The TH Interview: Wendy Reed, Energy Star's Change a Light, Change the World Campaign Manager

Starting today, Energy Star's Change a Light, Change the World campaign is hitting the road, touring the country (see the full schedule here) by bus to spread the good word about the difference we all can make in the fight against global warming by changing our light bulbs to energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs (see TreeHugger's earlier coverage of the tour here).

TreeHugger recently had the chance to chat with Energy Star Campaign Manager Wendy Reed about the tour, the campaign, and what it's like to be a part of the Environment Protection Agency's first grassroots campaign.

TreeHugger: What made you choose visiting schools and high-profile events like football games to spread the word about CFLs? How do you expect people to react to your message at those events?
Wendy Reed: The goal here is to basically educate as many people as is humanly possible over the 20 days that we have. We put together a very ambitious schedule, working with our local events sponsors -- who were chosen based on the number of people they could reach -- given our goal of getting in front of as many consumers as possible. Given that, we'll be in the parking lots of NFL football games; we'll be on Navy Pier; we'll be at Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston; those are places that are very high traffic that "the average Joe" will be going by. Those are the people we're trying to inspire with our message: that our energy use is connected to global warming and that we all have a role to play in this. Of course, the Change a Light, Change the World campaign is encouraging people to start with something extremely accessible to them; something we can all do today, without having to replace our refrigerators, or clothes washers, or the entire house: changing a light bulb.

The idea here, with the bus tour, was to take it local, make it a grassroots campaign. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has never anything like it before, so this is a really big deal. It's really exciting.

You asked, "How do we think people will respond?" and I think that is the unknown. After all, we are coming in a bus that is sponsored by the US government's Energy Star program, so, that alone makes us wonder how people will respond -- you never really know. Under the current administration, I'm sure it will be a surprise to some people to see us out there with a bus that actually says "global warming" on it. It's a real sea change and I'm extremely excited and feel very fortunate to be among the first out of the gates from the government to be able to be on the ground with people and to start encouraging them to act.


TH: What are some of the difficulties you've found contextualizing a huge problem like global warming down to an individual level and an individual action like reducing your energy use or changing your light bulbs?

WR: I think the biggest challenge is getting people to understand that, while their home doesn't have a tailpipe attached to it, that their home is still responsible for a great deal of the greenhouse gas emissions that go into our atmosphere. In fact, the average home is responsible for twice the greenhouse gas emissions as the average car. That is something that a lot of people don't understand -- when they flip on a light, when they stand there deliberating over the midnight snack with the refrigerator door open -- that there's a power plant, and in most places it's a coal-fired power plant, that's making that all possible for them. And, that their choices have everything to do with how much of that coal gets burned. I think that alone is such a disconnect for people -- they look up, see bright blue skies above their house and go "What are you talking about?" -- but it is, for all of us.

Of course, global warming is so much bigger than our own individual use, but that's one of the other pieces that we really try to convey: it's a collective step we're trying to encourage here. Collective actions, those are the most powerful kind. So, almost three years ago, we created the online Energy Star Change a Light pledge. The whole idea behind that was not to amass a whole bunch of pledges on our website; the concept was to get people to see that they aren't the only ones taking an action -- that they're not alone. That when even one light is changed at home, when 900,000 other people do it -- which is where we are right now -- wow! It really adds up quickly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions savings, in terms of energy savings. I think a lot of people really get that we need to preserve our energy resources, but until you really see that we're all connected in this, it's very hard for people to grasp.

TH: What strategies have you found to be most effective in selling the idea of low-energy bulbs to people who are perfectly happy with their incandescents? How does an event tour change the way that you market them, versus something like an ad campaign?

WR: I think talking to people personally is always more effective than sending out a brochure, or putting out a public service announcement that you just flip through in a magazine. So, the tactic that has been the most effective for us is making the campaign local and personal. The way we've done that, beyond this bus tour, for the last two years, is to make the pledge more personal. Rather than saying, "Hey, pledge, tell the government you're doing this" -- you can imagine how effective that would be -- we have reached out to literally thousands and thousands of organizations that are connected to the Energy Star program -- 9,000 organizations, all together -- to invite them to take the pledge to their employees, to their stakeholders, to their customers.

They can actually sign up as what we call "Pledge Drivers" -- I just want to mention this because I think it's mind-blowing. I tried to get this into (EPA) Administrator Johnson's talking points last year; unfortunately, they didn't make it -- which has proven to be really effective: passive competition. We never said there was a competition going on, but what we did say was that those who have the most pledges at any given time would be on our website. We just launched the new reset for Pledge Drivers on September 3rd, so everybody started from scratch; they all had to sign up again. When you click on "view all Pledge Drivers," you'll see that it says 572 total Pledge Drivers [Ed. note: this number has changed since the time of this interview; it's now 658, at time of publication]; in less than a months' time, that many organizations have signed up to be part of the pledge this year. That blows my mind.

We had 748 who signed up last year; that to me says, "We've got something going here." And when I say "we," I mean collectively, as a country, people are looking for what they can do; organizations are looking for what they can do to make a difference. I don't know if it's a good sign or a bad sign, but lots of them are coming here. I wish there were a lot more opportunities for people and organizations to take advantage of and mobilize their employees, etc. But this is what we've got; we literally reach out to thousands on a monthly basis about this campaign, to keep them involved, and we've made it as personal as we can.

And we really feel like it's working; if you click on "Georgia Power," for example, you can see that they're about 4% to their goal of 80,000 pledges, along with how many bulbs people have pledged to change, what their energy savings potential is, the dollar savings, and the greenhouse gas potential savings will be. That's on every page of our partners who've signed up to help spread the pledge, so, again, we've made it personal and I think that's the answer.

Things coming down from "on high," coming from the Beltway here in Washington D.C., that's all well and good. Bureaucrats dictating from a podium -- all nice and good. But it's not the same as when it comes from your local utility, your local Home Depot, your local mayor or even your local homeowners association. Those are all the groups that we're reaching out to, giving them all kinds of tools to make it personal.


TH: It used to be that compact fluorescents had poor light quality, buzzed, and took a long time to warm up. While the technology has certainly improved, some people's perceptions of CFLs have not. How do you convince skeptics that their quality of life won't be changed by switching out their light bulbs?

WR: Yes, welcome to my world (laughs). I tell people to try them again, for the first time. Remember that Corn Flakes commercial, a few years back? That really struck me, and I thought it was a really clever hook, so that's pretty much what I say. It's really not fluorescent technology of old; it's not the same stuff that made you look green, or that stuff that used to buzz in your office or your doctor's office or whatever -- people seem to associate it with bad office lighting -- and there's not much we can do about that. The other thing we try -- just like "Kentucky Fried Chicken" doesn't say "Kentucky Fried Chicken" anymore, because they don't want to say "fried" -- is to keep "fluorescent" out of what we say; we don't want to say "fluorescent," so we do our best to say "CFL" and people stop thinking about what the "F" stands for. The other thing we say is "Energy Star-qualified light bulbs."

It is hard and the biggest thing for us is to try to incent people to try them again, because some people were burned on them, quite frankly. The other thing is that the Energy Star program itself, working with EPA and the Department of Energy, have worked very, very hard to make the "Energy Star" label on compact fluorescent lighting really mean something. So, not every CFL earns the Energy Star label, because there used to be so many problems: with the humming, the buzzing, not instantly coming on, and, on top of it, sticking out of the top of your lampshade. And then, they ask you to spend $16 for that light bulb. We have so many things working against us, but it's just not the same any more.

I think the other thing is that we've really convinced our retail partners that if people really can see if for themselves, they'll believe that the new ones are better. So, a lot of times they're doing demonstrations in stores, actually putting dedicated displays in, like Wal-Mart and Lowe's are starting to do, for example. They'll put a line of lightbulbs across the top of their shelving, and they're lit up, so you can see for yourself: "Wow, that's not green or washed out, it's actually a really warm color." All of that helps, and then I think that the drop in price is making a ridiculously large difference, now that you can get them for just a couple bucks a piece when you buy them in a multi-pack.

TH: How do you respond to people who say that changing light bulbs is a nice gesture, but won't create enough positive change to really make a difference in our fight against global warming?

WR: I say that it's going to take all of us working together, to fight global warming, and that we need to start somewhere. If our populous doesn't understand that they are connected to this fight, we're not going to make it. Policy, while extremely necessary, is ultimately enacted by us humans; if a policy goes through, legislating caps on greenhouse gas emissions, for example, that's all well and good, but it's still up to human behavior to make it work, and the people who will be enacting this policy all the way down the chain are individuals who have homes and who drive cars.

This type of campaign is not designed to be a fix-all for global warming, but an entry point to get people started and connected to this cause. I don't think anybody thinks that just changing lightbulbs is going to do the trick, but I really hope that it will go a long way to engaging people in how important it is for all of us to be in this together.

Wendy Reed is an Energy Star Campaign Manager for the Change a Light, Change the World campaign. The bus tour runs from October 3 through October 23; click here for the full schedule and to track the bus as it traverses the country, encouraging people to change a light, save energy, save money, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help save the world.

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