Kathy Kuntz approaches climate change with one goal in mind: Whatever you do, make combating it fun, popular and easy.
In fact, when Kuntz and her colleague rolled out the first pilot program for their nonprofit Cool Choices on Earth Day in April, the term climate change didn't even come up.
"Our core quest is to facilitate people making changes that reduce their emissions by using what's already available," says Kuntz, the group's executive director. "The way to motivate that is not through long discussion about climate change and its global impacts, but leveraging people's local interest in saving money and protecting the environment."
This mentality separates Cool Choices from other environmental groups, even those Kuntz has worked for in the past. Rather than lobby for policy changes, Cool Choices focuses on curbing greenhouse emissions through voluntary action by businesses and communities.
Headquartered in an office just off Midvale Boulevard, Cool Choices came into existence in 2009. It was created to promote voluntary sustainability by former Gov. Jim Doyle's Climate Change Task Force: a group of academics, energy industry leaders, environmental groups and politicians.
The task force helped start Cool Choices with a $5 million grant from a $100 million settlement stemming from permit issues at Elm Row power plant in Oak Creek, Wis. From there, the group established a board of directors and began searching for leaders. The group doesn't rely on any government money, and eventually hopes to develop funding and donor relationships to ensure that it survives. To gauge businesses' interest, the nonprofit will first team up with companies that endorse green values.
"Right now we're using that corporate climate as a catalyst," says Kuntz, one of Cool Choices' two full-time employees. "Our current pilot is a good fit for companies that already have a strong, recognized commitment to sustainability."
Kuntz, who formerly directed operations for Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation and developed energy programs for K-12 students at the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education, arrived at Cool Choices last summer. One of her first tasks was analyzing interviews in Appleton to learn more about how Wisconsinites thought. She was surprised by the results.
Most of those interviewed were turned off by the terms "climate change" and "global warming," which a lot of effort has gone into discrediting. But, she says, "at the same time, the same people said to us, 'Of course, we should all do whatever we can to save energy,' kind of in a Midwest-what-kind-of-moron-wouldn't-save-money way."
One goal of Cool Choices will be establishing itself in Wisconsin communities, as climate change remains a contentious issue. Key to the group's first pilot project, launched on Earth Day, is a sustainability program with Miron Construction in Neenah, Wis.
Raj Shukla, Cool Choices' program manager, also stresses the need to win hearts and minds, not make people feel guilty.
"The last thing we wanted to do organizationally and as individuals was preach to people," says Shukla. "We all have to recognize on a certain level that nobody is pure on this range of issues, that we all have a lot to learn and that the goal should not be perfection by definition. But the goal is progress."
Still, both Shukla and Kuntz were surprised by the high participation the first pilot program, called iChoose, has inspired. Nearly 75% of Miron Construction's 328 employees signed up to participate. Typically, Kuntz says, 20% to 30% participation is considered a good turnout.
Those who sign up are placed into teams by department and compete against each other for monthly prizes. Miron employees earn points through playing color-coded sustainability cards, each with a specific task on it. The tasks are usually performed at home.
For example, "one-time" cards may include actions such as changing existing light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs that reduce energy use at home, while "habitual" cards focus on reducing energy use every day.
At the end of the pilot, the top three teams receive sustainability grants to donate to other local businesses, hospitals or schools. Kuntz refers to the end prize as a "contagious game" of sorts that allows Miron to have a positive effect on the local community.
Theresa Lehman, director of sustainable services at Miron, believes the pilot program will help reduce greenhouse emissions and energy use. With expertise in LEED-certified construction practices, she labels Cool Choices unique because of its personal feel.
"Cool Choices' approach really is focused on employees making personal choices for them and how it's going to benefit them and their families," says Lehman, who works with other companies as the state's only LEED-certified faculty member for the U.S. Green Building Council. "All other organizations that I work with are not so much focused on the behaviors of people but strategies, systems and equipment they can put into their building."
For instance, she says, "I can help a client select a high-efficiency lighting system, but I cannot teach their employees to shut off the lights."
Lehman can easily envision a day when companies pay for Cool Choices' programs. Just as companies are now investing in employee wellness programs, Lehman says they're also getting their feet wet in the sustainability realm. Plus, she says, eco-friendly behaviors are bound to carry over to the workplace as well, which equates to savings for companies.
Cool Choices has selected Gundersen Lutheran, a health system based out of La Crosse, for its next pilot program. Each pilot will differ based on the goals and needs of the company and employees, Kuntz says.
But above all, she believes that promoting real change starts by getting to know real working people and letting them know it's the small stuff that adds up.
"I don't want people to feel like if you're not biking to work, then you're not doing anything that matters," says Kuntz. "If you're picking up some eco-driving tips and are stretching your gas further, that has a positive impact on the environment and on your family's budget.... People need to be able to take steps that work in their lives that are still a part of the solution."