Harvard does case study on Aspen

In 2006, Aspen installed the ski industry's largest solar panel. Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company

Recently, Aspen Skiing Company CEO Mike Kaplan visited Harvard Business School to speak to a second-year MBA class called Business and the Environment. The class read a case study on ASC's green practices, co-authored by Harvard assistant professor Michael Toffel and research associate Stephanie van Sice, that was published in September by Harvard Business Publishing.

ASC has long since been a front-runner in environmental movements within the ski industry: It was the first large ski resort to buy renewable wind power credits and install a massive solar panel and the first to produce a sustainability report, implement strict green building policies and set rigorous greenhouse gas reduction goals. And in 2006, the resort filed an Amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a case that forced the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Auden Schendler, Aspen's vice president of sustainability, recently published a book called Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.

Harvard assistant professor Toffel says he first read about ASC's green practices in a magazine article a couple of years ago and thought the company would work well as a case study in his business and the environment class. This is the first ski-industry company Toffel's class has looked at -- other case studies have examined green initiatives by companies like McDonalds, the Burlington Northern Railway and a pharmaceutical supplier.

The thing that intrigued him most, Toffel says, is the fact that ASC joined a boycott with Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council against Kimberly Clark tissue products, which was a supplier to ASC and was engaged in sub-standard environmental practices. "This was interesting because you don't often see name brand companies joining a boycott of another firm, much less their supplier," Toffel says. "That was a risky move for Aspen."

Toffel's published case study reports, "Aspen Skiing Company is considering 'greening' its supply chain and lobbying for greenhouse gas regulations. A world-renowned ski resort vulnerable to global climate change, Aspen's activities often garner media attention, which can promote its causes. But these initiatives, which attempt to compel other firms to improve their environmental performance, risk a public relations backlash and charges of 'greenwashing' given that Aspen's ski resorts are themselves environmentally intensive operations."

Over the 80-minute-long class held on September 27, the graduate students debated the issues and asked ASC's Kaplan questions. "We are pleased that Professor Toffel has chosen to write this case, which reflects well on the company, the community and our employees," said Kaplan. "It was a great discussion and the students got to the core issues quickly and asked good questions."