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Eco-friendly & Sustainable Skiing in Verbier

Discover how to minimise your trip's environnemental impact



Whether you’re just in the mountains for a holiday or here all season and if you love the environment you live in, it’s often just simple little changes to your daily routine that can make a difference to your impact on the environment. 

We’re not suggesting you sell your car, ditch the deodorant and move into a snow hole, but we've compiled a list of a couple of little ways to help the environment and maybe even your bank balance.

Direct & indirect impact of skiing on the environment

Mountain Riders is a non-profit organisation who work to inform and raise awareness on environmental issues and to promote sustainable development in the mountains. They produce annual reports on the eco-friendliness on Verbier, devised from evaluation criteria based on transport, energy, buildings, water, waste, land and social awareness, which is used to establish how green the resort is.

Snow cannons & the environment

European resorts have experienced a decrease in precipitation (rainfall) over the past five years, which has led to some resorts having to stringently control their water supply in order to conserve supplies. After the unseasonably warm temperatures and lack of early season snow during some recent winters, global warming has been at the forefront of winter sports enthusiasts’ minds. To counter this very real climate change, (a 4°C temperature rise is anticipated by the end of the century) ski resorts are turning to artificial snow manufacture. 

Snow cannons are becoming increasingly commonplace in France, today 15% of French ski areas are covered by the machines and they are no longer confined to low lying areas. Tignes has equipped the bottom of the runs on the Grande Motte glacier with snow making equipment at 3000 metres and Val d’Isère have done the same on the Glacier du Pisaillas to preserve summer skiing. Millions of euros are invested in artificial snow manufacture every year, but the investment comes at a high cost to the environment.

It seems illogical to combat global warning, widely agreed to be created by the burning of fossil fuels with yet more energy outlay. In some resorts, such as Alpe d'Huez, snow making now consumes more power over an average season than the entire lift system. Furthermore, the machines constitute a visual blot on the landscape and contribute hugely to noise pollution. A single snow cannon emits between 60 to 80 decibels, the equivalent of heavy traffic, which disturbs mountain wildlife.

Snow cannons spray water at great pressure into sufficiently cold air which then falls as snow on the ground and any long-term environmental impact of this at present is uncertain. We do know that artificial snow is much denser than natural snow and it takes a metre cubed of water to make two metres cubed of snow. This artificially created snow has an effect on the vegetation and melts much later than natural snow.

We do however understand that the manufacture of artificial snow is costly in terms of energy and quantities of water required. It is estimated that snow making in France uses as much water as a town with 170,000 inhabitants. Everyone knows that water freezes at 0°C but the rainwater found in reservoirs for snow making has to be cooled to around -7 to -9ºC before it will freeze and make snow. If it is necessary to make snow at warmer temperatures, agents such as Snomax™ are added. Snomax™is a protein which provides a nucleate for ice crystals enabling freezing at temperatures around -3ºC. York International says that Snomax™ is completely safe but extensive studies have not been carried out to determine the overall effects of such additives on the environment. Despite the construction of reservoirs, snow making uses vast quantities of water with consequences on a region’s water courses and aquatic wildlife.

More worrying is the natural erosion caused by the increase in melt water which runs back down the mountain in the spring. There is also a suggestion that chemical additives used in production affect the natural vegetation. As melt water comes off the slopes, chemicals used in the production of snow potentially find their way into rivers that supply drinking water for the resort.

Ski Press World reported in 2005 that low lying resorts such as Les Gets (1,172m) were spending up to €300,000 searching for additional water supplies in an effort to meet an increase in resort demands as resort expansion continues. In response to their use of snow cannons, Les Gets stressed: 'the manufacture of artificial snow did not have any impact on the water supplies', further commenting that their '...snow cannons principally use water supplies which are unsuitable for drinking water.' Whether the same can be said for all other resorts is a different matter! In Val d’Isere a 36,000 square metre reservoir has been built on the Iseran sector to supply water for the snow cannons that will boost the summer skiing available on the Pissaillas Glacier. The STVI Lift company in Val d’Isere are committed to employing summer skiing possibilities with a minimum of consequences for the surrounding environment and its ecology.

Finally, artificial snow is currently seen as the saviour of some European ski resorts; however, given that the vast majority of canons require low temperatures to operate, reliance on them in the warmer winters of the future seems misguided. Since the long-term answer to the snow question has yet to be found, the debate between environmentalists and the ski industry looks set to continue well into the future.

Environmental rating for Verbier

The huge expansion of ski resorts since the 1970's has, according to environmentalists, had numerous effects on mountain water levels of lakes and streams; damaged mountain wildlife through the destruction of habitat, noise and pollution in addition to affecting annual climate conditions. 

The increasing popularity of skiing and simultaneous development of the ski industry has created a demand for larger accommodation blocks to be built in the popular resorts but with limited space for new apartments and chalets on the valley floor, this forces more erosion of the surrounding hillsides in order to fulfill accommodation demands.

In order to keep up with the tourist demand for the sport, ski resorts today are under pressure to build more lifts with a faster and higher skier capacity. This improvement in resort facilities ultimately creates a 'catch 22' situation as the number of individuals visiting the resort increases, which in turn creates pressure to improve transport links to these resorts and so the cycle continues...

The indirect cost of the increase in human wealth and enjoyment is to the detriment of the mountain and its associated environmental conditions. Mountains are highly sensitive to extreme changes that we humans are currently enforcing upon them. The repeated damage and environmental changes that are being inflicted upon the mountains by mankind is difficult to repair. It won't take a year or two to put things back to 'normal'.

Environmental damage caused by tourism is being seen in erratic climate patterns across the Alps, with predictions including more rain and melting glaciers that will bring erosion and floods on an unprecedented scale. Already, such implications of these changes for the alpine environment can be seen by the following changes in recent years:

  • poor snow records
  • receding glaciers
  • unusual weather patterns recently wrote that in general, average seasonal temperatures across France have risen by 1ºC during the winter months at 1800 metres in the French Alps. Additionally, Pistehors commented that high temperatures experienced during the summer of 2002 caused some of the European glaciers to recede by up to 10% causing concern among some climate specialists that within 50 years Swiss glaciers could potentially melt away!

As pressure mounts on the ski companies to build higher into the mountains to reach snow reliable areas, sensitive high mountainous environments then become ultimately affected. The increases in global temperatures will have a serious implication for the many ski resorts located at lower altitudes. It’s not just as simple as going higher to get more snow.

Local business & tour operator green initiatives

There are a few ways in which you can help protect the environment whilst on holiday that are effective and easy to implement. 

Public Transport
Once in resort, make use of the local public transport system, which is generally free with your lift pass or guest card, or tailor your choice of accommodation so you don’t have to! However, if you’re not in a location where you can ski to your door or take the bus, try to car share whenever you can. Shared transfers or buses are kinder to the environment and are often cheaper then taking your own car. If you fancy getting out of resort, the local train network can get you surprisingly far for amazingly little! Check out the SNCF (French trains) or SBB (Swiss trains) websites for destinations, timetables and ticket prices.

Most resorts are now fully equipped with handy recycling points. If you're not getting rid of your own rubbish make it easier for whoever is by separating your rubbish into recyclables and non-recyclables. It’ll only take you a few minutes and at least you’ll know that you’ve done your bit for the day.

A cigarette stub may seem harmless enough but Val Thorens recently reported finding up to 30,000 under just one lift! These levels can contaminate water and damage the local wildlife, so think before lighting up. In many resorts you can now buy pocket containers for collecting used butts or be inventive and recycle something, an old Vaseline tin will do the trick.

Tips whilst in resort

Eco-Friendly Snowboard Wax
When you're gliding down the mountain appreciating your newly serviced snowboard or skis, the last thing you want to think about is the damage your wax could be doing to the environment. However, many waxes are fluorine based and once they enter the water system can be damaging to plants and animals. There are a limited number of manufactures now offering eco-friendly waxes.

Eco-Friendly Snowboards
There are several companies out there now offering boards with a conscience! Arbor Snowboards are one such example and Snow & Rock are now carrying a few of their lines. Venture Snowboards is another who have three models in their range, all hand made out of sustainable harvest wood cores, recycled fabric, hemp top sheets and low impact resins and glues. Venture aims to have a 100% recycle policy in its factory and generate all of its own power from windmills.

Eco-Friendly Skis
There is a growing number of independent ski manufacturers creating products out of environmentally sustainable, recycled or reclaimed wood. Some of our favourites include Idris Skis and Rabbit on the Roof - all made in France. Of the bigger brand names Salomon have made a name for themselves in recent years for adopting an eco-responsible attitude to their production methods including reducing their CO² emissions, replacing toxic substances such as fibre glass with bamboo and implementing a recycling scheme for old skis and snowboards.

Solar Powered Backpack
This new contraption means you’ll never have to plug in your iPod again. Charge as you ride with the Burton Solar Amp Backpack. Renewable energy only accounts for around 8% of the power generated in Europe, and therefore anything that runs on electricity takes 90% of its energy from fossil fuels.

Eco-friendly winter sports brands

It is not only resorts doing their bit, there are hundreds of businesses that are investing time and money into improving their green credentials and cashing in on the extra customers this attracts. Before you plan your next trip bear this in mind. There are plenty of hotels, transfer companies, airlines, clothes shops and restaurants doing their bit to help you do yours. 

Look out for tour operators with an AITO recognised environmental policy. These companies adhere to strict guidelines to reduce their impact on the environment on which they rely. These guidelines are:

  • To protect the environment – its flora, fauna and landscapes
  • To respect local cultures – traditions, religions and built heritage
  • To benefit local communities – both economically and socially
  • To conserve natural resources – from office to destination
  • To minimise pollution – through noise, waste disposal and congestion

Climate Care
More and more companies are starting to do their bit to offset their carbon footprint. The online company Climate Care enables companies to pay to offset their carbon emissions, the money from which is used to finance ongoing projects in the developing world. Projects range from replacing fuel-hungry inefficient technologies with low carbon efficient versions to planting trees. Sharing a transfer rather then hiring your own car will also help to lower your carbon footprint. Look out for the climate care logo. 

Environmentally-friendly ski gear

Choose the right company
Many transfer companies and tour operators offset their carbon emissions and adhere to an AITO recognised environmental policy. If you have a choice, take this into consideration when booking your trip or choosing an employer; or, if you think they might listen, try suggesting some environmental improvements to the boss!

Getting there
Getting yourself to resort is always going to be the major contributor to climate change and flying produces at least three times more CO² per passenger than any other method. Driving or taking the train are both viable alternatives for getting to the Alps that will help reduce your carbon emissions considerably. For trips further afield, can help you plan a trip without using a plane, for holidays to Europe, the US and even New Zealand.

Offset your carbon
If you choose to travel by air don’t forget to offset your carbon. Some airlines such as Easy Jet provide you with the option of doing this whilst booking. Sharing a transfer from the airport or a bus is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and cut costs. Do a little web research beforehand and find a transfer company that already offsets their carbon footprint.

Environmental initiatives in resort

Is the resort or business ISO 14001 registered? 
Businesses and organisations can apply to become ISO 14001 registered to prove they are adhering to the strict requirements. The ISO 14000 documents are a set of guidelines designed help organisations minimise the negatives effects their activities have on the surrounding environment.

Does the resort recycle?
Recycling is already easy and common place in most resorts and especially now as an increasing number of holidays companies will offer to do it for you! Some resorts go further than others when it comes to recycling, Meribel, for example has made it mandatory. Ski Set are now using an Albertville based business called Tri-Vallées who specialise in recycling used snow boards and skis. The company collects the old stock and then breaks it down into metal (which can be recycled) and combustible matter which is used in a local cement making factory.

Does the resort use green power?
Lots of resorts have now seen the light regarding green power and are raking in the financial and environmental benefits. Solar panels, hydro-electric plants, wind turbines and biodiesel run machinery are just a few ways in which these resorts are doing that.

Does the resort have a traffic reduction policy?
This is a serious concern across the Alps and one that is already being addressed in many resorts. Several resorts including Meribel and La Plagne provide free shuttle services between different ski areas and others such as Morzine have created no traffic zones encouraging people to park and ride. Zermatt has banned cars altogether and instead provides an efficient train service up to resort and electric taxis to transport you around the town.
How does the resort manage waste?
Large amounts of holiday makers and visitors obviously bring with them the issue of waste and sewage disposal. The most environmentally forward thinking ski areas are using techniques such as composting to reduce waste from mountain restaurants. In some areas purified wastewater is also being used for snowmaking.

Is the resort addressing the issue of Climate change?
Thankfully most resorts have realised that things have to change in order to create a sustainable future for the sport and to tackle the worldwide issue of global warming. Despite this, there is still considerable variation amongst resorts. Tourist information sites should be able to enlighten you on the exact actions such as traffic reducing policies that are being put into place.

Does the resort have a green building policy?
Again, this is an area where some resorts are well ahead of the game and others still have work to do. Several purpose built resorts such as Meribel and Avoriaz have been implementing strict architectural rules since the day they were built. The building codes specify materials and measurements for buildings that are both in keeping with the local environment and scenery. Other rules include things like mandatory construction of underground parking for every new building as well as roof and wall insulation, for energy saving.