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SUSTAINABILITY IN THE SKIING INDUSTRY

The glistening, angelic, white mountain peaks are home to an industry worth $3.1 billion (as of 2022). The ski industry attracts ~400 million visitors each year, offering adventure, fun, and awe-inspiring scenery with wild and rugged mountain backdrops. Yet, the ski industry isn’t as pure as it may initially seem. It’s an industry that’s vulnerable to the consequences of its unsustainable actions, which threaten the long-term prosperity of the skiing world. In this article, we will address sustainability in the ski industry.

Most notable are our warming winters, which are melting wonderlands under the brunt of climate change. From 1970-2021 (52 years) one study found that, out of 202 locations, 84% had experienced warmer winters by >2°F (1°C). Such a temperature rise makes a huge difference when thinking about snow conditions for winter sports.

In this Green Business Bureau article, we address the focal environmental challenge for the ski industry, namely climate change. We then explain the benefits of sustainability for skiing, before offering 5 sustainability tips with real-world examples of sustainable ski resorts.

Climate change challenge: Thawing winters threaten the ski industry

Climate change threatens our winters, and with that, the ski industry. It’s easy to forget the eco-footprint of winter sports as we dance down snow-encrusted mountains. Immersed in our natural world, how could skiing be detrimental to that world?

Climate change is the number one environmental concern now facing mountain communities” – Dr. Tobia Luthe, professor of sustainability science from the Sustainable Mountain Tourism Alliance

Flattening forests to clear slopes, causing erosion and uprooting wildlife, and using fossil fuel-hungry snow cannons and piste bashers name a few of the environmentally damaging activities associated with ski resorts. Yet, one challenge seems to stand out here, and that’s climate change. A warming world doesn’t bode well for a sport that skates on frozen water. Yet the ski industry is an industry that contributes to the very problem that threatens its existence.

One study reported that the average carbon footprint per skier could be as much as 74kg CO2e per trip. This equates to additional emissions that are nearly 4x the daily average emissions for a US household.

A study by the Environmental Protection Agency showed that between 1955 to 2020, April snowpacks declined by 86%. And so ski resorts are already feeling the impact of warmer winters. For instance, some low-level resorts are pushed into using artificial snow, now covering 80% of slopes – an expensive reliance.

Hence climate change is a top challenge for ski resorts today. Yet there are ways resorts can mitigate their climatic impact, to help curb global warming and become more sustainable.

The benefits of sustainability for ski resorts

Creating sustainable ski resorts builds resilience. Sustainability pushes resorts away from the negative spiral, where high carbon footprints catalyze climate change – which could ultimately render the ski industry obsolete.

And the business case for maintaining the ski industry is compelling. For instance, 80 million tourists visit Alpine ski regions every year, generating $54 billion and providing 10% of all jobs in this region.

Yet ski resorts not only need sustainability, but they also benefit from sustainability. You see, the business case for sustainability extends across industries, and the statistics speak for themselves:

  • 84% of consumers choose brands with positive sustainability commitments,
  • 71% of employees looking for companies with positive environmental credentials,
  • 61% of corporations report near-term profitability as a result of sustainability changes made.

We’ve surveyed tour operators and 62% say that they would more likely be interested in a destination if it carries a sustainable or environmental label.” – Anne Dorte Carlson, manager of Sustainable Destination Norway

SUSTAINABILITY GUIDE FOR SKI RESORTS

Below we explore 5 ways ski resorts can reduce their carbon footprint. It must be noted, however, that sustainability in the ski industry is not limited to these 5 tips. For true sustainability, ski resorts need to devise and follow a thorough sustainability program, which is covered at the end of this article, as tip #5.

Sustainable skiing, tip #1: Power ski lifts on renewable energy

Ski lifts are energy-intensive assets. They usually run on electricity. Operating a ski lift is estimated to use the same amount of energy as powering 3.8 households annually. Yet, there’s another way to feed these fossil fuel-hungry hoists, and that is, by using energy from renewable sources.

Many ski resorts across the world have made the switch from fossil fuels. For instance, the Laax ski resort in Switzerland uses photovoltaic power, including solar panels fitted on 5 ski lifts, and pellet heating systems.

And of course, there’s the famous Lake Tahoe resort in California, which is set to be the first ski facility in the US to operate on 100% renewable energy by 2030. The resort already gets 40% of its energy from renewable sources (up from 25% in 2018), but the criticality of climate change has caused the resort to ramp up its efforts. Renewable energy will be used to power ski lifts, plus much more.

Sustainable skiing, tip #2: Switch to snow pump technology with a lower carbon footprint

Many ski resorts across the globe have entered a negative feedback loop. Less snow is pushing resorts to create artificial snow, a carbon-intensive activity contributing to warmer winters and, you guessed it, less snow. Snow-making machines rely on diesel fuel or electricity (releasing carbon dioxide as a by-product).

Once more, artificial snow is created by mixing large volumes of water under high pressure. This water is drained from surrounding lakes, rivers, or purpose-built artificial ponds. Pumps can pull 100 gallons of water per minute. For instance, the Wachusett Mountain Ski Area uses as much as 4,200 gallons of water per minute. Hence, we don’t just have an energy-intensive process here, but we also have a water-use problem.

In 2017, researchers from the Joanneum research agency in Styria, Austria, concluded that artificial snow was carbon-neutral due to its cooling effect (snow reflects 80-90% of the sun’s energy into the atmosphere, cooling the planet). However, further research has expressed doubts over these findings, expressing environmental and climate concerns associated with artificially-generated snow.

Yet, the latter study did state that the environmental impact of artificial snow is dependent on where the ski resort sources the water and energy used to make that snow. This means resorts can use more sustainable sources of water and energy to lower their environmental impact.

For one, powering snow machines using electricity from renewables will bring down the climatic impact of operations. For instance, the EU-funded SnowRESolution project is working to create a solar-powered snow cannon, to continuously produce snow using renewable energy sources.

Thinking about water use, new standards for snow machines are being set, to improve water-use efficiency. Modern machines are capable of using just 12 gallons of water a minute. In addition, some resorts are sourcing recycled/reclaimed water to create snow. For instance, Snowbowl in Arizona uses treated wastewater to create 100% of the resort’s artificial snow.

Switching to more efficient snow machines, powering these machines using renewables, and creating snow from reclaimed and recycled water will reduce a resort’s environmental footprint.

Sustainable skiing, tip #3: Reduce piste bashing and use snow groomers powered by renewable energy

Piste bashers (otherwise known as snow groomers) are environmentally damaging. For one, piste bashing is shown to damage the live vegetation surrounding groomed regions. Grooming also compacts soils and changes the soil’s chemical composition, causing long-term alterations to natural habitats. There’s no getting around this. Yet resort’s can reduce their impact by providing more itinerary (ungroomed) and off-piste runs. Resorts can also support cross-country and ski touring (for more experienced skiers), to expand service provision more sustainably.

In addition, piste bashing machines use an immense amount of energy, contributing significantly to a resort’s GHG emissions. For instance, diesel snow groomers account for 94% of CO2e emissions from French ski resorts (not accounting for the million-plus skiers traveling to these resorts). And so it comes as little surprise to learn that piste bashers use much more energy than ski lifts (4%) and snowmaking equipment (2%).

French ski resorts are leading the way in the feat to reduce the climatic impact of snow grooming. E.g. 250 ski resorts in France will introduce hydrogen-powered piste bashers as part of their commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2037. Hence, hydrogen seems to be the new kid for piste, to create more sustainable resorts.

Sustainable skiing, tip #4: Encourage and support sustainable travel for skiers

A report by the French Government Agency and Mountain Riders found that skier travel to the resort accounts for 57% of the resort’s total emissions. To reduce a resort’s carbon footprint, skiers must be encouraged and supported to avoid plane travel, and use other, less carbon-intensive forms of transportation – such as trains.

For instance, a skier traveling by train would have to have a ski holiday every winter for the next nine years to create the same carbon footprint as another skier flying just once.

We can see resorts across the globe targeting skier travel to reduce overall emissions. E.g. Zermatt Bergbahnen AG is a car-free village, using only electric-powered transport plus traditional horse and sleigh taxis. The village itself is reachable by train. Another popular resort, SaaS Fee, has been car-free since 1951, operating using electric vehicles meaning the resort is fast approaching a carbon-neutral status.

Sustainable skiing, tip #5: Create a sustainability program that encompasses every sustainability challenge within the resort

The sustainability of ski resorts doesn’t stop at the slopes. Ski resorts house restaurants, hotels, bars, leisure facilities, and other means of entertainment. For this reason, resorts need an all-encompassing sustainability approach that addresses every operation.

To explain, let’s consider the number of plastic straws, cups, bottles, ketchup sachets, and even ski passes that are thrown into landfills every year. Single-use plastic is a monumental environmental concern. Plastic is a material that takes between 20 to 1000 years to decompose, and so poisons ecosystems by seeping into food chains and accumulating within organisms. Plus, plastic is a fossil-fuel-hungry material. It’s estimated that by 2050, plastic production and incineration will emit 2.5 gigatons of CO2e per year.

One resort fighting our war on plastic is the Italian Pejo 3000. This resort has banned single-use plastic, which comes as part of the organization’s overall sustainability program.

Other resorts are also taking an all-encompassing approach to create greener operations. For instance:

  • Megeve resort offers local produce in their cafes and restaurants.
  • The Tahoe resort has installed 20 new water refill stations and sells reusable bottles designed to fit into a ski jacket pocket.
  • Avoriaz resort has built an eco-park using wood from naturally fallen trees.
  • Zermatt Bergbahnen resort is involved in renaturation projects to recuperate damaged ecosystems and protect local flora and fauna.
  • Serre Chev resort is stated to be working towards the dematerialization of their ski passes, cutting down on a whole lot of plastic.
  • Aspen pushes for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings, with certification of their Mountaintop Sundeck Restaurant.
  • Whistler Blackcomb, the winner of Canada’s Greenest Employer Award, has created a diverse green team named the Mountain Planning and Environmental Resource team, who work to keep the resort’s environmental impact minimal.

As you can tell, sustainability at ski resorts doesn’t stop at the slopes. To adopt an all-encompassing sustainability approach, resorts need a program that implements initiatives covering every business operation.

A sustainability program takes an integrated approach, to connect every business operation to an organization’s overall sustainability agenda. It’s an actionable roadmap that details the measures and activities (such as the ones detailed above) that support sustainability. A sustainability program focuses on letting employees drive the cause (using a green team like Whistler Blackcomb resort), and uses a sustainability scorecard to track progress.

For more information on how to complete tip #5 and create an effective sustainability program, read How To Become A Sustainable Business: Step 1 of the 10-Step Executive Sustainability Guide.

Use the Green Business Bureau’s sustainability scorecard to track sustainable progress

The Green Business Bureau wants to help ski resorts globally create more sustainable operations. Whether that’s by reducing the carbon footprint of activities, or by protecting natural ecosystems. The GBB uses a scorecard approach to sustainability to give structure to a sustainability program.

GBB’s EcoAsssessment and EcoPlanner detail a plethora of green initiatives that target all operations of a business. Ski resorts can use these tools to implement green targets for every business operation and transparently track progress as they do.

Once more, completed initiatives are added to an organization’s EcoProfile, which can be used to communicate green achievements to stakeholders (e.g. skiers, investors, and employees). Organizations are also granted a green seal of approval to showcase these achievements and commitment to sustainability. You can sign up for the Green Business Bureau here to set your sustainability targets and track progress towards your goals.

At the GBB, we want to keep our winters white just as much as you do. So let’s set an example and address unsustainability in the ski industry. Let’s create a sport that works with nature and protects our natural world. Let’s make sustainability in the ski industry happen.

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