In his new book, Getting Green Done, Auden Schendler presents tested strategies businesses can harness to lessen their impact on the planet and to compel others to do the same. In the excerpt that follows, Schendler—executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado—explains how executives can also influence government leaders to spearhead efforts to preserve the environment.
—The Editors

I get a nightmarishly recurring call from businesses trying to go green, and it goes something like this: A caller from a (hotel management group, property management firm, Fortune 500 business ... fill in the blank) wants to talk about how they could be “greener.” “What do you mean by that?” I ask. “You know,” the caller says, “recycled paper and stuff like that.” Then I usually say something like, “If that level of ‘greening’ is what you want to talk about, you’ve got the wrong guy.”

In-office measures like recycling are important, visible and necessary. Aluminum cans, for example, are basically congealed electricity, because smelting aluminum from ore is so monumentally energy-intensive. But if progress against global warming stops at the copy machine paper, a lot of coastal copy machines are going to be underwater.

Instead businesses need to do some soul-searching to find their greatest leverage against climate change, then use it. The scope and scale of the climate problem make some form of political action the biggest lever that any business or individual has. That’s because, from a pure emissions standpoint, it’s not enough for corporations to simply green up their operations. That is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. For example, my industry—the ski business—could eliminate all its greenhouse gas emissions, but we’d still go out of business in less than 100 years if the rest of the world doesn’t change.

To get the government leadership we need, corporations must become involved in climate policy at the highest level possible. But here is a key point: the on-the-ground work is a necessary precursor to that policy work. Why? Before businesses can effectively lobby for government action on climate, they need to have done something themselves, or they lose their credibility and appear to be hypocrites. This may be the single most important reason businesses and individuals should implement carbon reduction: so that their political case-making has more power and credibility. There are, of course, also large emissions reductions (and dollar savings) to be had while we wait for government leadership.

Think Like Wal-Mart, Not Ford
How does a business determine the best course? Wal-Mart is a good example. As it embarked on a greening program, the huge discount retail company could have done what the public would expect—in-store education, greening of individual sites and little windmills and solar arrays that make a big statement but don’t do much else. Although Wal-Mart did do some of that, it also sat down and asked where its biggest impact was.

Wal-Mart sells things, more things than any business in the world. So the way for Wal-Mart to change the world and protect the environment is through what it sells. The company set out to sell 100 million compact fluorescent lightbulbs by marking the prices down and placing the bulbs at eye level in the aisle (prime selling space). Wal-Mart is creating a revolution by changing the market for bulbs. As of 2008, the company had sold 130 million bulbs; the resulting pollution reduction through energy savings is the same as that of two large coal-fired power plants.

If the story ended there, it would be a great high-leverage story. But it continues. Wal-Mart isn’t just selling a lot of compact fluorescents. Wal-Mart is contributing to the extinction of the incandescent bulb. Incandescents will be banned in Australia in 2010, and California is moving in the same direction.

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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.

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Several months later, when a Kansas review board denied a permit for a new coal-fired power plant, the basis of the denial was the future negative impact of the CO2. It was the first time such a denial had been issued—and the only legal basis for that denial was Massachusetts v. EPA. That a ski resort could have had anything to do with such a monumental policy shift is humbling and gratifying, to say the least. That’s why we consider the filing of this amicus brief one of the most important things we’ve ever done as a company.

The good news is that once a sound policy is in place, opportunities abound, and many of them even make money. There are hundreds of examples, most making use of existing technology and being supported by private investors and hugely wealthy venture capitalists such as Vinod Khosla and the firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers, among many others. But the expansion and development of the right technologies won’t happen fast enough without government support. The key point is that new technology development isn’t the lever; the lever is policy that allows for the implementation of existing technology.

Forcing Leaders to Lead
Although corporations need to shoot all their efficiency and renewable energy bullets trying to reduce their own carbon footprint, it’s most important that they use their own business as a club to batter legislators with advocacy, use their influence over customers to create a grassroots movement and allocate advertising dollars to a climate campaign aimed at a broad audience. Individuals must do the same—with our votes, our pens and our feet; we must storm the barricades in the same way we drove other social transformations like civil rights or the U.S.’s exit from Vietnam. Yes, we should also screw in efficient lightbulbs, but without the delusion that such actions are enough. As noted environmentalist and Middlebury College scholar Bill McKibben says, “By all means, screw in that efficient lightbulb, but then go screw in a new senator.”

Some of our problems—civil rights was one, health care is probably another—are just too big to be solved without government’s help. In this sense, NASA climatologist James Hansen agrees with Dick Cheney who famously called individual conservation measures “a personal virtue” but not the stuff of national energy policy. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Hansen noted that a “call for people to reduce their CO2 emissions, while appropriate, oversimplifies and diverts attention from the essential requirement: government leadership. Without such leadership and comprehensive economic policies, conservation of energy by individuals merely reduces demands for fuel, thus lowering prices and ultimately promoting the wasteful use of energy.”

Hansen’s point is deceptive because it is both disempowering and empowering. What can individuals do? Perhaps reducing our own CO2, on a planetary scale, isn’t going to do much. But in the end, who is going to cause the government leadership to arise? Individuals. At Aspen Skiing Company, as with any large business or even government entity, the leaders really don’t get much direct communication from the public. If our current CEO, Mike Kaplan, were to get a dozen handwritten letters from the public on a given issue, I can guarantee we’d have a high-level meeting on the subject within a week. Imagine if there were street protests outside our building. Individuals can drive change; they always do. We need to get out in the streets, we need to bring our letters to the post office and we need to force leaders to lead.

Pressuring Other Businesses Directly
Although government action is crucial, some businesses are so big that their programs have the impact of government policies. Therefore, it’s important to crack the whip on other businesses as well.

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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.

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The opportunities for a corporation to pull these kinds of corporate levers are limitless. When we needed to buy $250,000 worth of new office furniture, we bid the project out to three companies. In our request for bids, we asked what they would provide; how much it would cost; and what their environmental programs were. The bids came in around the same price. We analyzed the environmental programs at each of the businesses and then awarded the contract to the company doing the most progressive environmental work, a business called Herman Miller.

If the story ended there, it would be great. A corporation was rewarded, monetarily, for its green stance and was encouraged to be even greener, purely from a profit motive. But the story continues. We got a note from one of the furniture makers that didn’t win the bid. “We consider ourselves pretty green, too. Why didn’t we win?” We sent them our analysis. Now another business is incentivized to further green themselves—again, purely motivated by profit.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Companies Pull the Climate Lever".