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Notes from a corporate insider: It's not easy turning green


Don Popish's Carhartt overalls are so infused with dirt and grease that they crackle when he walks. He's got rings under his eyes from fixing balky Snowcats at night in Aspen Skiing Co.'s vehicle shop.

Me, I'm an environmentalist in a starched shirt. But like Don, I've got a job to do for the company. Mine is to get him and everyone else to think differently. Don and I ended up working together because the ski resort is trying to operate as a green business.

Nowadays, companies from Patagonia to DuPont are seeking ways to make a profit without hurting the environment, because business is forked: It's both the cause and the victim of environmental decline.

Good example: the Chilean sea bass we served last night. It will be commercially extinct in two years. Then what do we serve?

One way out could be the sustainable-business movement, which posits that environmentalism and business are a win-win. The consultants, and the literature that's sprung up, say that corporations can have it all - competitive business, and clean air, booming sales and biodiversity - because that's what makes economic sense.

Few have achieved the sustainable business ideal, but that hasn't stopped the consultants. I've found that the consultants are not all wrong, though they're not completely right, either.

I convinced Don to replace his solvent-based "parts washer" (used to clean machine parts) with a water-based model that eliminates environmentally dangerous solvent, as well as disposal fees. I calculated we'd get the machine's cost back in 18 months from savings. The washer was great, except for one problem: It didn't work. Don pulled me aside in his shop.

"This thing is slow. It leaves a white filmy residue. It sounds like a heavy-metal drummer. What can you do about it?"

After searching for better soap and talking to several repairmen - who told me to try better soap - I was about to give up, when Don discovered that the motor was installed backwards. Fixed, the machine worked like a dream.

Here's a dirty secret: Sustainable business is hard to pull off. The unforeseen can crush the promise of incredible payback. Personality, custom, politics and perception conspire to derail change. The consultants never tell you: "First, you have to get buy-in!"

Nor do they say that upscale hotels would invite a skunk into their lobby before allowing fluorescent bulbs in their rooms. I learned that at The Little Nell, our five-star hotel, after I suggested they install efficient bulbs.

The manager knew the bulbs start slow, look cold, cost a lot and evoke Motel 6. He was afraid his rating might be hurt.

Sustainability gurus say all obstacles can be overcome. But they generally talk to people like me, who consider it an honor to plunge a low-flush toilet. They haven't had lunch with a hotel manager whose career depends on an uncompromised product.

You don't put Cool Whip on an eclair.

I gave up on the rooms and went after a lighting retrofit in the garage, a retrofit which was first proposed in 1996, and offered a 60 percent return on investment. It was such an obvious idea it had already been killed half a dozen times, even though all the management books told me efficiency projects with returns above 15 percent were "no-brainers."

The first obstacle was a curveball called the "opportunity cost of capital." If a hotel has a limited budget and $20,000 to spend, do managers buy efficiency or new Italian furniture? The next obstacle: Some managers refused to believe bills would drop. Ultimately, the retrofit happened, thanks to a grant from a local nonprofit, not because the payback made it irresistible.

The great flaw in the sustainable-business movement is that nobody wants to admit it's difficult. But scratch a "success story," and you'll frequently find something more like Apocalypse Now than surgery. This doesn't mean we give up. But we need to recognize that it's one thing to watch a Powerpoint presentation on corporate sustainability. It's another to make it real.

The writer Albert Camus said you have to imagine Sisyphus happily pushing that boulder up a hill every day. But I think Sisyphus just learned to enjoy the walk down. In the mornings, I check on the recycle bins to make sure the Snowcat drivers haven't thrown bags in with the bottles and cans. They always do.

Sometimes, when I've got one hand on the trash bin lid and I'm pulling a bag out with the other, I'll find myself paused, mouth open, looking up at that beautiful, Colorado bluebird sky.

Auden Schendler works for Aspen Skiing Co. as head of the environmental affairs department.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Auden Schendler

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].