Skico puts some punch behind eco-friendly claims | AspenTimes.com

Skico puts some punch behind eco-friendly claims

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

Aspen Skiing Co. officials realized last year that they could toot their horn all they wanted about their environmental programs but still have limited credibility in the eyes of the public.So they took a chance last October and let an independent, third-party auditor assess what they were doing. The gamble paid off.The Skico’s environmental management program earned certification last October from the International Organization for Standardization. The Skico learned earlier this month that it will retain that certification, formally known as ISO 14001, after going through its annual audit.The Skico is the only resort in the U.S. and one of only two in North America that have earned that ISO certification.”It’s anti-greenwash,” said Auden Schendler, Skico’s director of environmental affairs. “It’s meaningless for a company to say, ‘We’re environmentally friendly.’ This means something.”

It might mean additional pressure on major ski companies, such as Vail Resorts, to follow suit. Many ski areas in the country participate voluntarily in the Sustainable Slopes Program, which the National Ski Areas Association, a Lakewood-based industry trade association, created in 2000.Industry officials tout the program as a good incentive for ski areas to get involved in environmentally friendly programs. When it is voluntary, risk is lower and participation is higher. Participants know a government entity won’t penalize them, for example, for failing to meet a goal.But critics contend Sustainable Slopes is just a way for the ski industry to dupe customers into thinking it’s environmentally friendly without taking meaningful action.In a study last year, two professors concluded that the Sustainable Slopes Program appeared to be a marketing ploy. The study authors, professors Jorge Rivera of George Washington University and Peter de Leon of the University of Colorado at Denver, labeled the program a “symbolic self-regulatory scheme that does not appear to effectively improve industry-wide environmental protection.”De Leon and Rivera said the industry needed third-party audits – like the Skico undertakes – to be credible.

For the Skico audit, Mark Gage, of a Vancouver, British Columbia, firm called KPMG Performance Registrar, spent three days grilling company executives, examining maintenance shops that service snowcats and snowmobiles, and touring ski area facilities to assess the effectiveness of the environmental management program.Gage quizzed Aspen Mountain Manager Steve Sewell about springtime practices to ease erosion and prevent streams of snowmelt from pouring into Aspen’s streets. Later, on the mountain, Gage questioned maintenance shop workers about practices like the handling of used motor oil.Gage said one of his interests is assessing how formalized environmental polices are and if a company, like the Skico, has established clear lines of accountability.Gage was less concerned about high-profile, PR-savvy programs like extensive recycling at the Sundeck restaurant and more concerned with environmental risks, like handling of materials after vehicle maintenance, summer wildfire hazards and ability to respond to fires, and water use.The Skico had only “minor nonconformances” with the ISO standards this year, according to Gage. His firm, KPMG, is an accredited auditor with the ISO and capable of granting the certification of the Skico’s environmental program.

Sun Peaks, a Canadian resort, is the only other ski area with ISO 14001 certification. Gage believes that will change. In other industries, when one leader seeks the environmental certification, others soon follow suit. Gage expects that will occur in the ski industry as well. Other resorts have already approached his company about audits.To some degree that interest is from “the goodness of their hearts,” Gage said, but competition is also a motivator. Other major resorts are well aware the Aspen Skiing Co. has its ISO 14001 certification, Gage said.Schendler welcomes the exposure. “I think, hopefully, it’s going to create a new standard for the ski industry to live up to,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com