Kelsey Brasseur had knocked on just a handful of doors in Ashland, Wis., before making a sale. Well, not a sale, exactly, but an exchange: of light bulbs and environmental ideas.
Brasseur, 20, is a sophomore at Northland College, majoring in environmental studies. Last summer, she was part of a small team that spent weeks going door-to-door in communities surrounding Chequamegon Bay, including Ashland, Bayfield, Red Cliff and Washburn. The team members, wearing cowboy hats to identify themselves, asked residents if they'd be willing to exchange one of their incandescent light bulbs for a new, compact fluorescent bulb.
In all, Brasseur knocked on about 1,000 doors, exchanging a bulb at every third or fourth house. "I remember being very nervous," she says. "But the majority of people were excited to see us and wanted to know all about what we were doing."
Brasseur's efforts were part of a strategic plan known as the Sustainable Chequamegon Initiative. And the light-bulb exchange was a way to start reducing regional energy consumption.
According to Brandon Boys, who oversaw the program, the 1,300 compact fluorescents exchanged last summer should reduce electricity consumption in the region by 96,000 kilowatt-hours a year - about the total annual usage of 11 homes.
"That's approximately $7,200 those people will save," says Boys. "It's also 100 tons of CO2 not released into the atmosphere from 40 tons of coal not burned. Every year. And those compact fluorescents have a usable life of five years."
It's a long way from Ashland to Sweden, but that Nordic nation was the inspiration for the Sustainable Chequamegon Initiative. In 2004, Ashland resident Mary Rehwald traveled to Sweden to see the "eco-municipalities" she'd heard so much about.
Swedish eco-municipalities use a framework called the Natural Step to help government, businesses and individuals minimize their ecological footprint. It involves reducing consumption of fossil fuels, producing as little waste as possible, recycling extensively, and producing food and other commodities locally.
Soon after she returned from Sweden, Rehwald made a push to inform the communities around Chequamegon Bay about sustainable eco-municipalities. She was surprised at the positive response.
"I knew something was happening," she says, "when I walked into the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center [in Ashland] to give my slide show [of her Sweden trip], and there were 169 people in the room."
The Natural Step proved to be a natural fit for the region's residents. In 2005, Ashland hosted a sustainability conference, and nearby Washburn (2000 population: 2,280) became the first municipality in the nation to embrace Natural Step guidelines.
The city of Ashland followed suit a few months later, as did the city and town of Bayfield.
"The whole idea of declaring yourself an eco-municipality is to create a vision through the government," says Rehwald, "where the local government supports these initiatives, talks about them, and puts them into practice."
To date, 16 Wisconsin communities have passed eco-municipality resolutions, says Lisa MacKinnon, the former policy director for 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin. These include the city of Madison, which has audited its energy use and adopted a program to reduce office-generated waste. And Madison was the first city in the nation to train its workers in the Natural Step framework (see "But Think of the Environment," 1/5/07).
Many of the steps taken by eco-municipalities are small, but they add up. The town of LaPointe, for example, is using biodiesel in its dump trucks. And Washburn has replaced inefficient city park showers with ones using on-demand water heaters.
MacKinnon continues to coordinate the North American Eco-Municipality Network, an international group of communities and individuals. She fields calls from around the country from people who want to know more about efforts such as the Sustainable Chequamegon Initiative.
One of the model's virtues, she says, is that it unites members of a community around a common quest: "What does sustainability mean for them?"
Rehwald, 65, has been a professional educator for most of her life, teaching cultural history and economics in high schools and colleges. From 1960 through 1980, she lived in Madison, teaching at Edgewood High School and Madison public schools. In 1987, after several years in California, she moved to Ashland to teach at Northland College.
Five years later, Rehwald and a handful of others created the Alliance for Sustainability. It promoted ecologically healthy living and held four to six educational programs a year.
Following her trip to Sweden, Rehwald and her group got the Sustainable Chequamegon Initiative rolling, partly through the use of study circles - small groups of local people sharing the message and generating ideas.
And Rehwald was able to snare a number of grants, notably from the Otto Bremer Foundation of Minnesota and the Mary H. Rice Foundation of Bayfield. Funding from these and other sources allowed the Initiative to open an office in Ashland last year, and hire Boys as its lone fulltime staffer.
Participants in the Sustainable Chequamegon Initiative designate a member to a larger "Green Team," which meets regularly to discuss eco-friendly practices. At a recent meeting, for example, the team talked about common products each member group was buying, whether there were "green" alternatives, and if local distribution was possible, to reduce costs and the energy used for transportation.
A large part of the initiative's focus is working with businesses. Rehwald sees this as essential, since it's hard to get people to care about sustainability when their own economic situation is precarious.
That's especially true in the Chequamegon Bay region, where poverty and unemployment rates run high. In 2002, for instance, Ashland County's median household income was $31,000 a year, $12,000 below the state's median.
"We're like everywhere else," says Rehwald. "The number-one issue up here is jobs."
That's why it matters that businesses can profit from sustainability. That will be a key message at the Alliance's conference April 24-25 at Northland College. Keynote speaker Bob Willard, the author of The Sustainability Advantage, is a former IBM executive. He argues that using sustainable practices can boost the profits of large corporations by 34% and small businesses by an astounding 60%.
The Initiative has drawn some resistance. Boys notes that even the name of the 2005 conference, "Sustainable Sweden," was controversial.
"We were attacked by some community members who said, 'Sweden is a socialist country - and what do you care about Sweden?'" he recalls. "We had one city council candidate say, 'I'm not interested in Sustainable Sweden, I'm interested in Abundant America!'"
Rehwald takes such reactions in stride. "Not everyone is on board with this," she admits. "But a large percentage of the population understands what we're trying to do."
On the web
Alliance for Sustainability
(Check out the Sustainable Chequamegon Initiative strategic plan here.)
The Natural Step
1,000 Friends Eco-Municipalities