The WATER Foundation Conducts The Business of Conservation

by Cory Schmidt-The WATER Foundation


In an era in which the term “conservation” tends to make people cringe with thoughts of personal sacrifice, along comes an organization telling consumers that the opposite may in fact be the key to using natural resources sustainability.  For over a decade, a creative organization called The WATER Foundation (TWF), with both for-profit and nonprofit arms, has been quietly making waves touting a Conservation Pays message.  Its big secret is that people can save money while sustaining natural resources simply by making better purchasing choices.

TWF founder David Winkelman summarizes the essence of this philosophy:  “Over the past century, corporate and individual focus on profits has caused a neglect of ecology.  We feel that a quick way to turn this around is to focus on new profits and savings to be earned from conservation products, services and technologies.  We call this ‘conservation marketing.’”

            Indeed, rather than rail against big business, TWF continues to take an optimistic approach of working with businesses for the strict purpose of resource conservation.  It’s an effort that not only strengthens the image of big businesses, but also allows them to enter new markets of growth and profit.  The key lies in promoting products that conserve rather then deplete natural resources.  Meanwhile, the businesses themselves stand to gain customer loyalty by attaching their names to a positive conservation ethic.

            As for the consumer, working to better nature is much easier than commonly believed.  People don’t have to quit taking showers to save water, simply consider buying low-flow showerheads or showerheads with on/off buttons.  No need to quit watering the lawn, just consider using water timers for your sprinkling system.  You don’t have to stop fertilizing either, but think about applying non-phosphate fertilizers-better for water quality.  Finally, there’s no need to sell your car in order to reduce pollution, just keep it well maintained so as to diminish harmful emissions.  There’s more.  Simple steps in consumption and use of conservation products-these are the things that will ultimately make a difference.

            “The quality of the environment isn’t going to change by one big decision,” Winkelman believes, “but by billions of little decisions every day, such as what type of bulb to buy or how to fertilize your yard.”

            These “decisions” can, in effect, be shaped by the businesses who manufacture and market conservation products.  Once available, such products require careful marketing to succeed, which is where TWF’s radio programs come into focus.

            For over a decade, TWF has produced feature vignettes for radio that emphasize enjoyable, yet responsible, use of natural resources.  Today its programs play on hundreds of radio stations reaching nearly 80% of the nation’s consumers.

            “Our radio programs are actually an example of a tool that can help shape these little decisions on a daily basis,” says Jim Vopatek, TWF’s Network Manager.  “They’re practical and intriguing bite-size tips on conservation such as, ‘Did you know…’followed by a neat, concise answer-an easy call to action that can apply to almost any consumer almost any day.”

            Vopatek concludes, “These radio programs are our way of teaching people that conservation can really be an easy and money-saving effort.  When businesses attach their names to messages like these, they, too, shape consumer choices, not to mention they’re generating positive public and community perception.”

            Such a marketing philosophy-“conservation pays” lies at the core of all TWF’s business systems.  Yes, they practice what they preach, so much so, in fact, that their place of business is widely considered to be a model home of the future.  They recently received the Minnesota Governor’s Award for Excellence in Waste & Pollution Prevention as well as the Minnesota Waste Wise Smart business Award from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.  Both awards were direct results of TWF’s “Eco Domes”-buildings designed to have a zero impact on the environment by using the sun, wind and earth as energy sources.

            Constructed in 1997 using inexpensive yet cutting-edge technologies to conserve energy, materials and water, the Eco Domes burn no fuel, pollute no water and produce no unnatural air emissions.

            The domes also serve as a showcase for environmental options in building, heating, lighting, recycling and efficient, yet beautiful, design.  The plumbing system features two types of composting toilets and a greywater system, neither of which contribute any pollution to the groundwater.  Electricity generation happens through solar and wind-borne sources and energy conservation is accomplished through dozens of available technologies such as geothermal heat pumps and radiant floor heating.  TWF self-creates so much electricity that they actually sell power back to the local utilities company on some days.

            Finally, dome construction utilized a variety of recycled and efficient building materials, in addition to energy-efficient appliances and lighting.  And to fulfill the company’s roots in natural harmony, the buildings are, to point out the obvious, dome-shaped to mimic the patterns of critters in the wild.  As Winkelman often points out to Eco Dome visitors, birds build round nest, beavers erect dome-shaped lodges and even fish fashion circular spawning beds.

            Energy conservation explains in the next phase in the evolution of the Foundation.  “With the continuing growth of on-line communications, we long ago noticed a need to go with the flow of non-consumptive electronic media-radio, Internet and television-while reducing print paper waste,” Winkelman states.  “Sure, we’ve produced radio features for well over a decade, which remains a very “frog friendly” medium, but our newest venture will include an expansion of our website that will soon be offering the very products found in the domes and many other conservation products, all for mass public buying via our on-line e-store.”

            The Foundation’s conservation store may well be the first of its kind to offer the public such wide-ranging products unified by the need to sustain natural resources.  From fluorescent light bulbs to solar panels, low-flow showerheads to rechargeable flashlights, latex paints to wind generators, an increasing demand dictated by changing consumer attitudes and government regulation clearly calls for such an enterprise.

            How expensive are such specialized projects?  The answer actually lies in the low capital investment and overhead of the domes themselves.  Geodesic buildings use 33% less material to enclose the same floor area then do conventional, square-shaped buildings.  The cost of construction?  About $48 per square foot compared to the average $60-$125 for standard construction.

            If you are in the Brainerd Lakes area, the WATER Foundation invites you to stop in and say hello.  The Eco Domes Living Arts Center is open for tours from 1-4 p.m. the third Friday of every month at no charge.  Cassette-tape guided tours are available for a small fee from 8 a.m.-5p.m. Monday through Friday.  Plans include a retail store, the HOP Shop (“Help Our Planet”).  Call the WATER Foundation, 218-764-2321.