“When we talk about sustainability, we’re talking about being in business forever.”
– Auden Schendler, Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company
If you’re looking for some outside-the-box thinking on sustainability issues – with actions and results to back it up – our conversation with Aspen Skiing Company is sure to inspire some new ideas for you and your team. This business has shown what both individual and systemic change look like, which makes for a remarkable story.
In this episode of the Travel Beyond podcast, we sit down with Auden Schendler, Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, to discuss the company’s journey toward adopting sustainable values and business practices, along with some incredible examples of positive change. Sustainability is a big topic to tackle, but this episode provides a digestible and thought-provoking conversation. What’s the takeaway for other DMOs and changemakers? Learn how a travel industry leader is making meaningful progress with sustainability as a guiding value.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- What being a “values-driven company” actually means in practice for Aspen Skiing Company.
- What individual action on sustainability means, and why it’s more than recycling and shopping green.
- About the company’s methane-capture energy plant that powered the ski hills for years.
- How to make widespread, systemic change happen, with examples.
What is the Travel Beyond podcast?
There are big challenges ahead, but the solutions are in place – if only we know where to find them. Travel Beyond is a podcast that brings together the most inspiring actions and compelling visions from travel destinations across the world. Destination Think and our guests discuss the travel industry’s future in light of the overlapping dilemmas facing communities and the planet. We partner with leading travel destinations to speak with the changemakers working toward an industry that respects the needs of residents, visitors, and the environment – a regenerative future where all people can flourish.
Do you sometimes wonder whether you can make a difference from your position at a DMO or other travel organization, and how you might make change happen? Then this show is for you. Learn how other places are dealing with climate risks and environmental preservation. Hear from leaders in other issues that connect travel and society, like housing and quality of life. Find like-minded thinkers and people who have been moving toward regenerative travel for their whole careers.
After starting our podcast in the booming ski resort town of Revelstoke, BC, we at Destination Think have gone on to produce shows with other places including Queenstown Lakes, New Zealand; Aspen; and the Netherlands. Our past guests include:
- Cathy Ritter, formerly the CEO of the Colorado Tourism Office.
- Destination Canada’s CEO, Marsha Walden
- Mat Woods and Tim Barke, CEOs of the Aoeteroa New Zealand destination management organizations behind Carbon Zero by 2030.
- Hedwig Sietsma, Director of Climate Policy at KLM
- Damcho Rinzin from the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
- Strategists and tourism leaders from the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions and from Amsterdam & Partners.
If you’re new to Travel Beyond, this episode with Auden Schendler, Senior VP of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, is a fantastic place to start.
- Aspen Skiing Company – The Aspen Skiing Company operates the Aspen/Snowmass resort complex, which comprises four ski areas: Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass.
- Give a Flake – a marketing campaign by Aspen Skiing Company that encourages visitors and fans of their resorts to become activists on behalf of climate change and equal rights.
- Protect Our Winters – nonprofit that focuses its efforts on legislation regarding climate change.
Auden Schendler: It’s out of control, emissions keep climbing. We’ve been talking about it for 30 years. So I think a strong focus on legitimate, system-scale action is really important. And we want to play on that. We don’t want to play on day-to-day, token environmental work. We want to go big.
David Archer: Hello and welcome to Travel Beyond, where we partner with leading destinations to explore the greatest challenges facing communities and the planet, surfacing their most inspiring solutions. I’m David Archer, Editorial Manager at Destination Think, and I’m recording from the coastal village of Daajing Giids, British Columbia, which is in Haida Gwaii, the territory of the Haida Nation.
Rodney Payne: And I’m Rodney Payne, CEO at Destination Think. I’m recording this from Revelstoke, British Columbia, a city on the territory of four First Nations, the Sinixt, the Secwépemc, the Sylix, and the Ktunaxa. On this show, we look at the role of travel and choose to highlight destinations that are global leaders.
We talk to the changemakers in those places who are addressing regenerative travel through action in their communities, often from the ground up.
David Archer: And we’re always looking for the best examples of those efforts to regenerate economies, communities, and ecosystems. So be sure to reach out if you have a story to share.
Today, we’re going to hear from Auden Schendler, who’s the Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. Aspen Skiing Company operates the Aspen Snowmass Resort Complex that includes four ski areas. And so it’s a large company with a very large impact locally and potentially beyond.
I’m really excited to play this conversation because I feel like it’s the culmination of so many of the topics we’ve heard about in the previous five episodes and in other seasons, for that matter. It’s got big ideas, community engagement, values, philanthropy, and influence, seeing business through an environmental lens.
Diversifying the economy and talking about what individuals can do about systems change. There’s really, really a lot in this one, so you’re going to want to pay attention.
Rodney Payne: I’m really looking forward to sharing my conversation with Auden. We got the chance to sit and talk at the bottom of the ski mountain, and it’s probably one of the more memorable conversations I’ve had in the last few months through this endeavour, interviewing a lot of different people. And I love Auden’s action, not words. And I love how he’s helped Aspen Ski Company to put values first and really influenced the company to lead their decisions and lead their communication with values. And I think there’s so much that people can learn from Auden that I kind of want to get right into it.
David Archer: Yes. In that case, let’s go straight into that conversation with Auden Schendler, Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company.
Rodney Payne: So let’s start with a really, really easy one. Can you tell me your name and what you do?
Auden Schendler: Yep. Auden Schendler. I run the sustainability programs at Aspen Skiing Company.
Rodney Payne: What do you love about Aspen? How long have you been here?
Auden Schendler: So I’ve been in this valley for 30-plus years and at Aspen Skiing Company for 25.
What do I love about Aspen? This is a place where you can model radical solutions and get press for it. So you can share things out into the world. Basically, you have a soapbox. So that’s what I love about it environmentally. You know, geographically and physically, there’s a whole lot of other reasons to love it.
Rodney Payne: You’ve been here a while working in tourism for the big attraction in this destination. What does tourism bring to this community?
Auden Schendler: Well, it’s a tourism economy. So the whole economy is based on people coming here. But what it brings, if you’re thinking environmentally, it can be a university where you have new people every day. So the vision might be, hey, people are coming through here, inject them with some of the dharma, you know, give them ideas, and send them off into the world.
That’s sort of the vision of Aspen from the beginning. It wasn’t just pure recreation. It was recreation with ideas. And then an explicit mission of going out into the world and improving the world.
Rodney Payne: I really like that. You’re foreshadowing one of my questions that we’ll get to. What changes have you seen in Aspen since you’ve been here?
Auden Schendler: One of the comments on beautiful places is that from the old farts are like, it’s ruined. And the people who showed up yesterday are like, it’s the prettiest place I’ve ever seen. So you’ve got that dynamic. You’ve got more development, you’ve got kind of a housing crunch, and the high ending of the valley, and at the same time you still have, these amazing cultural and also natural resources that are pretty much intact.
So, it’s either ruined, or it’s the best place on earth.
Rodney Payne: Perspective is everything. So why is it important for communities that are tourism economies to be thinking about agency and sustainability?
Auden Schendler: Well, I mean, it’s the basis of their… their revenue and they need to maintain who they are and their identity.
So it’s basically everything that makes them interesting to visit, and Aspen’s particularly that way. And it has its own unique weirdness. It’s not a cookie-cutter place.
Rodney Payne: What happens if Aspen loses its identity?
Auden Schendler: Well, either it would still be popular, just with a less legit crowd, or it loses its ability to attract people because they don’t want to be part of something inauthentic.
Rodney Payne: As we enter what might be a phase of decades of change and grappling with big issues, what advice do you have for policymakers and, and the people in charge of managing a destination on how they can really work well with a company like yours?
Auden Schendler: The big challenge is being brutally honest about what matters and what doesn’t.
I work in sustainability. Much of what happens in sustainable business, and sustainable communities, is tokenism that doesn’t move the needle. We’ve got a climate problem. It’s out of control. Emissions keep climbing. We’ve been talking about it for 30 years. So I think a strong focus on legitimate system scale action is really important, and we want to play on that.
We don’t want to play on, you know, day-to-day token environmental work. We want to go big.
Rodney Payne: Your company has a huge footprint around the world. Are there any communities or policymakers that really, like, get you excited?
Auden Schendler: There are good examples all over. An adjacent community, Crested Butte, banned natural gas in buildings. You know, that’s an example of major success. There are fearless policymakers in the U.S. Senate. Sheldon Whitehouse from, Rhode Island is amazing.
Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, has been incredible and has passed an amazing, creative climate policy. And then Colorado is this unique leader on really obscure, cutting-edge stuff like methane leakage in natural gas pipelines. It was the first state in the central U.S. to adopt zero-emission vehicle standards that California pioneered.
It just adopted a truck efficiency standard. It ratcheted down hydrofluorocarbons. So, this state, you know, Aspen happens to be a progressive node in a progressive state, and it’s pretty exciting.
Rodney Payne: Once the conversation gets to the kitchen table, you’re done. We will solve this problem on – you know, think about interracial marriage. Once people start having those conversations and fights at the table, that issue was done. So that’s encouraging to see people, you know, 10, 20 years ago, it wasn’t even being talked about.
Those cultural tipping points are really powerful. It kind of gives me goosebumps a little bit.
Auden Schendler: Yeah. Well, it’s, it’s social norm changing and you know, I tend to belittle the small stuff. And the inadequate tokenism, but even that has a role in changing norms. We were not talking about climate policy 10 years ago, and now that’s on the table. If you’re an elected official in the U.S., you can’t take a climate denial position anymore without being attacked on it. But that’s only recent. Emissions keep going up. Warming continues to happen. We’re on a bad trajectory. In some ways, the only hope we have is that things in history move very rapidly and very abruptly.
Rodney Payne: We’ve zeroed in on climate quickly. I’m going to back us up. How would you describe the values of Aspen Ski Company?
Auden Schendler: So, we have been what we call a values-based company for more than 30 years and the vision is that it used to be that the mission of the company was to renew the spirit, but that’s evolved really to say, you’re here to get renewed and go off and improve the world. So the company says, our job is to be an agent of positive change in the world, not just a ski resort.
And there’s moral reasons for that, but also there are business reasons, which include that people don’t really want to come work for an organization that’s selling lift tickets and hamburgers. So the current iteration of a longstanding mission is, “Inspiring journeys within to enable possibilities for all.”
And if you live up to that, that’s pretty cool. Imagine someone who has power, say in the corporate sector, comes out here and is exposed to something we’re pushing out. We have sustainability reports in hotel rooms. We have signs on chairlifts. We have educational lectures. And they get it and they see what’s happening here and they move on and they do something meaningful. That’s profound.
It’s really important though, to recognize that if you don’t act on that mission I just described, it’s a little pretentious, and it could, could actually be false. You know, are we actually changing people? That’s hard work. You have to, you have to make an effort. So I’m pretty hard-nosed about – Aspen thinks it’s the center of the world. It’s not. It’s got all kinds of problems. But if you think about, hey, if you were Aspen. And you wanted to do something meaningful in the world, what would it look like? It’s not recycling bottles over there. It’s changing social norms, it’s using this place to start a movement. It’s wielding power and driving an outdoor industry movement that is broader than the little things you do when you’re here.
Rodney Payne: It’s a very inspiring mission, and I think you’re, especially in today’s hiring environment, so correct about needing a lightning rod that’s more than just selling hamburgers and scanning ski passes to attract top talent. I wish more businesses thought the way you talk. Does it feel widespread within the organization?
Auden Schendler: It didn’t used to be. I’ve been in the company for 25 years. The first eight years was spoon-feeding everyone. Hey, the overreaching problem is climate. When we talk about sustainability, we’re talking about being in business forever.
But it was really me doing the work, my department. And now, it’s really pervaded the company. So, as an example, when we build a new building, that building gets built really green, like shockingly green. With almost no input from me. And it used to be that I’d do all the work and make sure I was on the design team and so forth.
So, it really is cool that it’s not, oh, there’s Auden, he does the environmental work. No, people take it on as their responsibility. Chefs in restaurants, you know, doing their own local purchasing. Pick your area.
Rodney Payne: So to all of the frustrated sustainability managers who are sitting in a corridor office where their colleagues may or may not even know what they do, may not even know what their name is. What advice do you have for them? How did you infect your organization with a concern for being in business forever?
Auden Schendler: Yeah, so, there are many frustrated corporate sustainability people, and I think my advice is that you do the work you’re being asked to do, but you keep pushing and prodding, and looking for leverage, and talking to your boss and saying, hey is this all we want to do? Don’t we want to do more and drive that change?
So and that’s what happened here. We started, you know by changing light bulbs, and then we asked the question. Is that enough? No, that’s not enough. Okay, what could be bigger leverage? And then we did the next thing and the next thing. So the beauty of a corporate sustainability staffer is that they’re already within the corporation. So they’re a mole, you know, and they have some level of power. And really I urge them to be insurgents, you know, and at some point, they might have to leave the company, but they might also change the company.
Rodney Payne: Where do you find the energy to keep pushing?
Auden Schendler: I work on climate, primarily, at a time when you have a chance to save civilization. Like, what an amazing time to be alive. This is maybe the greatest battle in the history of humanity. And so, that’s inspiring to me. And then when you think about, well, what inspires human beings? Well, stories about fighting impossible battles.
Let’s think of a couple. The Bible, where evil is pervasive. The Lord of the Rings, where actually, at the end it’s not clear that you’ve won. Harry Potter, all the stories we tell ourselves are stories about impossible battles that we’ll almost certainly lose. It’s what we do as human beings. Mortality is another one.
Rodney Payne: When it comes to sustainability, how do you think about the interconnection between economic sustainability, social sustainability, and all the sub-components of that and environmental sustainability?
Auden Schendler: Well, you know, one thing that irritated me for years was you’d go to sustainability conferences and people would say, what is it? We have to define it. No, it’s very straightforward. It means we want to be in business forever, whatever that business is. If you’re a parent, how do you be a parent forever? If you’re a school teacher, same question. If you’re a ski resort, same question. And the suite of things you have to address, if you want to be in business forever, include, yes, climate change is really important.
But stable governance is important. Democracy is important. How you treat people is important. Housing is important. So it’s all the same issue. Equity is important. These are, you know, this idea of sustainability encompasses all these things. And think about the interface of economic and environmental sustainability. The rate of warming is so great that in 50 years you’re going to have flooded the coasts where 70% of economic activity happens. So there you go. It’s just all interconnected, and maybe the frustrating piece is it should be pretty obvious that solving climate is a good business move because if you don’t do it, it costs more.
Rodney Payne: Before I get into some of the specific examples of amazing action you’ve actually taken at Aspen Ski Company – because I think there’s a lot of people who talk, and you’ve done some really amazing things – what makes your company care so much about the environment? What is it?
Auden Schendler: So why do we care so much about the environment? It was a CEO named Pat O’Donnell who came in 96-ish, who had been CEO of Patagonia, and he said we should have an environmental department, the first in the industry. We should have guiding principles. That’s where those values came from. And then those values permeated the company and ownership, and everyone bought in.
If we were to say, ah, you know what, environment, we’re not going to do so much work on that anymore. You’d have a revolution. It was a cultural change that took many, many years, it took decades to get us to a point where this is who we are. You know, now if we misstep, we get a lot of emails. Hey, you guys are Aspen, what are you doing?
Rodney Payne: From outside of the company?
Auden Schendler: Inside.
Rodney Payne: Inside of the company, yeah.
Aspen Ski Company was the first to measure its carbon footprint and set targets for emissions reduction, but you don’t really care about that. Tell me why.
Auden Schendler: Yeah, so carbon footprint measuring and carbon targets. If you play that out and you say, “Hey, what would the fossil fuel industry want us to do?” And the answer is to set carbon targets, take the blame for a problem you didn’t create, and don’t do anything that might threaten their business model.
So that’s why I don’t like carbon footprinting. We do it because there’s, well one, we started it in the ski industry and it’s good to know whether you’re making any progress. But it has served as a massive distraction from the real work. So just as an example, what might the fossil fuel status quo fear?
A revolution. So as long as you’re not doing anything revolutionary you’re good to go. Carbon targets is not revolutionary.
Rodney Payne: Yeah, it’s not a systemic disruption to their business.
Auden Schendler: Exactly.
Rodney Payne: It’s safe. It’s incremental.
Auden Schendler: It’s worse than that. It’s complicit.
Rodney Payne: Yeah, and it’s the classic question around individual action versus systemic action and the dialogue and debate that happens there, and I think I align really closely to some of the things you’ve said around, we need system-wide change and we need it yesterday.
Auden Schendler: Right.
Rodney Payne: I have also seen from your company and others like yours – and from individual actions – the power of influence among small circles, so we really need both.
Auden Schendler: Yeah. Well, I think it’s more how do you define individual action. It ain’t recycling your plastic. What it is, is being a citizen. So if your individual action is writing your senator and joining your town council and, agitating for building code changes, that’s great.
But that’s called movement and revolution. It’s not, you know, the problem has been individual action has been, it’s about me. So I got the Patagonia shirt and the Prius and I insulated my house. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about how do you be part of a movement that drives change.
Because the only way big things have happened in society has been social pressure, social movements.
Rodney Payne: You mentioned, in a number of interviews, your biggest wins on greenhouse emissions reduction coming from catalyzing system change and using your company’s influence to drive that change and advocate.
One of the biggest wins you’ve had is influencing your utility to decarbonize their energy supply.
Auden Schendler: Right.
Rodney Payne: Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Auden Schendler: So yeah, as far as our climate wins, the work we did trying to change our utility and actually successfully changing our utility is a perfect example of individual versus systemic change.
One day I was looking at our carbon footprint. And it was going up, even though I had changed all the light bulbs, built green buildings. I did everything you’re supposed to do. And the curve’s going up, up, up. And I was initially baffled. And then I dug in and found out that the carbon intensity at our utility had gone up.
So I, it was an ah-ha moment. Ah, we’ve got to change the utility. And so we spent 15 years of, like, brass knuckle community organizing, getting in fights with people. Being so controversial that at one point I was told I couldn’t speak for Aspen Skiing Company anymore. And we changed the utility. And that now they’re headed toward 100% renewable energy by 2030.
Legitimate, non-paper transaction, renewable energy. And they’re amazing. Their CEO is a climate scientist. And so to me, that’s the greatest story because it’s a, you know, the question is, what’s meaningful action? Well, was it uncomfortable? Does it hurt? Did it take forever? Yeah, that’s meaningful.
Rodney Payne: You signed your life away on our waiver, so I’m assuming you’re now allowed to speak for Aspen Skiing Company again. Are there any other examples where you’ve managed to catalyze system change?
Auden Schendler: Yeah, and also, I want to be very clear. Aspen isn’t the center of the world. We’re not the greatest ever. We make a ton of mistakes, and so I would never say, “Yeah, we created systemic change through our action.”
It’s always working in coalition, even the utility work. One thing that kind of shows how we’ve operated, how we’ve thought about the problem is, probably 15 years ago now, I got a call from a pro snowboarder named Jeremy Jones, and he said, I’ve started a nonprofit. It’s going to be the movement on climate and I was like, great.
He said will you be on the board? I said, yeah. So I showed up to the first board meeting. I walked in the room. Where’s the board? Oh, it’s these three guys. You know, it was a nascent organization. My company, Aspen Skiing Company, said you can serve on that board. We’ll pay you. You can be board chair. We’ll give them money. Let’s build that organization.
So, Protect Our Winters is now a six, seven million dollar organization. They are the movement, the climate movement from the outdoor industry, which is huge. Forty to a hundred million strong, but never wielded political power. And in the most recent federal climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, Protect Our Winters was instrumental in getting a ski resort in West Virginia to pressure Joe Manchin, who’s a swing senator.
So that’s real. Now, did POW do it? No, it was a group effort. Did Aspen Skiing Company do it? No, but this is how you should be thinking about change. These are the things you would do if you wanted to drive change.
Let me give you another example. In 2006, there was a lawsuit at the Supreme Court called Massachusetts versus EPA. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, this was the most important piece of climate law in the history of the world, and we got a call. So some people were aware of this. We got a call from a nonprofit saying, will you file a legal brief on this? An amicus brief? And we said, Yeah, we’ll file this brief.
We were the only ski resort, and only outdoor industry to say this is important. Mass v. E.P.A. was argued and won by Massachusetts. It became the basis of climate law in the United States and still is. Again, did we make that happen? No. Amicus briefs barely even get read by the Supreme Court, but that’s how we should be thinking about the problem in terms of power and leverage and big-scale stuff. And that act, while maybe not that powerful or effective, it informed how we were thinking as we move forward.
Rodney Payne: Especially when you think about the scale and reach of our industry.
Auden Schendler: Right.
Rodney Payne: If I just think about the destinations that I know and have worked with – covers half the globe because everyone has a tourism board and an airline, and a big company like yours. We’re sort of one degree of separation, and we’re 10% of the global economy.
Auden Schendler: Right, and because of the nature of the tourism beast, people care. Because what’s at threat is the thing that you spent time and money and effort to get to because you love it.
Rodney Payne: And only the most powerful and influential people in the world ever get to set foot on an airplane, right? So we have a chance to show them a different way of doing things.
Auden Schendler: This is an important point, because one of the critiques of Aspen, and look, it’s legitimate. It’s a center of conspicuous consumption. And I remember midway through my career, I thought, I should really go to, you know, the Philippines and install solar panels. Like, I’d feel better about myself. And we get criticized a lot. Oh, it’s so fancy here. You can’t be green.
And then I thought if I did that, I’d feel better about myself, but I would be losing access to power that is pretty unique. And so if we’re actually trying to leverage the power that comes through here, trying to educate people, trying to change them, trying to engage them in conversation, we could be pretty influential in the world.
So you’re obligated to do that because of the consumptive and affluent place you’re in. But the opportunity is huge. I mean, this is all power-centred. This is where you go if you want to influence change.
Rodney Payne: Can we talk a little bit about methane capture?
Auden Schendler: Sure.
Rodney Payne: The work you’ve done there?
Auden Schendler: Yep. When I started this work, I always knew that we had to deal with energy use in some way. Because we use a ton of energy, it’s very energy-intensive. And we needed to do something that would address that problem at scale. And that would give us credibility for the policy work we do and the advocacy. So, we installed the first solar array in the ski industry. Highlands, 2.3 kW, almost nothing.
And so we did that and we thought, that was hard, but it didn’t do anything. So then we created a hydroelectric plant that runs on the snowmaking system. And so in the spring, it makes power. And it didn’t make that much energy. So we said, what do we do now? So we built a utility-scale solar farm. It was a million dollars. So the first project was like $20,000. The second was $100, 000. The next was a million. And so what would the next be? Well, the utility-scale solar farm didn’t make much more than the hydro plant. So we’re like, we gotta go big. And it was at that time that an old friend of mine, Randy Udall, brought an idea to go to an abandoned coal mine and capture leaking methane to make electricity.
Now, there’s a lot going on in that idea. Coal mines happen to leak methane, that’s why you have a canary in a coal mine, because it’s toxic, and they see methane as a waste product. So, Randy had found this mine that was interested in talking about this issue. We met with the mine. It was owned by Bill Koch, K-O-C-H.
So, about as right-wing conservative as exists on planet Earth. And we’re the hippies coming in saying we want to do a climate project. And Koch didn’t want to do a climate project, but he wanted to do a project that captured a wasted resource. And so we found a little patch of common ground, and we did the project.
So, here’s the stats on it. It cost six million dollars. Which is, again, funny. A ski resort spending six million dollars, which is a new lift, on a what? A methane generator? And you have three truck engines that run on methane. Now it’s – in the process of, combusting methane, you’re destroying it. You’re turning it into CO2. Methane’s a greenhouse gas with a potency of 84 compared to CO2. So you’re destroying methane, you’re making electricity, and you’re displacing coal-fired power in the process. And this plant, which was built, you know, a dozen years ago ran for a decade, making about as much power as we use, and deleting triple the carbon.
We don’t get credit for that, because it all goes into the utility grid. As a coal mine ages, the methane decreases. And so now that project is just flaring the gas because we can’t run the engines anymore. But it’s a, it’s an amazing example. It’s one of the only ones in the United States.
But if you look at a map of methane leakage in the U.S., which maybe only you and I would want to look at a map like that, it’s leaking all over the place. So this is, this is replicable. It’s something you can figure out how to do at a profit. And it addresses maybe the biggest climate problem the world faces, which is these super greenhouse gases like methane.
Rodney Payne: Yeah, it’s a really, really commendable example and I think it’s one of those stories that needs to get out to the world, so that we, yes, worry about disposable plastics, but also let’s worry about methane leaking as well.
Auden Schendler: Yeah.
Rodney Payne: Are there any other examples that you’re really proud of that you want to talk about?
Auden Schendler: So our process is, what if we really cared about climate? What would we do? And if you look at, at advertising in the ski industry, every ad, you know, the creative department comes up and they’re like, we have a great idea for a new ad, it’s a skier on a powder day, and it says, come ski Aspen.
And so, to our credit, we said, that’s boring, and there’s nothing differentiating about it. So let’s do something different. What if we did a climate campaign? And over the years, we’ve done multiple major marketing climate campaigns. The most recent one was called Give a Flake.
And the idea there is one, it’s different. Two, it’s a cause that matters. Three, you might have some influence. Four, customers and employees care about these issues. And so when we launched Give a Flake it had a million postage-paid postcards to Lisa Murkowski saying, you got to do more. The campaign dropped. That day, Murkowski’s office called our CEO and said, What are you doing?
You’re attacking me on climate, but I’m trying to help you with other stuff. And so our CEO ended up having a conversation with Murkowski and basically said, yeah, you’re not doing enough. Think about ten years ago. No elected official in the U.S. Would ever get called out, let alone in a national campaign, for their lack of action on climate.
But we picked Murkowski intentionally because she’s a potential swing vote. She’s a Republican, but she’s in Alaska that’s getting hammered by climate change.
Rodney Payne: What’s stopping the rest of the travel industry from following your lead on initiatives like that?
Auden Schendler: The call from Murkowski to the CEO initially went straight to me with, what the hell’s going on, Schindler? You know, that’s scary. And the CEO wasn’t thrilled to be defending our campaign to Murkowski. So what’s, what’s stopping the tourism industry is, this is hard. Do you want to do really difficult, meaningful stuff? It’s gonna hurt. It’s gonna be a long-term challenge.
People are gonna get mad at you. You’re gonna lose customers. We have lost customers over this and other issues and business doesn’t like that. Business likes things to be happy, smiley all the time. So I’m looking forward to the industry getting more aggressive and really swinging a battleaxe on this.
But for the most part, it’s easier just to change your light bulbs.
Rodney Payne: When you look back in 10 years, what do you hope you’ve accomplished?
Auden Schendler: So in 10 years, I hope there’s a widespread social movement out of the outdoor and tourism industry that is bigger by a mile than the NRA, bigger than Taylor Swift’s fan group. You know, it’s just huge and it means that real policy action on climate is unavoidable. And that would be, you’d win if that were the case. Think about it. If, 70% of the population cared about climate, you’d have a policy.
Rodney Payne: We’ve got a few minutes left. I want to drill down to some of the stickier issues in the tourism industry. So most visitors fly here, or drive here, in an internal combustion engine. Scope 3 emissions for the tourism industry is kind of one of those awkward problems, right? Once you go down the rabbit hole of changing your light bulbs, oh, that didn’t move the needle. Starting a solar farm, that didn’t move the needle, and the steps that you go on inevitably as you go on your climate journey.
You get to the point where you calculate your scope 3 emissions and you say, Oh. Everything we do here in the destination or in our business actually doesn’t really move the needle if we’re built on a foundation of people coming here and having the bulk of our emissions there or the goods that if you don’t have a agricultural industry locally or the supply chain locally.
How do you think about that at Aspen?
Auden Schendler: Yeah. So, once again, a visitor to Aspen didn’t say, take me to Aspen, destroy civilization in the process. They didn’t. If there were a way to get them here without carbon emissions, they would be thrilled about that. They don’t have agency to change the U.S. transportation system. So the real question is, given the impact of travel and other scope 3 emissions, what’s our obligation? How can we wake up in the morning and feel legit about our work?
And the answer is not to calculate them and buy offsets, most of which are sketchy. The answer is to work to change the whole system, to legitimately work, using what power you have, to change the whole enchilada so that when people fly or ski or drive that there are no emissions associated with that.
And if you want to criticize us, or me, criticize us for not doing that systems change work effectively enough. But don’t criticize me for not buying offsets – that’s a joke.
Rodney Payne: Yeah, I love it. What happens to the travel industry, let’s say five or ten years from now? R&D on aviation hasn’t gone exponential. And people are really getting frightened about the changes we’re seeing in our Earth systems, and waking up to the energy intensity of moving people around. What happens to the travel industry if we haven’t acted?
Auden Schendler: I mean… There’s a dismal view that it just keeps going, you know, which is arguably where we are today. I think we’re at an interesting time in history and this is actually a very, very interesting time because what’s happening is, the globe has just been in a roughly three-year La Niña cycle, which cools the planet. And we’re rolling out of that into El Niño, while CO2 has been going up the whole time.
We’ve been setting temperature records, or near records, the last three years anyway. So now you’re going to have an El Niño, which is a warming trend, and really high atmospheric CO2. We’re going to blow doors on records. And you’re going to see fires and floods and storms and all these different things.
So, people are going to wake up. I think the result is, you’re going to start to fix these problems, but you’re also going to have people saying, I either can’t go do that trip anymore because the thing I was going to see is gone, or I don’t want to do it. And the other piece that’s going to happen is it could get too expensive to do it.
If we don’t innovate, you know, if you don’t create a different way of flying, there’s going to be a tax on carbon at some point. And it’s going to get really, it’s already really expensive to fly. So, all these different things that climate influences ultimately just make it more expensive to do business.
So, this is a obvious thing to fix, that the outdoor and tourism industry are the obvious people to do it. Not least in importance because this is a way to talk to people about global sustainability problems in a way they’ll understand. If we say, you know, the insurance companies are really scared, you know, people go to sleep.
It’s visceral, it’s about places we care about, but it’s also about recreation and leisure, which isn’t just, oh, that could go away. No, that’s what makes human beings flourish. And if society doesn’t have the ability to relax and vacation and have fun and move down a snow slope, we will not thrive as people.
Rodney Payne: So if I gave you a magic wand and a blank checkbook and made you king of the world for a week, what would you do?
Auden Schendler: Well, it depends how powerful the magic wand is.
Rodney Payne: It’s very powerful.
Auden Schendler: Okay. I’ll just speak for the U.S., but this has to be global. Here’s the thing. We know how to solve climate change today. We have the technology and the policy tools. So, what I would use my magic wand for would be to deploy that stuff. So deploy wind, deploy solar, electric vehicles, share that with the developing world so that they can leapfrog us in the dirty development.
Spend that money. And put in place policy tools that would enable this to happen. You know, right now you can pollute for free. Well, let’s change that. So, it’s such an optimistic thing to have a magic wand, but what makes it even more optimistic is we know how to solve this problem, and it’s not scary. It’s not scary at all.
Rodney Payne: One of the things I’ve developed such a high degree of conviction over is that all of the solutions we need to all of the environmental and interrelated, interconnected problems around housing and, wealth – they exist somewhere in the world, where they’ve been proven out, whether it’s here in Aspen, or hiding in another pocket in the world.
Auden Schendler: Right.
Rodney Payne: And we just haven’t shared them well enough
Auden Schendler: Yet. Yeah, right. Or we forgot them. I mean, I don’t know if anyone’s told you this, but until 1957, Aspen ran on hydropower, and it wasn’t big dams. It was a small hydro. So we were all renewable in 1957. That’s not that long ago.
Rodney Payne: Yeah. Are you hopeful or optimistic or fearful about the future?
Auden Schendler: I’m privately pessimistic because I understand the nature of the problem, but I’m publicly optimistic because I think that humans thrive in an existential fight, and we have a good history of doing good things against impossible odds.
I don’t think it’s the right question, though. I think the right question is what is this thing we’re doing? Optimism or pessimism suggests a destination. Like, are you going to win the baseball game? And this is really a practice. How do you wake up with what set of attitudes and values? And then how do you proceed through your day? We ought to live our lives in a way that will help solve climate change.
It gives us meaning. It gives us hope. It doesn’t really matter if we’re going to actually succeed.
Rodney Payne: I’m going to finish with a personal question. Feel free to pass. You’re a parent.
Auden Schendler: Yeah.
Rodney Payne: What advice do you have for parents as they become more aware of the situation we’re in?
Auden Schendler: Well, I mean, I think that parents are obligated to be a legitimate part of the fix.
And if you’re not, you’re not a functional parent. You don’t have to be righteous and you don’t have to be shrill, but you have to be chipping away at the iron glacier every day. So the responsibilities of parenting include understanding what’s going on in the world. And most importantly, being a participant in democracy and a citizen and America in particular, we forgot that. We forgot. Hey you know, we don’t just get to live this wonderful life. There are dues to be paid. There are taxes, but there’s also participation in democracy and that’s it. You don’t have to care about climate.
If 100% of Americans voted, we would have solved climate because the stats on bipartisan support for climate action, it’s beyond 70%. And this is true of other issues too. So you have an obligation to participate in the world.
Rodney Payne: Democracy is not a spectator sport.
Auden Schendler: Right.
Rodney Payne: Thanks for sitting down with me today.
Auden Schendler: Hey, thank you. My pleasure.
David Archer: This has been Travel Beyond presented by Destination Think. And this has also been the final episode of our Aspen season. Thanks for being here. Once again, we’d like to thank Aspen Chamber Resort Association for sponsoring this season and making all these interviews possible. You can find previous episodes of Travel Beyond and more information about this one at DestinationThink.
com slash blog. My co host is Rodney Payne. This episode has been produced and has theme music composed by me, David Archer. Danny Garropy recorded this season’s interviews with Rodney on site in Aspen. Sarah Raymond DeBooey is co producer. Lindsey Payne, Annika Rautiola, Katie Schreiner, and Kaylee Wallace provided production support.
You can help more people find the show by subscribing to future episodes and by leaving a rating and review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Stay tuned for a new season of Travel Beyond in a new location that’s coming soon. And we’ll see you then.
And one last note about Aspen.
Eliza Voss: I’m Eliza Voss, and I should note that we are recording in Aspen, Colorado, the ancestral territory of the Uncompahgre tribe of the Ute Nation. We honor the inherent stewardship Native people have for the land, waters, and air that our residents and visitors continue to have the privilege to revel in.