Case Studies

The Good Fight

What does it really take to green a business?

By Kate Pavao

February 2009

Auden Schendler knows that going green is completely necessary—and much tougher than we’ve been told. In Getting Green Done: Hard Truths From the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution, (PublicAffairs, March 2008), he reports on his frequently frustrating experiences driving green policy as the executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. Schendler talks to Profit about tools for greening, how to make a big impact at your own company, and why you need to develop a fighter’s attitude.

Profit: What inspired this book?

Schendler: In the nonprofit sector, I was basically schooled in the idea that corporate sustainability is profitable and good for the environment. When I got into the corporate sector and tried to implement some of the more basic practices—like lighting retrofits—and couldn’t even pull those off, I felt disappointed and almost betrayed. It’s like throwing your trash out. You shouldn’t be proud that your trash goes to the landfill instead of being dumped in the street. In the same way, you shouldn’t be proud of the fact that you recycled a can. You should be doing that anyway. Now let’s talk about the big-picture stuff that matters. We needed a book that talked about the trench stories, the reality of implementation.

Profit: You say that companies need to find and use their “biggest lever.” How can executives figure out what this is?

Schendler: You have to be ruthlessly honest about what matters and what doesn’t. Wal-Mart is a good example of a company that asked, “What is the biggest impact we can have?” While Wal-Mart could have received a lot of kudos for doing in-store recycling and education, they instead decided to sell 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs. In the process, they changed the entire market for lightbulbs. Finding your biggest lever may require an outside perspective. Have someone help you think about what you should do. It doesn’t have to be a consultant. It could be your wife or a friend.

Profit: How can executives prepare for the cultural resistance that comes with change?

Schendler: The first thing is to be sympathetic and not condescending to people. Recognize that business-as-usual works for a reason. People aren’t stupid—they’re using old standard technology or old ways of doing things because they have always worked. They have responsibilities other than the future of the planet, such as keeping the business going and keeping people employed. Just being armed with that knowledge allows you to work differently in terms of trying to change practices.

Profit: What should readers take away from your book?

Schendler: Achieving sustainability is not going to be easy. And that’s OK. We need to do it for the benefit for our business and the planet, and we’re going to do it. But we shouldn’t be deluded. And we shouldn’t be afraid to be honest. Look at sustainability conferences, when the CEO gets up and tells about all his successes. That success, which sounded like a surgical procedure, was more like the Dennis Hopper scene from Apocalypse Now—it was total chaos, and that’s all being glossed over. You leave that conference knowing absolutely nothing about how to get it done or how to do it yourself. I’ll often go and talk to audiences about my worst and most embarrassing screw-up, because it’s critically important that the public hears how that happened so they can avoid it.

Profit: You’ve run up against a lot of walls—even trying to do simple things like replace the lighting in a hotel garage. How do you maintain your drive?

Schendler: If I go in and get destroyed on a project, as I do every day, I don’t necessarily see that as a failure. I see that as, “I learned a lot from that, and I am going to do it differently.” It can get discouraging, but you don’t have a choice here. You’re fighting Muhammad Ali, so you might as well box and try to knock him out. Don’t just get pummeled. It’s really an attitude that you bring to work or to your life every day: I’m coming over the table at you, overcaffeinated and very excitable. Because this is the work of our lives and our species, and we might as well enjoy it.

Photography by Shutterstock