Outdoor recreation companies have a unique responsibility to the environment, as their work depends on the health of the planet and predictable weather. However, some companies in the industry do more harm than good when it comes to sustainability — damaging the lands on which they operate instead of protecting them. For winter recreation businesses, such as ski resorts, investing in and effectively combating climate action is critical to the continued operation of the business. And, because the clientele is largely white and affluent, the conversation around race and inclusion is far-reaching and long-term in scope.
Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, is working to make the outdoor recreation industry more sustainable and more inclusive. The ski resort engages in several sustainability initiatives and is committed to diversifying its workforce. Taos is the first and only ski resort to become a Certified B Corporation, which means it practices and operations have met the rigorous social and environmental standards established by the non-profit B Lab. The resort has also earned LEED certification on its newly built hotel The Blake, developed a detailed sustainability program known as Taos Verde, adopted anti-racism hiring practices and promoted economic equity throughout its business—all as part of living up to its motto, “Ski the Change.”
Recently, I spoke with David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski Valley, as part of my research of purpose-driven businesses, to learn about the many initiatives the company is operating and to discuss how the outdoor recreation industry can move in an environmentally and socially positive direction.
Christopher Marquis: As a ski resort, your business is heavily reliant on the environment. Can you tell me what Taos Ski Valley is doing to support sustainability?
David Norden: Sustainability is critical to our business, and everything we do is evaluated in the context of how it affects our environment. Our Taos Verde program, which we launched several years ago, encompasses all of our sustainability initiatives. One of the major stand-out initiatives is our new Net Zero 2030 energy planning effort. We’re very fortunate in Taos, New Mexico, that we’re high up and we’re sunny, so it’s the perfect environment for solar. Our local provider, Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, plans to provide 100% daytime solar by 2022 for the entire community, which will include us.
Led by The Nature Conservancy, Taos Ski Valley is also an active member and signatory of the Rio Grande Water Fund which focuses on forest ecology and water health. We participate in healthy forest actions to support this.
Also, we’re doing everything we possibly can to get people out of their cars and into public transport at our resort. We introduced shuttle system to move people with mass transit as best we can. I drive an electric car, and we’ve installed electric chargers at the resort.
Finally, two years ago Taos Air launched to improve accessibility to Northern New Mexico. When we started creating the business case, it was impossible for us to ignore the carbon impact of an airline. We said, “We’re trying to create a movement here, so it may seem odd to launch an airline.” Then we said, “If we’re going do it, we better do it the right way.”
We partnered with another B Corp, Native Energy out of Burlington, Vermont, to identify carbon offsets and now we invest in grasslands in Colorado which precisely offset the impact of the airline. We have a net zero airline, and I believe it’s the first airline in the world that’s net zero.
Ski resorts can be complicated businesses because we’ve got several business types within the big one: guest services, restaurants, a hotel. So we have to look at all sorts of different ways to maintain sustainable practices: reducing plastic use in our hotel, reducing food waste in our restaurants, reducing energy consumption in our snowmaking operations. They all add up.
On our website we have a list of 101 initiatives we’re undertaking that highlight our environmental and social commitments. And these efforts are working. Each year, there is an industry award, the Golden Eagle Award for Environmental Excellence – we’ve won it twice in the last three years.
Marquis: To operate a truly purposeful company, you have to focus on both environmental and social factors. What social initiatives is Taos Ski Valley undertaking?
Norden: We know skiing is mostly white, affluent customers. Four or five years ago we started to ask, “What do you do to create more diversity and inclusion?” And I think the answer is, you have to stop talking and start taking steps. We eliminated the minimum wage and created a living wage. We’re using the MIT living wage standard for our entry-level workers. We actively studied wage equity, and made adjustments so they everyone doing the same job at our resort gets the same pay, regardless of race or gender.
Diversity comes in different forms too. This past summer we worked with New Mexico Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, working with young adults who have had challenges in their youth, either disabilities or emotional trauma, that is preventing them from advancing towards college or a workplace environment. So we put in a program this year for job training. It was amazing how much positive energy it created for the rest of our staff to have these workers here.
We are doing anti-racism work within our executive committees and continuing to advance the conversation, which can be uncomfortable for many people. We were one of the early members of Camber Outdoors, which is an organization devoted to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion for the outdoor industry.
I was also very encouraged by the most recent short clips that came out of the Telluride Film Festival this year. They’re great. They’re five to 10 minutes long, and many of the movies talk about diversity in the outdoors.
We’re finding that these steps toward equity and diversity are beneficial to our business too. While much of the skiing industry is struggling to find employees, we have seen an increase in applications and interest in working for Taos Ski Valley. Our guests are taking notice, too. Vacationers want to spend their money at a destination that represents their values, and we hear how much Taos’ commitment to sustainability and equity is swaying their decision to come ski at our resort.