Aspen’s Sustainability Commitments: A Myth or Reality?

A Ticking Time Bomb

Our planet is reaching its tipping point, on the verge of irreparable environmental damage as you read this blog post. According to vocal environmental activists, this is the crucial decade to enact climate change prevention initiatives. It’s no longer a harrowing forecast or a future problem, but a very tangible issue that deserves our utmost attention. Every sector of the economy is under the threat of climate change, prompting innovative solutions to a problem that is quickly growing out of our control.

Businesses are at the heart of the solution to this ever-growing problem. Karl Smerecnik and Peter Andersen contend, “Businesses play a key role in creating a more sustainable future through transforming their products and services to offer consumers a more sustainable lifestyle.” How does this apply to the ski industry, you ask? Climate change has been shortening winters and making snowfall increasingly irregular. It is therefore up to the ski industry to help pioneer sustainable solutions which will both preserve the environment and their bottom-line in the long run.

What Does Sustainability Mean in a Corporate Context?

In order to assess Aspen’s environmental commitments accurately, we need to have a clear understanding of what sustainability means in a corporate context. Mihaela Muntean unpacks the definition of corporate sustainability in her article on “Business Intelligence Issues for Sustainability Projects,” describing it as “a business approach that creates long-term shareholder value by embracing opportunities and managing risks deriving from economic, environmental and social developments.” Economic performance and sustainability, contrary to conventional thinking are therefore not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are inexplicably linked—something which Aspen and other key players in the ski resort industry have aptly recognized.

Auden Schendler, SVP of Sustainability at Aspen, openly embraces this principle. The SVP asserted that “Balancing sustainability and making a profit are both important to the long-term goal of for-profit companies’ ability to serve stakeholders and shareholders. The ability to balance both will help transform brands.” Aspen’s keen management recognizes its environmental commitments as not just a moral imperative, but a necessity for long-term profitability.

On a similar note, Smerecnik & Peter highlight the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) as a comprehensive metric for understanding a business’ performance: social equality, ecological integrity, and financial stability. Yes, that’s right—a business’ bottom line is not independent of a firm’s environmental behavior, but rather a function of their environmental impact. This is increasingly true in today’s world as consumers, over the course of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, have become increasingly environmentally conscious about the products and the services that they buy. Ski resorts, like many other successful corporations, must factor this into their decision making to maximize their returns. 

Aspen’s Approach to Sustainability

Aspen Snowmass is leading the charge in sustainable practices within the ski industry. Their commitment to releasing annual environmental disclosures since 2000 is emblematic of the resort’s environmental consciousness and forward-looking nature. The internally audited sustainability report highlights how tons of C02 emitted per skier day have fallen from 0.023 in the 1999-2000 ski season to 0.018 in the 2017-2018 ski season—a roughly 22% decrease. Considering that Aspen’s central environmental goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 25% compared to 2000 levels by 2020, it seems that the ski resort magnate is well on track to achieving this objective.

Who Regulates Sustainability Reporting?

The short answer: nobody, really. Of course, such reports are internally audited and not monitored on a federal level to the extent that financial disclosures are. This gives rise, oftentimes, to a misleading marketing tactic known as Greenwashing—the information asymmetry between environmental claims and performance.  As Becky Jacobs asserts, in an article entitled “Defining Sustainability in Business—Beyond Greenwashing,” this is a rampant marketing strategy being increasingly employed to attract environmentally conscious consumers. That is not to say that this is always the corporation’s intent, however. Nonetheless, Jacobs contends that it is still a deceptive practice to give consumers or investors the impression that a marketed product or service is more sustainable than it is portrayed.

So, should we trust Aspen’s disclosures? Or are they another corporation taking advantage of environmentally responsible consumers? In short, the evidence suggests otherwise. Aspen’s sustainably initiatives show that the resort is committed to climate action, rather than merely making appealing public statements which endorse sustainability. I’m not saying that some metrics in Aspen’s self-reported environmental disclosures have not been cherry picked to appeal to consumer’s environmentally conscious attitudes but, overall, their contributions to environmental protection outweigh potential doubts about the credibility of their sustainability reporting.

Aspen’s Sustainability Initiatives

So, returning to Aspen’s claims outlined in their corporate sustainability reports, how have they managed to reduce their carbon footprint by a noteworthy 22%? Through undertaking a series of short and long-term initiatives within the resort and the wider community, Aspen has built a name for itself as a sustainable corporation in the ski industry. Along with investing in clean energy such as hydropower and solar, Aspen has made strides over the last twenty-three years, according to a Forbes’ interview with executive Schendler, to go from being “public enemy number one,” to an ally and leader of the community. This is reflective of how sustainability commitments are beneficial from a social welfare point of view in addition to offering increased yields in profitability.

Let’s take a look at some of Aspen’s most promising projects and major milestones in achieving their sustainability targets.

Investing in Renewable Energy

True to its reputation as an innovator and trailblazer in the ski industry, Aspen opened the first solar array in the ski industry as they proudly proclaim on their website. In 2004, Aspen was the first recorded ski resort to install a solar array, producing a modest 2.3kW of clean energy. By today’s standards, this power output is dwarfed by common rooftop units, averaging about 5kW, but solar technology has exponentially advanced over the last two decades. Since then, Aspen has continued to invest in solar arrays of its own as well as benefit from utility companies supporting cleaner energy sources like Holy Cross Solar Power Station which have helped to decrease the resort’s dependence on oil and coal-based power sources.

Electric Pass Lodge

Taking its commitment to renewable energy a step further, Aspen is currently constructing a 100% renewable condo development slated for completion in 2023. In a recent interview with the Denver Post, Andy Gunion—one of the chief developers of this project—emphasized the critical need to ensure that future projects are 100% renewable, whether upfront or over time. He also spoke to some of the technological innovations of this LEED-certified building, such as near-perfectly sealed triple-pane glass which helps to improve insulation. Gunion asserts that “electrification” of traditionally gas-powered heating systems is central to reducing carbon emissions. He argues that while a new gas building will give off carbon dioxide for up to a half-century, a fully electric building will become increasingly greener as the grid becomes more and more sustainable.

Cirque Lift Power

Cirque Lift Power is a testament to Aspen’s commitment to investing in clean energy. The widely known ski lift is 100% wind powered and a critical step towards Aspen meeting its wider sustainability goals. In terms of its ecological impact, the Cirque Lift is also environmentally responsible as it was constructed with minimally invasive techniques. For example, crews manually hauled materials as opposed to heavy machinery in order to protect animal habitats on the site of the lift.

The Silver Queen Gondola, Aspen, CO. It features a solar battery-powered charging station and music system. Image is in Public Domain, Unsplash.

In addition to the Cirque Lift, Aspen has made minor modifications to existing gondolas and chair lifts to help minimize their impact on their environment. Though admittedly sometimes “finicky,” according to an Aspen Times article on the Silver Queen Gondola, the lift features a solar-powered battery which can charge electronic devices and operate a music system built into the gondola. Though perhaps a minor amenity, this investment is representative of Aspen’s simultaneous commitments to furthering its sustainability aims while satisfying customers’ demands.  

(Sustainable) Snowmaking

A topic of great controversy among ecologists and environmentalists alike, Aspen has taken strides to both maximize the efficiency and the sustainability of snowmaking techniques. Moreover, the snowmaking pond has been dual purposed to operate as a hydroelectric energy plant, contributing 115kW of clean energy and reducing their annual carbon emissions by 300,000 tons, according to Aspen’s sustainability reports.

This, however, does not detract from the ecologically harmful side effects of snow making. Duncan Leao, in an article on the ecological impacts of snowmaking, asserts that this practice can wreak havoc on essential habitats. For example, snowmaking can lead to changes in water chemistry as well as increased runoff which all negatively impact ecosystems. While Aspen certainly has a better track record of ecological protection than Snowbowl, Arizona (the main case that Leao analyzes in his article) snowmaking presents problematic environmental consequences which should not be downplayed by sustainability claims made by ski resort magnates.

Understandably, ski resorts invest heavily in artificial snowmaking in order to extend shortening winters and unpredictable snowfall amounts as a result of Climate Change. Though, according to Daniel Scott in an article on “The Differential Futures of Ski Tourism in Ontario (Canada) under Climate Change: The Limits of Snowmaking Adaptation,” snowmaking is an inadequate long-term solution to remedying the effects of climate change on decreasing snowfall accumulations. Scott asserts that irrespective of advances in snowmaking techniques, the rate of climate change caused by our emissions levels will be the determining factor for ski resort futures. Indeed, he predicts two contrasting alternatives in which ski resorts either maintain long enough winters in 2100 to operate, or due to high emissions are no longer economically viable. This is a troubling forecast which underlines the need to recognize and implement long-term sustainability strategies rather than short-term adaptations which address profitability-based targets.

Why Does Sustainability Matter to a Profit-Driven Business?

Inherently, for-profit firms are motivated by meeting sales targets and pleasing their shareholders by maximizing profitability. Certainly, Aspen’s commitment to environmental conservation is an achievement for sustainability efforts, but you’re probably wondering at this point: what are the implications of Aspen’s environmental initiatives for profitability? Well, for one thing, customer loyalty is increasingly driven by a firm’s attitude towards social and environmental welfare, according to a study published by George Kassinis and Andreas Souteriou. This is especially true for service companies according to these scholars, suggesting that this relationship can also be applied to Aspen’s business model. But customer loyalty isn’t really an objectively measurable indicator of profitability—so how else does sustainability enhance Aspen’s business model?

Sustainable Initiatives Can Help Cut Costs

Kassinis and Souteriou also contend that sustainability commitments can have a tangible effect on profit; namely, through reducing costs and increasing a firm’s overall competitiveness. A prime example of how Aspen has benefited from the cost savings of investing in sustainable initiatives is through its expansive clean energy program. Through constructing LEED certified buildings, for example, the resort has managed to decrease costs (in the long-term) while also minimizing its environmental impact.

Sustainability Commitments Help Foster Business Relationships

Christian Herzig and Stefan Schaltegger, in an article on Corporate Sustainability Reporting, argue that disclosing environmental commitments to the public can help to improve business relationships. Corporations can build trust with their shareholders through committing to socially and environmentally conscious initiatives, which helps to minimize frictions in business interactions. Herzig and Schaltegger also underline how corporate sustainability reporting can be an effective means of maintaining or gaining legitimacy. Not to mention, reputation and risk management are welcomed side effects of sustainability reporting. 

The Verdict: Does Aspen Care About the Planet? Or Are They More Concerned About Their Bottom Line?

Aspen strives to achieve both objectives: long-term profitability and sustainable business practices. Afterall, they’re not disparate goals but in many ways interconnected practices. In today’s technologically evolved and generally more informed world, businesses must strive to uphold sustainable targets and social responsibility. It’s not merely a recommendation, but a moral imperative—and a necessity for successful businesses. As Aspen continues to innovate and lead in their industry, they are contributing to a new business culture: one which values social responsibility and environmental commitments. This is a world that I, personally, wouldn’t mind living in: where businesses make ethical considerations and help protect the environment that sustains us.


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Herzig, Christian, and Stefan Schaltegger. “Corporate Sustainability Reporting. An Overview.” Sustainability Accounting and reporting (2006): 301-324.

Jacobs, Becky L., and Brad Finney. “Defining Sustainable Business—Beyond Greenwashing.” Virginia Environmental Law Journal 37, no. 2 (2019): 89-131.

Kassinis, George I., and Andreas C. Soteriou. “Greening the Service Profit Chain: The Impact of Environmental Management Practices.” Production and Operations Management 12, no. 3 (2003): 386-403.

Leao, Duncan, and Aregai Tecle. “Possible Impacts of Snowmaking Using Reclaimed Water on Water Resources and Other Related Issues in Flagstaff, Arizona.” Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science, 2003.

Muntean, Mihaela. “Business Intelligence Issues for Sustainability Projects.” Sustainability 10, no. 2 (2018): 335.

Rubino, Joe. “Snowmass Ski Area Condo Building Will Be Powered by 100% Renewable Electricity.” The Denver Post. The Denver Post, January 28, 2021.

Scott, Daniel, Robert Steiger, Michelle Rutty, Marc Pons, and Peter Johnson. “The Differential Futures of Ski Tourism in Ontario (Canada) Under Climate change: The Limits of Snowmaking Adaptation.” Current Issues in Tourism 22, no. 11 (2019): 1327-1342.

Smerecnik, Karl R., and Peter A. Andersen. “The Diffusion of Environmental Sustainability Innovations in North American Hotels and Ski Resorts.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 19, no. 2 (2011): 171-196.

“Sustainability Reports: Environment Commitment.” Accessed April 16, 2021.

Thompson, Jonathan. “Climate Change Is Changing American Ski Slopes Forever.” Accessed April 20, 2021.  

Wackerle, Curtis. “Queen on the Silver Queen? SkiCo Upgrading Music Systems in Cabins.” Aspen Daily News, December 18, 2017.   

2 Replies to “Aspen’s Sustainability Commitments: A Myth or Reality?”

  1. I enjoyed the read! I was raised in Aspen

    Am now in a graduate program at Arizona State for Sustainability Leadership

    There are a number of standard Environmental, Social and Governance and accountability entities. Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, is one.

    Here’s the link –

    1. Thanks so much. I am putting together the next version of the course for Spring 2022 and will grab this website. 🙂

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