Getting Green Done Means Moving Past 'Sustainability 101'

Getting Green Done Means Moving Past 'Sustainability 101'

Auden Schendler. Photo from Auden Schendler

When it comes to reducing their environmental impact, companies are making a range of efforts to cut emissions, reduce waste and boost efficiency across their operations. But for Auden Schendler, the executive director of sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Company and author of the new book Getting Green Done, there are both fundamental problems in the ways that many companies address the environment, and universal barriers to their success. executive editor Joel Makower sat down recently with Schendler to talk about successes, failures and how to get every company at or beyond Sustainability 101.

Joel Makower: Auden, as you talk to companies and hear from them, and view the landscape of what’s happening in the world of green business, how do you assess the state of the art of how well companies are actually thinking about this?

Auden Schendler: Well let me give you two examples. One is a report I got from a beverage maker. You look at their report in sustainability, it’s ten things, ten projects that are discrete, like reducing packaging or donating to a certain cause. There wasn’t one mention of climate change, and there was no discussion of energy.

What their environmental program is is a bunch of sexy projects that misses the big picture and makes them look good. The problem I see is that many corporations have that -- ten different things -- and that’s your environmental program, but it has nothing to do with holistic approach to climate, whether it’s reducing your own energy or getting involved in policy.

Another major corporation I met with recently, I looked at their sustainability report and it had sections on water reduction and energy-intensity reduction. There was no carbon footprint, and there’s no discussion of climate policy. You have these businesses that are essentially missing the issue of our time, the one business issue of our time, and yet that is seen as the vanguard of the sustainability movement because they’re doing something.

Now, flip to Walmart, which has the courage to say, “Climate is the issue and we’re not actually succeeding, but we’re gonna keep hammering at it.” You could almost say honesty is the barometer of success. You don’t have to be actually successful; you have to be trying, because we know this problem is hugely difficult.

Getting Green Done

JM: Your book, Getting Green Done, looks at some of the challenges that you faced, at Aspen Skiing Company, and other companies are facing in implementing this stuff. What’s the biggest obstacle to change for people who want to be a change agent within their companies?

AS: I think a big obstacle is that everyone is disincentivized against telling the truth. If you think about it, a consultant, a corporation, a government, a nonprofit, they all need to say, “Look how good my green program is.” Now, if it isn’t good or if you’re not meeting your goals, or if you hit a big barrier that you overcame, that’s not good to tell the story because you’re either selling your political program or your consulting services, or whatever. This is a book that daylights those challenges with the idea that you didn’t learn how to hit a curveball by hitting it; you learned by missing.

JM: Tell me a story about one of the curveballs that you missed at Aspen Skiing Company?

AS: Well okay, as an example, when I came out of the nonprofit sector starry-eyed and ready to go, the one thing I knew is sustainability 101. What is it? It’s a lighting retrofit. Huge return on investment, better lighting, money, everything; there’s a huge benefit every way.

When we tried to do it at our hotel, I ran into ten different barriers, ranging from, “I don’t believe the lights will save energy,” to, “I don’t have the money,” to, “This is a five-star hotel. We don’t use fluorescents,” and we failed for six years.

Now if the easiest thing in the environmental movement -- sustainability 101 -- takes six years in a company that’s ethically motivated and cares, and wants to do it and has a staff position dedicated to it, how are we gonna get the 99 out of 100 businesses, that either don’t care or aren’t even thinking about this, moving? How do you get to 80 percent CO2 reductions by 2050?

JM: How did you get past that, or did you? What did you learn about future projects in terms of getting past those kinds of barriers?

AS: Well one, we learned you don’t go into it with the idea that this is gonna be -- you don’t go to a manager and say, “Hey, it’s good for the environment and it saves money. Here we go.” Be prepared for a million unexpected barriers and have creative approaches to get around it.

When we ended up doing that lighting retrofit, it wasn’t the beauty, the idea or the energy savings. We had to force the guy to do it. He’s a great guy. His argument was if he had money and a five-star hotel, he’s gonna buy wine and high-thread count sheets, so we forced him to do it. Well, just knowing that that’s how you’re solving that problem, versus the beauty of the idea carrying people away, is helpful.

JM: How does somebody arm themselves with the ammunition to deal with those kinds of barriers or reasons why you can’t do something? How do you anticipate what they’re even gonna be?

AS: I think you’ve hit on the key problem, which is every single sustainability conference you’d go to is a hundred different success stories with a hundred different presenters all trying to sell themselves to you. Imagine an architect getting up and saying, “Let me tell you about this building. We totally screwed the roof up, and here’s how you avoid that.”

Our conferences, for example, need to be stories of mistakes and failure. What you’re saying is, “Well how do you arm yourself?” Well it’s almost like there’s no ammunition out there because no one is talking about the challenges. I think things have to change in the conversation.

Also, another issue is the only way to arm yourself for climate change is to understand the problem. Right now, too many people gloss over the enormous challenge and say, “I’m driving a Prius,” or in a corporate setting, “We did some lighting retrofits that cut our emissions ten percent. We’re on our way.” You’re not on your way, and you have to be honest about that.

JM: You’ve mentioned climate change two or three times already. Is that the proxy for environmental management in general? Is that the one thing that if you’re dealing with climate you’re probably dealing with other issues?

AS: I think climate change is a proxy for business, for government, for religious belief, for parenthood. It’s everything. It’s the everything problem. As Bill Blakemore at ABC News says, “It’s not the story of our time; it’s the only story.” This is your acid test: Are they talking about climate change or not? If they’re not, they’re not working on environmental issues.

JM: I’d say that talking about it is one thing. How do you judge whether they’re really on the case?

AS: Well, that involves digging into what they’re actually doing, but are they doing two things? One, actively trying to reduce their own emissions, but two, recognizing that that’s not enough and focusing on how a corporation can be a lever to drive big-scale policy change, because that’s ultimately what matters. We’re not gonna get everyone to reduce their emissions voluntarily in the next ten years, as James Hansen and Petrury tell us we need to do. We need government policy, and corporations are big levers because politicians listen to business people.

JM: I imagine a lot of people listening to this are in positions in their companies that they’re not the chief sustainability or environmental health and safety professional, but they want to make a difference. They want to be a change agent. They want to move their department/division/office themselves in the right direction. They don’t have the levers that you’re talking about. They just have what they have. What do you advise them in terms of how to be effective, or more effective in their jobs in terms of being an environmental change agent?

AS: Often, you’ll hear the approach is you’ve got to develop the culture to get change to happen. I completely disagree. I think you have to covertly, in a kind of a black ops way, do a sexy project, even if it’s 50 light bulbs that you retrofit. Then you do a spreadsheet and show the return on investment, and then you get the press to cover it so that the CEO is mentioned in the press as a great hero. Then you say, “Hey, you liked that project with great ROI. Could we do something with 20 percent ROI?” and then you get things rolling. I think you’ve got to do something, even if you fund it out of your own pocket or out of your own budget. It’s kind of guerilla warfare.

JM: Success begets success?

AS: Right, and people have to understand what you’re talking about. If you say, “I want to create the culture for change in our company,” they don’t understand what you’re saying. But if you swapped out the lights or tuned up the boiler and showed savings, you’re there.

JM: Great. Thanks very much.

AS: Thanks for having me.