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Degree of difficulty

One degree: In the effort to confront global climate change, a single degree of warmth may seem insignificant. But at Aspen Skiing Co., which runs one of the world's top ski resorts, a single degree is the margin between viability and disaster.
The ski slopes of Vail Mountain, Colo. are shown covered with light snow. Climate change is an increasing threat and concern for ski resorts.
The ski slopes of Vail Mountain, Colo. are shown covered with light snow. Climate change is an increasing threat and concern for ski resorts.Peter M. Fredin / AP file
/ Source: Fast Company

One degree: In the effort to confront global climate change, a single degree of warmth may seem insignificant. But at Aspen Skiing Co., which runs one of the world's top ski resorts, a single degree is the margin between viability and disaster.

"To be in business," says Patrick O'Donnell, who was Aspen's CEO and environmental conscience for a decade before retiring in November, "we rely on putting down 2 feet of good [artificial] snow, good hard snow that we make the last two weeks of October and the first two weeks of November. That way, when March comes, we can still have skiing, we can still get a full rate for our lift tickets.

"But many of those nights in the fall, we make snow right on the bubble. I've had the staff go back and collect the records — we often make snow within one degree, or one-and-a-half degrees, of being able to. If we can't do it, we have a problem."

At Aspen, the weather is the business, and there is a sense of urgency bordering on panic about climate change. So it is a matter not only of citizenship but also of self-preservation that the company has been a determined pioneer in corporate environmentalism — a leader not just in the tourism industry, where hanging up a damp bath towel typically counts as eco-consciousness, but also in the broader business landscape.

Auden Schendler is Aspen's director of environmental affairs. He came to the resort from Amory Lovins's renowned environmental think tank, the Rocky Mountain Institute, seven years ago. Schendler, 36, has a tall, tan, square-jawed look that makes him seem more like a ski instructor (he was one) than an enviro-geek. But he knows the hardscrabble aspects of environmentalism firsthand. He once spent six months making energy-saving improvements to mobile homes, snaking beneath the trailers to patch holes and install insulation.

Today, Schendler has his hands and head in projects across Aspen's hotels, clubs, and mountains — Aspen, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk. The sheer range and imagination of the resort's environmental and conservation efforts is stunning. And yet at Aspen, the more the staff does, the more nervous everyone gets about that one degree.

Aspen uses biodiesel fuel in its bulldozer-sized snowcats, the machines that work through winter nights grooming ski slopes. The company's vehicle shop — which maintains those snowcats plus dozens of shuttle buses and snowmobiles — is partly heated with used motor oil from the vehicles, poured directly from the drain pans into a furnace fuel tank. On its slopes, Aspen uses an almost invisible speck of dust to seed each artificial snowflake it makes — a method slightly more expensive than using just water, but one that consumes less water and less energy.

The resort's 20 Coke machines all run on motion sensors, so their compressors don't cycle on and off all night, when no one is buying sodas. The toilets at the new Snowmass golf club have two different flush settings — half flush and full flush — so customers can use less water as needed. Two new, luxurious buildings use nearby ponds, huge heat sinks, as thermal exchanges, providing heat in winter and cooling in summer.

Aspen adds $2 a day to the bill of every hotel guest, donating it to the Aspen Valley Land Trust to preserve open space. This year, it is offsetting all the greenhouse-gas emissions from its electricity use with wind credits; 45 other ski resorts have followed suit, including Vail. The form Aspen managers complete to request capital-spending, whether for a new toaster or a chairlift, requires an environmental-impact assessment for the project. "You can be rejected for your environmental impact," O'Donnell says. "And if you don't fill it in, we just send the form back. Incomplete."

Which is to say, environmentalism has been layered into Aspen's business operations at every opportunity. Schendler is greeted by name and buttonholed for advice at every turn, from the vehicle-maintenance shop to the front desk at the five-star Little Nell hotel. "My job description is to reduce our environmental impact," he says. "It's all unsexy but crucial. It's good, and I'm proud of it."

His work isn't easy, though. The reality is that eco-innovation can be maddeningly difficult to make a corporate priority. Even at Aspen, conservation competes for attention and resources. Schendler recalls the restaurant manager who rudely rejected condiment pumps in favor of throwaway plastic packets, and the five years it took to get a $20,000 lighting retrofit in the Little Nell valet parking garage, despite a payback period of two years. "I was arguing against the culture," he says. "In a place like Aspen, at the Little Nell, if I'm the manager and I have $20,000 to spend, I'm going to spend it stocking the wine cellar, or on new sheets and towels, spend it replacing leather furniture in the guest rooms."

Indeed, despite Aspen's growing awareness, the actual results can seem frustratingly incremental. Over the past two years, Schendler and O'Donnell concluded that best practice at Aspen isn't enough. They're increasingly worried about that single degree of temperature. "Am I happy with the pace with which the nation is addressing climate change?" O'Donnell asks. "No."

Schendler is blunter. "We are on the front lines of World War I-style trench warfare in the climate-change battle," he says. "And we are getting our asses kicked."

Schendler is trying to get Aspen Skiing to step out of the valley and into the larger global-warming fight. "If you were Aspen," he says, "and you really cared about the environment and climate change, how could you have the biggest impact? The answer is by using the name 'Aspen' to drive change."

Some of the efforts are modest. This year, Schendler wrote an article for Harvard Business Review ("Energy-Credit Buyers Beware"). Some are more ambitious. The company's Web site now includes not just information on the amount of snowfall (last 24 hours, last 48 hours) but direction to a separate Aspen Web site about environmental activism, with links such as "Take political action" and "Support advocacy groups."

This year, Aspen's marketing department is spending about half its national advertising budget on what amounts to a call to action. The ads show mountains in arresting postapocalyptic red, with a large melting snowflake, and text warning that snow itself could disappear altogether if urgent action isn't taken to avert global warming.

"The point is, individual action won't cut it," Schendler says. Climate change, he has decided, requires urgent governmental action — and that will happen only when people make noise. "There are 55 million skiers in this country. We want to inspire a grassroots movement on climate change. Those 55 million skiers are affluent, they vote, they can drive change."

It is, of course, a delicate problem. People on vacation don't want to be browbeaten into political activism. The risk is that they won't become activists, they'll just pick a different mountain.

The other risk, though, is that without action, there won't be any ski mountains. So Aspen has taken another unconventional tack. A dozen states and several environmental groups have demanded that the EPA regulate carbon dioxide — the key greenhouse gas — like any other pollutant. The agency has refused, and the states have gone to court to force the EPA into action. The case was argued before the Supreme Court in November.

Aspen filed an amicus curiae brief arguing on behalf of regulating carbon dioxide. To save money, Schendler himself helped draft the brief: a crisp 13 paragraphs and 23 footnotes. It focuses on the devastating impact even marginal global warming will have on the "alpine winter recreation business." In the Aspen area alone, it notes, total snowfall has declined by 16 percent since 1981.

What kind of reaction does Schendler hope for? Curiosity — and awareness. "Look at this! A rinky-dink ski resort in Aspen has filed this Supreme Court brief. What's that about? That's profound."

"We don't say that the people coming to Aspen are the solution," says Schendler. "If everyone went home, changed their lightbulbs, and bought a Prius, we wouldn't be close to fixing global warming. It would still not be enough.

"The only way out," he says, "is to use Aspen as a lever. I want Aspen to be a thought leader--not just to be doing it, but talking about how we do it."

Schendler is of the view that you never know what's going to get people's attention when it comes to dramatic social change. "How did you measure progress in the civil rights movement? How did you measure whether what you did mattered?"

It matters. Just as one degree matters.