Case studies of companies doing the opposite of what Wal-Mart did illustrate the need for a focus on what really matters. Ford made the colossal mistake of deciding not to green its core business (cars) but instead to throw $2 billion at greening its Rouge auto plant in Dearborn, Mich. (In particular, they decided to install a green roof … planted with grasses.) Ford simply missed what its biggest lever was. As a result, almost a decade later Ford is still not seen as green, doesn’t have a green fleet and is being pounded by companies like Toyota and Honda that asked the same question and answered it correctly. (And the roof leaks.)
The property management firm that wanted to green its offices with recycled paper needed to make the same assessment Wal-Mart did: What is our greatest area of leverage? For property managers, the opportunity is in—surprise—property management! Buildings are responsible for close to half of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The property managers who called me were responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in condos, private homes and commercial space, and they might well be able to save money for their clients while protecting the environment. But their initial thinking about the meaning of “environmentalism” wasn’t steering them in the right direction.
Influencing Government Decisions
Aspen Skiing Company’s lever became clear one day when I walked into the office of our then CEO, Pat O’Donnell, in despair. “What are we doing?” I asked him. The work we’d done—from improving building and snowmaking efficiency to making renewable energy purchases and using biofuels in Snowcats—was so small in the scheme of things; it felt like we weren’t really making a difference. What was the point of this? O’Donnell pointed out that whereas what we did day to day was important, it was dwarfed by another opportunity. O’Donnell argued that an increasingly important part of our focus, now that we had credibility, should be changing the perspective of other businesses and supporting the burgeoning environmentalism of our ownership—a caring and generous family that was becoming increasingly environmentally aware.
Our company’s biggest lever is that it is world-renowned; we get covered by the press all over the world, and small actions on our part can often influence disproportionate change. At Aspen Skiing Company, we felt that we could influence two huge entities with this thinking: the federal government and large corporations.
In an effort to pull the government lever, in 2007, at the request of friends at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Aspen Skiing Company filed an amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on a lawsuit entitled Massachusetts v. EPA. That filing, which has been called the most important environmental lawsuit ever to go to the Supreme Court, demanded that the Environmental Protection Agency regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act—something the plaintiffs saw as a very reasonable request since the Clean Air Act defines a pollutant as a substance that is damaging to humans. There is ample evidence now that CO2 is already threatening human life.
At first glance, the participation of a ski resort—a small business by global standards—would seem meaningless. But because Aspen has such high name recognition and because having a ski resort involved in the story is odd and unique, the press coverage looked something like this: “12 states, three environmental groups, even a ski resort, have weighed in, in support of this lawsuit.” The suit won, 5–4.
I like to think of this approach as “asymmetric warfare”: a small entity exerting disproportionate influence over a much larger, stronger entity. Our job is to find out how we can have a vastly disproportionate impact.