State of Sustainability: Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Company

In our upcoming April issue, TransWorld Business, delved into the state of sustainability in action sports, investigating how environmental initiatives have weathered the economic storm. We sat down with a dozen of the industry’s most eco-fluential individuals to see how the climate of the action-sports business has changed and learn how environmental initiatives have become the bedrock of a number of companies that have defied the recent economic trends.

Auden Schendler, Executive Director of Aspen Skiing Company

Auden Schendler, Executive Director of Aspen Skiing Company

Auden Schendler
Aspen Skiing Company
Executive Director of Sustainability

What have been the biggest environmental developments in action sports over the last two years?
The biggest and most important development is the “politicization” of the action sports world-meaning the willingness of businesses, filmmakers and athletes to speak out on the need for strong policy on climate change. The actors in these efforts, as examples, include North Face and Timberland, Teton Gravity Research, athletes like Jeremy Jones, Ted Ligety, Julia Mancuso, and many, many others. At resorts, I’m encouraged by the trade associations being willing to speak out on climate policy. What discourages me is when these same entities seem to rank more mundane issues-like legislation that enables summer recreation activities-as roughly equal to solving climate.

Do you think environmental ethics in manufacturing and business processes has moved forward or regressed during the recession? Why?

My sense is that in these difficult economic times, businesses are suddenly very interested in projects with a return on investment, no matter how small that return. Sustainability efforts typically offer these types of returns-so I think businesses are, if anything, more focused on sustainability. Now is the time that businesses running most efficiently-not wasting materials or energy, for example-will survive the great weeding out, and the sloppy, fat businesses will fail. This especially applies to resorts which have huge capital and operational costs.

From a business stand point, what are the biggest reasons for the industry to push for more environmentally friendly products/processes?
Two key reasons: first is that the customer wants it. And second is that you have to be lean to survive in today’s economy, and energy and materials efficiency is simply a way of cutting waste. That’s all “green” business is. Leanness applies to advertising too. If you do an energy efficiency program in your factory or shop, and that saves energy but also gets you free press, then you are doubly lean.

What do you see as the biggest road blocks in moving your business and the industry towards sustainability?

The biggest barrier tends to be that businesses have a core job to do (making stuff, selling stuff, providing a service) and anything else is seen as ancillary. So a company might spend more time and money on product related efforts vs, say, energy efficiency or waste reduction. And there’s good logic to that. But over the long term, we have to see the business as a whole: that you have to produce the product or service with the least waste, with the least amount of energy, or it’s not the product that will lead to a successful business.
Where do you think we are as an industry as far as actually walking the talk versus simply green washing ourselves to sell products?

On one hand, everything’s greenwashing in that nobody is responding to climate change, the issue that trumps everything else, to scale. Businesses I’ve seen in the action sports, outdoor world tend to be doing what their customers THINK they should be doing, vs. what’s right for the planet. So, for example, a company might be incorporating recycled fiber into its product. That’s great, but it shouldn’t be the thrust of a company’s green efforts. The company should be in Washington working to ensure we get strong policy on climate change. That’s what matters. Everything else is dinking around the edges. We should do that dinking, partly because it’s fun to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic, but not be deluded into thinking small actions are addressing the scale of the climate problem.

How do you leverage your business partners and customers (factories/retailers/manufacturers/consumers) to support the same message you’re working on?
Leveraging partners is key because it increase your ripple effect. When you ask for proposals, environment should be a component of the bid request, and then you should weight that heavily in awarding contracts. We look for partners based on the alignment of their environmental principles to our own: so we’ve end up with some leading green brands, like Green Mountain Coffee, Sprint, Audi, and others.

Do you think we can really succeed in making truly sustainable products?
Yes, you’re going to have to. But the solution might not look like what you imagine it to be. For example, the most important thing we can do is green the energy supply. if you do that, if you operate on clean energy, you’re most of the way towards sustainability.