In 2006, in response to a request from Forest Ethics, our company joined a Greenpeace-led boycott of Kimberly-Clark (K-C) paper products, including the legendary brand Kleenex. Greenpeace’s boycott, which had 700 participants as of 2007, was organized to force K-C to stop using paper and pulp from endangered forests and instead to use fiber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and to increase dramatically the percentage of postconsumer recycled fiber in all its tissue paper products.
Aspen Skiing Company joined the boycott by switching our mountains, hotels and restaurants away from K-C products. In the process, I made the mistake of talking to the press about it. The press had a field day dreaming up headlines like “The Issue over Tissue” and “Kleenex Maker Not Sneezing at Skico’s Concern.”
While we received some limited kudos for the action, many locals felt the move was hypocritical and flagrant greenwashing. Who were we to pick on another business when we had our own problems? Worse, the move was seen as an easy PR opportunity for Aspen Skiing Company, one that didn’t require much in the way of change or effort on our part. Internally, when we floated the idea of changing the name of a famous Aspen ski trail from “Kleenex Corner” to something else, the old-timers were outraged. (The name stayed.) The bad press lingered for more than a year after the event, with columnists referencing it again and again. The boycott was widely seen as a PR disaster, at least locally, for the company.
But it was also something else: the boycott was one of the most important and influential actions taken by Aspen Skiing Company that year. Almost as soon as we sent a letter to K-C’s CEO announcing our participation in the boycott, our CEO received a letter in response from their CEO. In short order, K-C flew in a team of high-level managers (including senior vice president of environmental affairs Ken Strassner) to talk to us about K-C’s work.
Why did they care? Aspen Skiing Company buys at most $30,000 worth of product every year, and K-C is a $32-billion company. K-C cared for the same reason that businesses like Ralph Lauren, Prada and Louis Vuitton insist on locating stores in Aspen even though they might not be profitable. Because of its profile and reputation, for better or for worse, Aspen drives public opinion. The town is newsworthy. Although a boycott might or might not have been news, Aspen’s participation was. This boycott, like our amicus brief filing, is another example of Aspen Skiing Company’s leverage strategy in action. Once again, we were using the Aspen name to drive disproportionate change.
As a result of our meeting, the K-C team agreed to meet with the NRDC and Greenpeace. We had felt that the primary issue was K-C’s unwillingness to engage the environmental community, which was the main differentiator between K-C and, say, Georgia Pacific. I asked its team members why they wouldn’t at least hold discussions. One of the executives replied, red-faced: “Greenpeace occupied our offices. Would you negotiate with people who had invaded your office?”
The answer is, of course, “Absolutely.” How else are you going to get them out? Not engaging these groups is a move from the 1950s. Most modern corporations make it standard practice to engage. In fact, Aspen Skiing Company has a long-standing policy of engagement, going back to 1998, when then CEO O’Donnell told my predecessor Chris Lane to find our biggest enemies in the environmental community. “Who really hates us? Get me the list. I want to buy them lunch at the Little Nell four times a year.” The point wasn’t to buy these guys off. The point was to have conversations, to give nonprofit heads and government leaders a direct line to the CEO so that they could air their concerns directly and so that we could use them as a free consulting group, testing ideas before releasing new programs.