In public talks about Aspen Skiing Company’s environmental programs, I used to describe our wind-powered Cirque chairlift. Renewable-energy purchases for that lift keep 30,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, out of the air annually, I’d tell my audience. Furthermore, it was the first renewably powered lift in the country.

My listeners would often applaud the accomplishments I was describing. But then I’d tell them they had been greenwashed.

Walking the walk?

Photo: iStockphoto

To greenwash, according to Word Spy, is “to implement token environmentally friendly initiatives as a way of hiding or deflecting criticism about existing environmentally destructive practices.” But it also means outright deception. Calling timber-harvesting and pollution-reduction programs that have been roundly condemned by environmental groups “Healthy Forests” and “Clear Skies,” respectively? Greenwash. An automaker pledging in full-page New York Times ads to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, while opposing stricter fuel-efficiency standards? Greenwash. Touting a small wind-power purchase program when it represents an infinitesimal amount of your total power demand without disclosing that fact? Greenwash.

The next thing I’d tell audiences was that the Cirque lift constituted .00454 percent of our total electricity requirements. It was our first step in a renewable power plan that eventually brought total wind power purchases to 2 percent, and as high as 6 percent last winter. That’s not a bad start for an energy-intensive business like skiing. But the Cirque story illustrates just how difficult it is to be a consumer and a business in the age of environmental awareness. While consumers need to be constantly on the alert for potential greenwash, businesses need them to be willing to recognize — and applaud — genuine efforts to protect the environment.

Still, if greenwash is at least ethically questionable, and probably exposes businesses to increased scrutiny and criticism, why are so many doing it?

The reality is that U.S. consumers increasingly take into account the environmental and social impacts of products and manufacturers. One Roper survey showed that two-thirds of consumers say that if price and quality are equal, they are likely to switch to a brand or retailer associated with a good cause. And according to the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability Journal, in 2000, the LOHAS market represented $546 billion globally and $226.8 billion in the U.S. Meanwhile, for businesses like oil companies that require local and government approval for exploration, a green image provides “license to operate.” If drilling is inevitable, why not give the contract to the oil company that has a green reputation?

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear who’s greenwashing and who’s for real.

In his book The Corporate Planet, Joshua Karliner lambastes DuPont for a public relations campaign that featured “an ad full of seals clapping, whales and dolphins jumping, and flamingos flying, all set to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, to project its newfound green image.” But DuPont arguably is a green company, already meeting a target to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 65 percent by 2010 (based on a 1990 baseline). That’s nothing to sneeze at, and DuPont has many fans in the environmental community.

Meanwhile, in the 1990s, Shell set a new low in corporate environmental responsibility when Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer, was executed for protesting the company’s exploration in Africa. Shell undertook a massive social and environmental responsibility PR campaign in response to boycotts. In 2001, CorpWatch reported that Shell “continues its clever but misleading ad series ‘Profits or Principles’ which touts Shell’s commitment to renewable energy sources and features photos of lush green forests. But Shell spends a minuscule 0.6 percent of its annual investments on renewables.” Today, although the company has invested in renewable energy resources and recently launched an ad campaign touting the greenness of its fuel, its troubles in Nigeria and other areas continue. Research suggests Shell still might not be all it claims.

Counterintuitively, greenwash — real or perceived — can actually be good for a corporation if that business genuinely wants to become green. As soon as a company starts hyping its environmental responsibility, legitimately or not, it invites greater scrutiny from the public. As a result, social pressure to do the right thing increases. More important, employees become more aware too. If a company isn’t living up to the standard it sets publicly, they’ll complain, and they’ll work to change their company, because nobody likes to work for a cheat.

At Aspen Skiing Company, many of our new program ideas come from irate callers who say, “You’re not as green as you say — you’re not (fill in the blank: recycling properly, revegetating your slopes, addressing snowmaking issues).” Often callers have good ideas, and we implement them. Would we receive those calls had we not declared ourselves green? Painting a business green inevitably steers it toward improved practices.

At ASC, if we do something good — like powering our snowcats with clean, renewable biodiesel, or building a snowboarding halfpipe out of dirt to save water — we always send out a press release. Because we believe the public, and other businesses, need to know what’s possible. In fact, by being leaders in ski-area environmentalism and making a big deal out of it, ASC has arguably forced the rest of the industry to change. If we stayed humble and quiet, other resorts wouldn’t feel pressed to compete.

If firms are afraid to hype their good environmental projects because they fear being labeled greenwashers, nothing will change. Information on business as usual is already out there. Progressive new green information is not. Getting the word out, with the hope of changing the world, is worth the risk.