When someone thinks about Waukesha County, Wisconsin, they may not necessarily think about sustainability or environmental activism.  Cool Choices launched a county-wide program in Waukesha County in 2017, and proved that even one of the reddest counties in the country can benefit from increasing sustainability awareness and actions – and have a whole lot of fun doing it, too.

There’s a lot of talk about how we, as Americans, have organized ourselves into communities of people just like ourselves—and the challenge of communicating across bubbles once we’re accustomed to talking only with people who share our worldview.

This is a serious issue for sustainability professionals because if we want to achieve aggressive goals, we need to influence everyone’s actions. Preaching to the choir isn’t sufficient. That said, it’s easy to fall into a bubble, to find yourself surrounded by green enthusiasts where everyone shares a disdain for the people who aren’t hybrid-driving, composting vegetarians.

At Cool Choices we’ve strived to build a program model that engages everyone: people who are interested in saving money from sustainable practices, those who find being sustainable fun, as well as the people who are worried about climate change. Our aim is to engage everyone in actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions—demonstrating both that everyone is part of the solution, and that everyone can benefit from making “cool choices.”

Successfully engaging everyone means we don’t use one-size-fits-all messaging. We talk about different benefits with different audiences, showcasing the specific advantages of sustainability that will resonate locally.

Engaging Around Sustainability in Waukesha County

Our work in Waukesha County is a great example of this. Waukesha County, Wisconsin has been called the reddest county in the country. Waukesha County is a decidedly pro-business place with a healthy suspicion of anything that sounds like government interference in free enterprise. That said, the local businesses do pursue efficiency opportunities that reduce operating costs—there’s just no enthusiasm for mandates about such things. The other important background piece has to do with workforce issues—the county has a low unemployment rate and an aging workforce. Anywhere business leaders gather, there is talk about the challenges of attracting and retaining talent.

Our approach in Waukesha County was grounded in these realities. Recognizing our outsider status, we worked with a local marketing firm to build relationships. Because workforce issues were important, we focused on the workforce benefits associated with engaging employees around sustainability—illustrating how engagement on sustainability could address recruitment, retention, and even profitability. We worked with local thought leaders to create a vision for the program, and then we stayed in the background while those local thought leaders owned the program and lead communications with local businesses.

Our Waukesha County partners included the workforce development board and local offices, along with four chambers of commerce, and the marketing firm that brought us to the table. We also had support from a variety of local environmental groups, but it was the business leaders who really lead the program, recruiting the businesses that ultimately recruited the employees who participated in a Waukesha County Cool Choices sustainability engagement program.

Waukesha County’s Community-Scale Sustainability Results

This approach worked. Our partners engaged 30 businesses across the county, ranging from small entities to large regional operations. Then, with templates we provided, those businesses recruited almost 600 participants into the program, of which more than 500 reported claiming at least one “cool choice.” By the end of the program, participants reported more than 31,000 sustainable actions, and submitted almost 1,600 suggestions for ways their companies or communities could further reduce energy, water, and fuel consumption.

What’s even more, is that we engaged a diverse group of participants. As part of the Cool Choices program, we provide a baseline survey, where we include a question that helps us assess levels of participant concern about climate change. In Waukesha County, we saw that while the vast majority of participants felt sustainability was important, concern about climate was more varied. Significantly, we also saw that the people who weren’t especially concerned about climate issues actually reduced their emissions more than those who were concerned! Which means that by broadening our audience, we deepened the sustainable impacts of our program.

Our Waukesha County program also laid a foundation for additional community-scale efforts going forward. As noted above, participants generated almost 1,600 sustainable ideas as part of the program—ideas that provide insights into what participants want to see in their workplaces and across their communities. We’ve already shared those ideas with the business leaders involved in the program, and in 2018, local groups will lead a conversation that integrates those ideas into initiatives that promote sustainable practices, and fit with the particular ethos of Waukesha County. In the meantime, we’re delighted that we could motivate broad action in the county, and help begin the conversation about how sustainability benefits everyone, even in very-red Waukesha County, WI.

To learn more about how Cool Choices can help you mobilize your community around sustainability view our webinar, “Going for Green in Waukesha County.” You can also download our white papers on Cool Choices program results and employee perspectives on sustainability.

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