Getting Green Done: an Interview with Auden Schendler

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Called refreshingly realistic and pragmatic, Auden Schendler, Director of Sustainability for Aspen Ski Company has written a new, provocative new book.  The book, “Getting Green Done,” comes out today and Auden took some time to share these insights:

JK: Can you talk a bit about the business case for getting green done: What are the benefits? What kind of investment it involved? Impact on business?

AS: This question has been answered ad nauseum by consultants and green business boosters, but I’m happy to recap. When you implement a sustainability agenda, you get all kinds of benefits, most of them complimentary. Some of the benefits included dollar savings from energy efficiency, free press coverage, better reputation in the community, better management because you can better track waste, employee retention and attraction. I list about a dozen benefits in my book. But this is old hat. The point I make in the book is that these lists are usually coupled with the thought: “Why WOULDN’T you do this? (Subtext: “You simple, simple person!”) In fact, there are lots of reasons why businesses might not implement sustainable business practices.

JK: So, what are some of the challenges?

AS: The challenges are many. First, often “going green” is pitched as a no brainer, and then you get all these benefits. But it’s not a no brainer, it’s damn hard, and it’s hard because everything in business (and life) is hard. So first, I think we need to sell this as something that has all kinds of benefits, and it’s good for the planet, but it’s going to take some hard work.  The reason sustainability programs haven’t been broadly implemented is that business as usual WORKS WELL, so why change it? Also, while it may save you $10k a year to save energy, you might equally well spend the time you’d devote to saving energy on making more money through your core business, and that might make you $100k. And finally, change is hard and typically the technological solutions to solving climate change in a business are there, but the obstacles are cultural, human, financial.

JK: Any industry resources you found particularly helpful?

AS: The best industry resource is a friend in another business who faces the same kinds of problems you do, and who you can talk to honestly. Beyond that, there’s lots of stuff on the web but, as I’ve said before, nobody is talking about the warts, the pitfalls, the problems, the ways to overcome those challenges. That’s the niche I’m trying to fill with my book, where I call for conferences about failure, instead of conferences where the architects stand up and sell you on how great their projects are. Their projects may or may not be great, but every one of them didn’t come out as planned, and I want to know why, and how to avoid their mistakes.
JK: You talk about looking for the levers—the things you can do to have the largest impact and to make a larger difference than your own business can effect.  Can you talk about finding the levers?

AS: People tend to focus on what they understand—recycling, the car you drive, the paper in your office. But climate change is a huge and pressing problem that requires we think at an entirely different order of magnitude. The question we all have to ask—as businesses, individuals, governments, or parents and citizens, is “what is my biggest lever? How can I drive the biggest possible change on climate?” The answer is typically a way you can influence policy. If you’re Wal Mart, it may be how you can influence the market for efficiency goods. If you’re Ford, it’s your cars (and federal auto emissions policies, ie, stop opposing efficiency standards). Often businesses and individuals ask this question about their biggest lever and come up with the wrong answer. You need to be careful and honest. Ie, the ski industry is implementing a “no idling” policy for vehicles on site. Great. But 57% of greenhouse gas emissions at ski resorts come from buildings. So…fish where the fish are.

JK: How do you communicate the advantages of getting green done to customers? Suppliers? Management?

AS: You’re not communicating the advantages, you’re communicating the fact of it. Ie, an advertising or marketing campaign is designed to get the word out so customers patronize you (and not a dirtier company, and therefore help you get even greener) and with suppliers, you’re simply asking, or demanding, that they get you greener products or you stop using them. With management, you have to constantly sell the benefits from a variety of angles—was their a good ROI on one project? Did you get good press on another? Did an employee come work here because of what we’re doing? You never stop reminding people because they need to understand the value of what you’re doing.

JK: Aside from green practices related to your core business, what other practices to you employ to promote sustainability (e.g. manufacturing processes, office procedures, energy efficiency, green IT, etc.)

AS: This is too big a list to detail here, though details are at But I’d emphasize that our most important work is on using our influence as a high profile business to drive change at the highest possible level. Our owners focuses less this year on the greening of their business than on getting Obama elected. Well, that just shows the get it. Getting Obama and his progressive climate policies in office is vastly more important that whether you’re recycling your motor oil.

JK: Put it in perspective—what has been easiest? Most difficult?

AS: Nothing is easy, that’s the point of my book. But things can get easy after years of hard work, and one example of that is that when a manager finally gets on your side, suddenly you can relax, you’ve passed the baton. And it goes from one person trying to make stuff happen, to a whole company. Things get easier in that sense. Most difficult has been getting people to understand climate science. There’s been such a brilliantly effective anti-science campaign on this front that people can’t simply look at overwhelming science from every major scientific body in the world and say “I get it.” It’s very frustrating because there are these people who call themselves “skeptics” and are very proud of their analytical minds, and they doubt climate science. But the proper role for a skeptical mind in today’s world is questioning the bogus marketing and disingenuous and future-destroying bullshit that the fossil fuel interests have been spouting. We should be skeptical of that, not of the best science on climate change.

JK: What advice would you offer to small/mid-size eco-businesses that wants to get green done?

AS: Two things: one, be brutally, viciously honest about the challenge of solving climate change and your role in it. Don’t think small. And two, to quote Winston Churchill: “Never give up. Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.” And finally, look, this is a shameless plug, but I wrote my book “Getting Green Done” for people like me who are struggling out there in the trenches and want a sense that they’re not alone, some encouragement, some shared pain, and so ideas on how to overcome the kinds of obstacles and barriers we face everyday but which nobody is talking about. The book is a tool, it should be used as one. That’s why there’s a work glove on the cover.

Thanks, Auden. 

“Getting Green Done” available as of today.