Winning the green-washing war
Vail Resorts is a cool, corporate cash machine. Aspen Skiing Company is a saucy, sexy, self-promoting celebrity magnet.The difference in style between the two rival ski companies is never more apparent than in the arena of environmental do-gooding, where Aspen brazenly wears its green colors and shouts its enviro ethics from every rooftop, while Vail seems almost embarrassed to promote its record, as if all the corporate fat cats in their starter castles behind the gates of Beaver Creek and Cordillera will resent the posturing.It’s an oversimplification to say that Aspen is peopled solely by Hollywood liberals who wing in on their soy-fueled Gulfstreams; nor is it totally accurate to say the Vail Valley is Wall Street West, a conservative fortress of corporate ideals. But there is some truth to both characterizations.Vail always seems as if it’s being dragged kicking and screaming down the green road, reluctantly including environmental groups in its decision-making, and timidly dipping its toe into the well of public sentiment before taking a stance or launching an initiative.Aspen, by contrast, openly admits to green washing, and is unashamed of its tendency to oversell on the subject, issuing broad proclamations about international global warming treaties and deceptively grabbing headlines by declaring all its events to be fully wind-powered.The end results, though, are the same. Both are doing a great deal and spending significant sums on being good environmental stewards far more than other extractive industries that feed at the trough of public lands.Both resort companies, of course, could do and spend more. And one needs to pat itself on the back and take its case to the masses more often, and the other needs to tone down the rhetoric slightly and step down off the soapbox.Take, for example, Vail’s recent foray into wind farming. The resort is exploring placing wind generators atop Ptarmigan Ridge and powering some of its lifts and perhaps producing surplus electricity to return to the grid. Brilliant. Kudos. Wonderful if it happens.Thing is, this was not announced at a press conference in front of flashing cameras and TV crews. It leaked out and slowly trickled into the mainstream media. What are they ashamed of?Aspen earlier this season declared it was running its gondola and all its major events this season including World Cup and the Winter X Games with wind power. Press releases go out, major media attention ensues despite the fact that the claim is somewhat facile.By their own admission, they are purchasing the equivalent amount of wind power to support these events, though since it all comes from one big power grid, it’s impossible to tell if the juice used at last week’s X Games came from the wind or from a big, stinky, coal-burning power plant.”The critics are right, but imagine putting that line on your trail maps or signs,” says Auden Schendeler, Aspen’s director ofenvironmental affairs. “It’s an expedience thing, not a deception thing.”If we wanted to say we power most of our lifts with coal, we couldn’t really say that either, since that’s not how the grid works. But the truth is that by buying the amount of wind electricity to make the gondola run, we displace that much coal power.”Vail responds that it, too, buys plenty of wind power from the grid, but now it’s bypassing the middle man and going into the wind-power generating biz.Schendeler says it will be a stunning move if Vail pulls off a wind farm, almost Aspen-esque in its green marketing value, but he’s not totally impressed.”The only thing that makes me doubt their sincerity is that they just canned their environmental director,” he says. “How could they do that and then go after a wind turbine project that has a lower return on investment than having an environmental guy who helps you save energy and avoid fines?”He is referring to the elimination of the corporate-level environmental director position in a downsizing last fall a job previously held by John Gitchell.”I was extremely disappointed to learn that they laid off their environmental director,” Schendeler adds. “That was a short-sighted move. You can’t make a business green without a centralized environmental department. Hell, it’s hard to make it green with the damn department.”Vail’s response is simple and makes some sense. Individual environmental directors at each of its resorts are more effective than a corporate director stuck in an office in Avon, because the guys in the trenches can work with mountain ops crews on a daily basis to maximize things such as fuel efficiency, recycling and water conservation.”We made a decision that the real effectiveness and improvements derived from our environmental initiatives over the last five years have been resort-based and not corporate-based,” says Vail chief operating officer Bill Jensen, who adds that he’s impressed both with Aspen’s actual environmental achievements and its ability to milk the media.”I admire Aspen’s commitment to their environmental initiatives, and in many ways we look to them as a model on how to do things,” Jensen says. “And I also have respect for their ability to generate public relations around their programs, because in fairness we do a lot of the small things they do, but we don’t feel the need to write a press release every time we change a light bulb.”Schendeler freely admits his company engages in green washing, and he says he loves to hear that criticism from the community because it means people are paying attention, which translates to more funding and even better results. And he concedes that, “They (Vail Resorts) are a public company, a very different beast than (privately held) Aspen.”Every dime spent at Vail is subject to the scrutiny or shareholders who demand profits and efficiency two things often in conflict with enviro-friendly practices in any industry.That bottom-line reality has never been more clearly underscored than when Aspen Skiing Company came out in support of the U.S. Forest Service’s Alternative D, the most conservation-oriented option for revising the White River National Forest Plan.Vail Resorts, meanwhile, sent a representative to Washington to opposed D before Congress, and has since taken the lead in appealing the compromise version of the plan primarily because of the potential loss of expansion area at several of its resorts.So to some extent, Vail will always look like an enviro-bully compared to Aspen because it’s beholden to profit-conscious investors. But with a more unabashed approach to pumping up its own accomplishments, Vail Resorts can at least begin to steal some of Aspen’s thunder or at least its wind.