Sara Rickards and Blake Lindley have been at the forefront of the sustainability changes happening at Vail-owned ski resorts in NSW. They’ve given us a sneak-peek into Commitment to Zero and the changes that are already happening and why they’re so crucial.
The mountains are a special place for us both – Blake’s a backcountry guide and I’ve done my share of seasons at Vail’s resorts. As ski-bums moonlighting as sustainability professionals, you can imagine our stoke when we saw Vail Resort’s Strategy: Commitment to Zero.
When we were asked to help them with the delivery of this strategy we were equal parts frothed and slightly worried about the magnitude of the task ahead of us. It’s a bold statement of intent and an Epic Promise indeed – committing to zero net emissions, zero waste to landfill, and zero net operating impact to biodiversity by 2030.
More importantly, if you read between the lines, you can hear Vail reframe themselves and their guests from being ‘users’ of the mountains to ‘custodians’ of the mountains.
‘The environment is our business, and we have a special obligation to protect it. As a growing global company so deeply connected to the outdoors, we are making a commitment to address our most pressing global environmental challenge and protect our local communities and natural resources.’
– Rob Katz, Chief Executive Officer, Vail Resorts
What Did We Just Get Ourselves Into?
In March we rocked up to Perisher (which is now owned by Vail – who have also acquired Hotham and Falls) to get a pre-season rundown of the place before the winter madness, and to develop a better understanding of the problem. So let’s start by saying zero waste by 2030 will be no small feat – especially without full control of what comes onto the mountains via customers, complex supply chains, leasing agreements and up to 15,000 visitors on a weekend.
Oh, and let’s not forget we’re dealing with moving resources around and off mountains in a national park.
How Do We Approach These Things?
If we’ve learnt one thing the hard way while working in sustainability, it’s that the worst thing you can do is jump straight to solutions and not undertake a process of collaborative design with the customers and clients you’re working with. Not only do you come across as a tool, but whatever you design is at risk of not having resilience or momentum once you’re gone.
We’ve also discovered that designing with the potential and purpose of place is just as important. Because one-size-fits-all solutions are generally a cop-out and usually incapable of solving complex problems.
And speaking of place, while this ski resort is now known as ‘Perisher’, to the traditional custodians the Monaro Ngarigo people, this was a meeting place for trading of resources and ceremony – which is pretty fitting when you think about waste really being a resource that doesn’t have a use yet.
We began to wonder how we could co-design solutions so that eventually our collective impact might one day leave nothing but fresh tracks like this:
As mountain lovers in awe of the estimated 50-70,000 years that traditional custodians have had a connection to this country, we’re passionate about connection to place, how you show up at that place and how you design with what the place is asking of you.
This is a pretty curious thing right now, with so many of us disconnected from nature, with the majority of us spending more time on screens than outdoors – it’s no wonder we have mostly forgotten that we are nature.
We’re pretty convinced this is one of the root causes of a lot of problems we currently face. And funnily enough, the answer is in the problem itself.
Learning From Adventure
Once you have a vision, tackling these things is not dissimilar to skiing in the backcountry – when you’re at the bottom of the hill, all you can really do is take the next step.
Lining up the site visit for a Monday in early August, we made sure to spend the weekend prior in the backcountry, camping in a snow cave and skiing under the pale winter sun. The perfect way to reconnect with this special part of the world and remember why we’d thrown ourselves in the deep end in the first place.
What We Found When We Arrived Was Inspirational!
Given the room to design, to iterate and ideate, the Perisher team had created a blueprint for how the rest of the resort might manage the transition to zero waste. At the Blue Cow terminal, a motivated team had transitioned the previously single-use based eatery to an almost fully reusable, washable system.
What’s epic is that some of the staff have been working at Perisher for decades and said this was ‘how we did it in the old days’. They loved it because it decreased the amount of waste they had to move off the mountain.
Additionally they also managed to divert ~10 tonnes of organics to a compost facility on the mountain, which will be used to grow native grasses, and can then be used for mountain regeneration projects during summer.
What Does This Mean For Business Locally And Globally?
It’s kind of goosebumps stuff to see what a collection of legends can pull off when there’s a clear vision. And right now businesses around the globe are in the middle of a perfect storm, as customers ask them to step up, as the IPCC rings the alarm bells of Climate Catastrophe, with a growing chorus of youth and millions taking to the streets – including over 3000 organisations stepping up to protect our shared home.
As organisations, Vail and Perisher’s Commitment to Zero is the kind of leadership we need to reshape our future. Without this work, our ski resorts won’t exist.
What Can You Do As An Individual?
Choose to adventure in places where the companies give a shit about the environment they work in. Think about what you bring to these places, and how you can also do your bit to give back to these places that give us so much. Use your voice if you want to see something done a little more consciously – our voices together can make a huge difference.
If we start to work collectively we can create a culture of custodianship for all landscapes where we live, work and play.
Feature photo by Tristan Smith | @theunusuallifeof
Just snow with it