI Swimsuit Campaign?

The Nature Conservancy may have just raised a few eyebrows, some in dismay, others from a more voyeuristic perspective at their recent decision to partner with the Sports Illustrated magazine and luxury retailer Gilt, in a new fundraising campaign. This highly respected, international organization, which, unlike other environmental advocacy groups, protects fragile and important wilderness areas by buying or leasing them, cannot do what it does without money. So they have decided to take a bold move in what some might consider a rather unconventional direction.

A special sales event coinciding with the launch of this year’s SI swimsuit issue, will feature swimsuits, photographs, surfboards and tickets (starting at $1000) to launch parties where the highly exposed models will be in attendance. Proceeds from the sale will go to the Nature Conservancy who will use them to protect the very beaches on which the pictures were taken.

Glamour and luxury are rarely considered to reside in the same domain as wilderness and environmental conservation. On the contrary, they might be considered opposites, bywords for indulgence, representing the sought-after pinnacle of Madison Avenue-manufactured desire. They derive their distinctive and expensive qualities, not nearly so much as treasures of the natural world, as intricately manipulated, carved, polished and presented artifacts, created with little apparent regard for cost, be it financial or environmental.

So what prompted the Nature Conservancy to seek out these strange bedfellows? Are they selling out? Have they betrayed their mission of protecting the non-human world and signed a pact with the devil? Are they following in the footsteps of Sierra Club’s partnership with Clorox?

Keith Goetzman, writing in Utne Reader, wags a scornful finger at what he wryly calls the Conservancy’s new “stripped down approach to environmental protection.” He says, “The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has long been an overhyped exercise in sexual objectification and anorexia induction, and I’m not sure why The Nature Conservancy thinks it will benefit from hitching its green message to the marketing machine that cranks out this cheeseball, throwback brand of softcore year after year. The association seems to risk putting off every potential supporter who doesn’t think Mad Men is a look back at the good old days.”

Certainly he is not wrong to point out these serious issues with the way that sex in general, and images of a certain type women in particular, have been used to sell everything from fast cars to shaving cream ever since Freud’s nephew came over here in the fifties and established the field of public relations. My reaction was much the same when I first saw the item.

There is, however, another way to look at this. Goetzman admits that he’s not sure why the Conservancy thinks it will benefit from doing this. Perhaps the answer remains to be seen. But as someone who has thought long and hard about the question of how to preach beyond the choir in spreading the message of environmental sustainability to those who might not otherwise be interested, I can put myself in the shoes of the folks at the Conservancy. In fact, this was exactly the reason why Roger Saillant and I decided that instead of writing a textbook on sustainability, we would write a series of eco-thrillers instead, with action, romance, and yes, even a little sex.

This is all about access. You might not like it, but perhaps that is part of a larger point that I would like to try to make here. This country today is both highly polarized and gridlocked. There appears to be no room for compromise. There are two monolithic ideological blocs and most people belong to either one or the other. Either you are a Democratic, blue, liberal, environmentalist, feminist, social justice advocate concerned with the growth and abuses of corporate power to the detriment of those less fortunate, or you are a Republican, red, conservative, pro-life, pro-gun, business supporter concerned with the growth and abuse of government to the detriment of yourself and your family.

In either case, even if you might be sympathetic to even one aspect of the other group’s bloc, you wouldn’t dare admit it for fear of being seen as betraying your group.

This is how we have arrived at the no-compromise position we find ourselves in and it has created a huge problem.

Perhaps it’s time to tease apart the various threads in these ideological blocs and take a more nuanced view. Perhaps combining threads from each side might lead to some interesting conversations and folks might start seeing those people from across the street with the other guy’s campaign sign on their lawn as people and not monsters. Who said you had to be a feminist in order to care about the environment? Yes, of course, there’s a logic that joins the two. But not everyone sees it. And that conversation is never going to happen if we stay the way we are.

Is this marketing campaign greenwashing on the part of Sports Illustrated and Gilt? Of course it is. Is it sexist? You betcha. But does that mean it shouldn’t be done, even if the end result is that hundreds or perhaps even thousands of acres of fragile wilderness are rescued from the bulldozer and the chainsaw? I’m not so sure. Because in the better world I’m looking at, sometimes the ends do justify the means. And in order to get there before it’s too late, sometimes you have to be pragmatic and go where the people are.

[Image credit: Mark Sebastian, licensed under Creative Commons]


RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

7 responses

  1. Sounds like a great idea. Beaches are usually recognized as just a place photos can be taken and nothing is given back. SI is going to shoot most of a swimsuit issue on a beach any way and this a great way for them to gain a new audience. The models aren’t anorexic looking, many are female athletes.

  2. While I’d agree that the rhetoric is polarized today, you’re throwing around some pretty aggressive generalizations by saying “There are two monolithic ideological blocs and most people belong to either one or the other.” In reality, “most people” fall somewhere in the middle and are busy just going about their lives. Perhaps if we talked less about the extremes on both ends and more about the complexity of living and making the “right” choices, the dialogue would become more civil.

    1.  Perhaps you’re right and I am generalizing too much about that. Maybe I should clarify by adding that the most outspoken people seem to fall into one camp or another.

  3. At first I was hesitant, but I actually think this is a good marketing campaign. These female athletes/models are beautiful just as are the beaches. Good way to bring attention to a very important issue. Sports and the environment are inherently linked together – seems like a valid partnership.

  4. Nature Conservancy just lost me on this one. If this was about athletes then why not do it for men and women – perhaps also do it for kids who have nice healthy bodies as well – and older people who are still athletic? Because that’s not what its about. So not only is it sexist it’s also dishonest.

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