ASPEN - The Aspen Skiing Co.'s decision to ban a certain brand of tissues on the ski slopes might influence the next generation of business leaders.
The Harvard Business School wrote a case study scrutinizing the Skico's boycott of Kleenex and its decision to join a lawsuit to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as a pollutant. The detailed study is being used this semester to teach second-year MBAs about emerging issues they might encounter - in this case, corporate activism on environmental issues. The highly respected case studies are typically purchased and used by other leading business schools.
"Harvard case studies are legendary if you're a business geek," said Auden Schendler, Skico's vice president of sustainability.
Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Michael Toffel and HBS Research Associate Stephanie van Sice thoroughly dissected the Skico's reasoning behind joining Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to pressure the paper corporation Kimberly-Clark to alter how Kleenex are made. The environmental groups alleged Kimberly-Clark purchased paper fiber from some of the last North American temperate coastal rainforest.
The study details how Schendler commiserated in April 2006 over whether to advise Skico brass to join the boycott for sound environmental reasons or avoid potentially alienating Aspenites and wealthy Skico customers. Schendler was concerned the act might be viewed as grandstanding, or "green washing" - taking action to make it appear green and diverting attention from environmental issues of greater consequence.
The Skico ultimately joined the effort. The case study said Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan concurred with Schendler that the Skico could add clout to the boycott: "As soon as the name 'Aspen' becomes associated with a story, it becomes a big story," Kaplan concurred. "We were willing to use our leverage to make a big change in a big company, even with the headache."
The Skico dropped its boycott about a year ago, after Kimberly-Clark revised its procurement policies, Schendler said Monday. The case study noted that the NRDC, one of the Skico's partners, remained dissatisfied with Kimberly-Clark's actions.
The case study also focused on the Skico's filing of an amicus brief - a report to the U.S. Supreme Court by a party not directly involved in litigation. In the brief, the Skico detailed how climate change could affect its business and why the EPA should regulate emissions.
"For an industry so reliant on government land and permits, it was virtually unprecedented for resorts to seek more regulation," the case study said.
By taking the action, the Skico risked additional charges of greenwashing and scrutiny of its own environmental practices. Skico brass explained that they plowed ahead because they believed they had already proved their credentials as an environmental leader in the ski industry, and in business at large, with some of their in-house action.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Skico's allies, clearing the way for the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Toffel said the case study is being examined by 35 students in his Business and the Environment class this semester. The class is an elective that attracts other master's students outside the business school.
Toffel learned about the Skico's environmental initiatives in a 2007 article in Business Week, where Schendler was frank about the difficulties for a company to be green. He later invited Schendler to speak in Boston at a conference of academics examining business and environment issues. Toffel later got interested in scrutinizing the Skico in a case study.
He said his selection of the Skico for a case study doesn't reflect a view that it is taking the most action on the environment within the ski industry or among businesses in general. He just felt the Skico has taken significant moves.
Businesses rarely join boycotts against other businesses; and business rarely get involved in national policy like the Skico by joining a Supreme Court case and testifying before Congress seeking more regulation, he said.
The loop became complete Monday when Kaplan attended Toffel's presentation of the case study to the class, then answered questions from students.
"It was a great discussion, and the students got at the core issues quickly and asked good questions," Kaplan said.
The episode is another example of the Skico using the leverage it has the good fortune of possessing to promote its environmental ideals, Schendler said. It is using the allure of the Aspen name to get on the soapbox and attempt to influence policy - in this case, affecting how business leaders look at issues.