Greening the ski industry

Is public demand forcing mountain resorts to clean up their act?

At 2730 metres high the summit of Sunshine Village has some of the most photo-snapping scenery of any vista in the world. On a bluebird day one glance across the grandeur of the continental divide and formidable ramparts of the Canadian Rockies and you’ll understand why this place is a must-hit on the checklist of any diehard skier or snowboarder. There’s an intrinsic and deep-rooted connection with nature at work here. When you’re riding through blower powder it seems hard to believe that the byproduct would be anything but green. After all it’s just the residual tracks you’re leaving behind — the symbolic and triumphant trademark of any skier or snowboarder worth their salt. Isn’t it?

Well that’s the million-dollar question. Between the complexity of environmental science and the slanted agenda of marketing speak it gets tricky. After all to be green is not only the latest vogue of the ski industry it’s downright good for business. At the end of the day resorts are still in the business of making money so if being green helps lift the bottom line — and let’s us all feel warm and fuzzy and guilt-free — it’s a win-win situation. But there’s more than meets the eye here. We’ve all seen — and seen through — the little card in hotel bathrooms that ask us to reuse towels in an effort to curb global warming. There is of course an ulterior motive here and there’s a term for this clever repackaging of disingenuous smoke-and-mirrors practise: greenwashing.


Aspen Skiing Co.’s Auden Schendler says greenwashing has proliferated within the ski industry. He is very candid about the challenges ski resorts face to become green and has long exposed them for hyping ecological purity in the form of business-as-usual programs like recycling or upgraded snow-making. Schendler is widely credited with rocking the boat of the entire industry by making his own company accountable for its environmental impacts and challenging other resorts to follow suit — sometimes begrudgingly — and set a new standard of green accountability or face looking incompetent. Since then public relations experts have been hired to clean up their collective mess and heralding all things green has become a major part of most resorts’ marketing plans.

Schendler’s outspokenness has landed him in trouble more than once. Not only has he stepped on competitors’ toes but his public scrutiny of his own company’s environmental progress — dismissing its efforts as little more than greenwashing — has left co-workers within the Aspen ranks shaking their heads. As executive director of sustainability at the glitzy and overtly consumptive resort Schendler acknowledges the inherent hypocrisy of waving the green flag as private jets taxi in and out of town. “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 30000 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air annually I’d tell my audience. Furthermore it was the first renewably powered lift in the country” Schendler explains. “My listeners would often applaud the accomplishments I was describing. But then I’d tell them they had been greenwashed.”

Schendler explains that the lift only constituted .00454 per cent of Aspen’s total electricity drain. Yet it was a first step in a renewable power plan that eventually increased wind power purchases with each successive season. “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” he says.

“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 re-vegetating 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.”

Taking the opportunity to educate resort evangelists about sustainability and then deploying them to pitch in on the fight against global warming Schendler says helps the resort in the long run if it genuinely wants to become green. “As soon as a company starts hyping its environmental responsibility 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.”


Predictions vary but it’s clear to all but climate change skeptics that if current trends persist most of the world’s ski resorts may not survive the next 100 years. The impacts are already visible in Europe where dwindling glaciers and diminished snowfall have led some areas to wrap snowfields in insulation in a desperate attempt to protect them. Put simply what other industry short of the glacier tour business is more viscerally affected by global warming than ski resorts? It seems obvious then that to prolong its lifespan let alone the sport and culture a resort should both care deeply about climate change and also be in the vanguard of solving it.

And many are says Bonnie Simpson a PhD student at the U of C’s Haskayne School of Business. Her research interest lies in the marketing/sustainability interface and she says resorts aren’t leveraging the green marketing angle to the extent that they could be. “I think a large part of why resorts shy away from using such initiatives to their advantage is because they are concerned about negative media from being called out on things that they aren’t doing or for being misleading about what they are doing” Simpson says.

She adds that many resorts refrain from participating in environmental rankings — such as that of the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition which provides a so-called “independent scorecard” on a resort’s environmental performance — because of the bias in the rankings towards development which is an integral ingredient to a resort’s ultimate success.

Simpson points to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort near Golden as an example of a resort that manages several ongoing environmental projects — so many that it’s hired an environmental co-ordinator to facilitate them — but hasn’t turned its initiatives into a dog-and-pony show to attract attention. “Their website reveals just one page that would make you think they’re committed to doing anything about their impact” she says.

“Many resorts are doing a lot more than we hear about mostly in little projects like switching fuels in their equipment and implementing erosion control” she continues. “For the most part it would seem that ski resorts are interested and relatively committed to small actions they can implement but like in most industries feel financially constrained by the capital requirements to take on any large initiatives.”

Sunshine Village is another resort with a portfolio of green projects underway and with a decorated history of 80-plus years on the line it makes sense that it holds the environment in high regard.

“The environment is at the heart of everything we do” says Doug Firby associate director of communications at Sunshine. “Operating within the confines of a national park is a tremendous privilege and with that comes tremendous responsibility. We are held to a very high standard and Parks Canada would certainly not be interested in continuing a relationship with us if we did not meet that standard.”

At the top of the list perhaps Sunshine’s biggest green action is well no action at all. Rather than blowing artificial snow Sunshine relies almost entirely on the old-fashioned natural stuff a rare and antiquated notion in today’s race to open up and get people on chairs as early as possible. This means burning more power with the ever-increasing energy needed to create artificial snow during warmer sparser winters.

Other environmental initiatives include fuel-efficient groomers upgrading to a four-stroke snowmobile fleet and a new LEED-compliant wing at the Sunshine Mountain Lodge that Firby says was “built to state-of-the-art efficiency which includes recycling materials wherever possible a 44 per cent reduction in water use 20 per cent reduction in energy consumption and site remediation and planting of natural vegetation.” And these are just a few initiatives at the top of a lengthy list.

Like Sunshine Village’s environmental efforts major green accomplishments are becoming touchstones of the resort’s business strategy. This winter marks the launch of a renewable energy project that will offset the total annual energy consumption at Whistler Blackcomb. The Fitzsimmons Creek Renewable Energy Project will produce 33 gigawatt hours per year — the equivalent amount of energy required to power the resort’s winter and summer operations including 38 lifts 17 restaurants 270 snowguns and countless other buildings and services. The Fitzsimmons Creek area is an ideal location for a successful Run-of-River project. The creek has an abundance of water the necessary vertical drop it is not a major fish-bearing stream and the creek water is not used recreationally within the project area. Sun Peaks near Kamloops B.C. is the first Canadian resort to be ISO 14001 certified a stringent international environmental management standard. Then there’s Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts a 170-acre ski resort that installed a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine to power a third of the resort.

Yet the problem is simply too big for carbon offsets and efficient light bulbs says Schendler. “Making a real difference means finding and using the biggest lever we have” he says. For the ski industry that means using ski resorts’ mainstream profile to drive policy change at the highest levels lobbying governments to take action. For example when Aspen Skiing Company filed a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant it got attention and helped the cause.


Politics are at the centre of a similar battle being fought closer to home in the East Kootenay region of B.C. where the $450-million Jumbo Glacier Resort is poised for development. On the drawing board for two decades the proposed project is embattled in a maze of conflicts between groups with contradictory interests. Developer Glacier Resorts Ltd. cleared a major hurdle in 2007 when its master plan was approved by the Liberal government but in the saga’s latest chapter the Regional District of East Kootenay decided it doesn’t want the final word on the proposal. Instead it wants the B.C. government to take over and to turn Jumbo into a mountain resort municipality.

Situated on a cleared former sawmill site the resort would provide lift-serviced access to several nearby glaciers at an elevation of up to 3400 metres. The resort is planned in three phases and would ultimately include 5500 bed-units (plus 750 beds for staff) in a 104-hectare resort base area. At build-out Jumbo would see 2000 to 3000 visitors in high season and next to Whistler Blackcomb would be the only other resort in Canada to offer summer skiing.

A number of local organizations including Kicking Horse Coffee which has its headquarters in the region and Wildsight an organization that works to maintain biodiversity and sustainable communities have launched campaigns fighting to keep the area in its pristine and wild state. In its infancy stage does Jumbo have a chance of showcasing the cornerstones of a truly green resort? Dave Quinn a program manager for Wildsight says all signs are pointing to no.

“There is no way to justify in today’s world a proposal of this type” he says. “This may well have been a great idea in 1988 when the proposal first came to light but in 2009 given what we know about the value of wilderness and small footprints — i.e. not sprawling 55 km up a wild valley — the proposal makes no sense” Quinn says.

“Modern science related to climate change indicates that focusing on higher density development and leaving intact wild areas as buffers for the impacts of changing climates is the way to go. Jumbo proposes the opposite — developing remote wild areas.”

Unlike resort developments at Revelstoke Mountain Resort and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort Quinn says this proposal is not located anywhere near a community that would benefit from the jobs or increased tourist traffic. He says there is no existing infrastructure or access beyond an old rudimentary forestry road. “So as opposed to utilizing existing infrastructure to bring economic benefits to an existing community Jumbo proposes to open up an entire new resort area 55 km from Invermere along the remote height of land of a currently wild mountain range” he says. “The geographical location of the proposal on the height of land of the Purcells — one of only two remaining North American mountain ranges that still support connected trans-boundary grizzly populations — maximizes potential impacts on wildlife connectivity and water quality.”

The resort’s location was chosen for its optimal snow conditions high elevations large glaciers and the fact that the Jumbo Creek valley has seen significant prior use and it provides the easiest access to 3000-metre high glaciers in North America. That’s precisely the problem Quinn says. “I can send you photos of the pallets of salt and the heavy machinery that the Calgary Olympic Development Association needs to use at Camp Green [on Farnham Glacier part of the developer’s tenure] to keep one single ski run open — backhoes to close crevasses salt to harden up September snows.”

Expanding this to a 10000-acre resort Quinn advises would require massive volumes of salt and diesel to maintain runs on disappearing glaciers. “[It] really is not sustainable given what we now know about the rate of glacier retreat the impacts of carbon-based recreation on the climate and the impacts of building and maintaining a road and resort in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing green about this.”

On the other hand at full build-out the resort would provide approximately 3750 person-years of construction employment and create 750 to 800 full-time jobs. Quinn argues that B.C.’s resort industry is already crowded — with about 15 resorts within a four-hour drive — and another operation in the mix would draw skiers away and add problems to a business struggling to attract new customers.

So goes the ongoing debate surrounding greening ski resorts development and environmental considerations. It’s difficult to get an honest assessment of the challenges. Non-profit organizations are tied to environmentalism and because their job is to sell green — enticing people to contribute money and follow their recommendations — it can be argued that their side is just as veiled as those from the developers. At the end of the day people aren’t going to give up skiing and snowboarding. Keeping up on resorts’ sustainability efforts and having a critical eye to find one that has a legitimate plan in place can mean skiing green is not impossible.