How Climate Change Is Harshing Your Gig And What You Can Do About It

We hear so much about melting glaciers, fluctuating temperatures, droughts, floods, fires and hurricanes. Beyond variable weather conditions and seasonal fluctuations, what are the short- and long-term downstream impacts of a shifting climate on outdoor recreation-when, where and how long we enjoy them-and on outdoor recreation commerce?

By Kristen Pope March 29, 2018

Climate change conversations usually focus on the most immediate symptoms: weather events, such as raging wildfires, rising sea levels and savage storms that are less predictable and more variable than in the past. Those events, in and of themselves, are cause for concern. But it’s also important to consider the butterfly effect climate change will have on all the elements of the outdoor recreation economy if we want to understand how best to respond.

“The outdoor industry is impacted by climate change in multiple ways: We rely on access to the outdoors and outdoor recreation to really thrive, and climate impacts that, but it also impacts the business side,” says OIA Policy Advisor Andrew Pappas. In this piece, we’ve tried to unpack a few of the business impacts.

As the climate shifts, so too must our expectations, operations and activities

Outdoor Industry Association has made climate a key focus of its work starting in 2018. Pappas notes that over 200 companies are part of the OIA Sustainability Working Group, which collaborates on everything from supply chains to analyzing environmental impacts. As the climate shifts, so too must our expectations, operations and activities.

 

The Season Is The Reason

The concept of four predictable seasons seems bygone. Unseasonable weather and unpredictable variability seems the norm, though most areas are looking at shorter winters and longer summers.

What It Means for The Outdoors and Outdoorists: A recent study found that, due to rising average temperatures and unpredictable snowfall, only 8 of the 21 former winter Olympic host cities would even be suitable to host a winter Olympics by 2100 without quick action on climate change.

But Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows President Andy Wirth isn’t prepping for doomsday. “Anybody who suggests the ski industry will dry up and blow away, that’s really not a science-based perspective,” Wirth says. “There’s no doubt the Earth’s atmosphere is warming, but at the same time, it’s ill-informed to suggest that the ski industry will be gone in 25 years. There’s no science that backs that up.”

Wirth points out that a key aspect of climate change is fluctuations in precipitation with very high and very low snow years. He notes that in 2016/2017, following a long California drought, historic Sierra snowfall was also a function of climate change, and it led the resort to stay open until July. Ultimately, Wirth is focused on adapting to the extreme variability. Low snow years may require more investment in snowmaking while higher snow years may require more money into avalanche control work.

Many ski resorts are also focusing on adaption to a changing climate by increasing the availability of year-round offerings, and including an array of summer activities like mountain biking, mountain coasters and scenic 4-wheeler tours.

“There’s no doubt the Earth’s atmosphere is warming, but at the same time, it’s ill-informed to suggest that the ski industry will be gone in 25 years. There’s no science that backs that up.” —Andy Wirth, President, Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows ski resorts

Of course, in the ski industry, too much snow is typically a preferable problem to too little. So resorts are working on long-term strategies to increase snowmaking capabilities, and some are focusing on higher-elevation lifts to accommodate for a changing rain/snow line. Many resorts are investing in snowmaking systems that can make snow even in warmer temperatures.

California’s Boreal Mountain Resort experimented with a new technology called Snow Factory snowmaking machine in 2016 that could crank out the white stuff even at 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wirth is also investing in snowmaking at his resort, focusing on energy-efficient systems he says can produce 40 percent more snow per gallon of water than technology from just five years ago.

In preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, organizers used giant, insulated blankets to preserve over 500,000 cubic meters of snow from the previous winter in case nature didn’t deliver enough before the Games.

Snow strategy isn’t just for ski resorts, though. The Iditarod, the long-distance sled dog race known for sub-zero, whiteout blizzard conditions, is facing challenges due to rising average winter temperatures. Organizers of the Alaskan event have had to reroute it several times, and in 2016, they had to haul in snow via train.

Join OIA, industry leaders and climate experts in Telluride, CO for an an afternoon and evening of education and action on the planet’s most important issue. REGISTER NOW

What It Means For Outdoor Retailers and Consumers: Erik Dalton, owner of Telluride, Colorado’s, Jagged Edge Mountain Gear, is plagued by increasingly unpredictable snowfall. Fewer storms in November and December and bigger spring storms in April and May mean the shopping cycle no longer matches the typical retail cycle.

Traditionally, Dalton’s customers would buy a lot of skis in November and December. The Christmas season is usually one of the busiest at ski resorts, but more unpredictable snow years make that seasonal boost less reliable. “It’s really challenging to sell skis when there’s no snow on the ground,” Dalton says. “There was definitely a lot of shock come Christmastime in 2017 when we only had five runs open.”

Dalton is also looking to purchase more conservatively in general. “It makes us look at, say, next winter not risking or not gambling so much on inventory that is very, very weather dependent like powder skis. It’s making us think twice about how we structure our buys because we don’t want to be left holding a bunch of inventory,” he says.

Plus, says Dalton, when consumers hold off buying until the snow falls in the spring, they end up shopping at a time of year when they’re accustomed to getting end-of-season prices.

“In today’s age of internet sales, even way up in [Telluride’s] box canyon, people compare prices where they can get something shipped to them in two or three days for free anyway,” Dalton says. “So it’s harder to pull off those full-price ski sales.”

What It Means For Outdoor Brands: The story is similar for apparel and gear brands. “We have certainly seen that winter has shifted later,” says Ali Kenney, Vice President of Global Strategy and Insights at Burton, noting that with later snowfall comes later sales and revenue.

Shifting climates have influenced the brand’s production strategy and timeline. “We’re very in tune to that and produce extremely conservatively now,” Kenney says. “We don’t ever want to produce on the hope as we say that it’s going to be a good snow year everywhere. So we are always trying to produce for the minimum of what’s needed and nothing extra because we don’t want to be flooding the market with all this extra product [if] it’s [going to be] a bad snow year and it’s all discounted or gathering dust in a warehouse.”

 

Although the effects of warming temperatures seem more apparent and drastic in the winter, increasing summer temperatures that stick around longer are equally as impactful. If temperatures get too high, for example, people may stay indoors or scale down their endeavors, and those choices will trickle down to the retailers, the brands and the local communities that rely on summer recreation.

What It Means For The Outdoors and Outdoorists: Extreme heat also presents real health concerns. During the 2014 Australian Open, tennis players suffered serious health issues in the 108-degree-Fahrenheit heat, including vomiting, fainting, and even hallucinations. Water bottles and shoes melted. Organizers altered the event’s extreme heat policy the following year.

Athletic performance also diminishes with heat. A recent study shows that for every 10 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature, winning marathon times are usually about 2 minutes slower.

Raging forest fires, fueled by extreme temperatures, low precipitation, and erratic winds, are also changing the landscape and our ability to recreate outdoors. During the fires, many recreationists—even those many miles from a fire—stay indoors to avoid smoke. After the fires, burned areas are often undesirable—even unsafe—so outdoorists may stay away for years.

Years with diminished snowpack also translate to less water in the rivers, which can impact all water- based recreation, from rafting to fishing. If the river levels are too low, people can’t raft, kayak, or SUP where, as long or as often as they’d like to, and rising water temperatures harm fish populations and close down fishing areas.

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Friday May 25,  1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Afternoon Climate Change Action Workshop ~Hotel Madeline at Telluride Mountain Village

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Evening Booze and Banter: What Happened to (this) Winter? ~ Liberty Bar

Discounted premiere passes and lodging for Mountainfilm, May 25-28, 2018 are available to all attendees.

What It Means for Outdoor Retailers and Guides: Warm water years particularly impact the fishing industry. “Water temperature is a huge factor in our industry,” Fishpond’s CEO, Founder and Director of Design and Development Johnny Le Coq says. High water temperatures stress out fish, and waters are often legally closed to fishing in some areas once a certain temperature is reached. In addition to concerns for the environment and species, Le Coq notes these rising temperatures are also affecting the industry’s bottom line.

“A warming environment is hugely impacting the number of days people can guide, and the number of hours people can guide out on the river, so it becomes not only a species issue, but an economic issue,” Le Coq says.

Read more about Fishpond in “This Brand’s Gift With Purchase: Conservation

What It Means For Outdoor Manufacturers: Manufacturing itself may also shift along with climate change. A recent study by UC Santa Barbara researchers found climate change may decrease manufacturing output in China.

The researchers studied production levels from 1998 to 2007 at more than 500,000 facilities, and they believe that if nothing changes, in a few decades, manufacturing output could drop by 12 percent in China due to climate change.

According to the study, extreme temperatures lower the productivity of workers and machines, which might not operate as well in the heat. This could have detrimental impacts on companies that rely on these facilities for production and all of the businesses and consumers downstream of that production.

 

The economic impacts of shorter activity seasons are obvious. What doesn’t get talked about as much are the challenges of shorter shoulder seasons. Extreme high and low temperatures aside, the windows for “summer” activities like camping, climbing and cycling now bleed into the spring and fall months including March, April, October and November. This can mean some activities may have longer shoulder season while others may have shorter shoulder seasons.

What It Means for Outdoor Economies: Just as decreased visitation during prime seasons can hurt communities that rely on the recreation income stream, increased visitation during what is typically the “off season” places a burden on national parks, monuments and other recreation areas as well as their gateway communities. The task of providing emergency services, roads, water, sanitation, and other services to more visitors over a longer period of time is challenging for small communities. Many of these communities also rely on seasonal workers and shifting seasons may require hiring workers for longer periods of time. When many of these seasonal workers are students, this can create additional challenges when the season extends into the school year.

Residents of nearby communities may also face the loss of the “off-season,” a time of year with low visitation when many often enjoy a small-town community feel.

 

At the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show in January 2018, OIA Executive Director Amy Roberts asked attendees to lean into climate commitments by taking either their first or their next step. “The outdoor industry is among the first to experience the impacts of climate change. Likewise, we play a role in contributing to it,” Roberts said. “If we are going to call our policymakers to task—and we will—we must first hold ourselves accountable. In 2018, we want you to commit, full bore, on two fronts: climate advocacy and climate mitigation.” To that end, OIA has created tools and resources in partnership with Protect our Winters to help companies  engage their employees on climate initiatives and to take action on climate policy through corporate advocacy. To begin, we’ve created this climate engagement matrix to the right.  

“We recognize that our members are in different places and positions,” said Roberts. “That’s why we haven’t identified any specific milestones or emission metrics just yet. We don’t expect you to do everything on this matrix, but we do ask you to do something. To be clear, this isn’t a linear path. There’s no correct order of engagement actions just like there is no finish line. There is only a first step and a next step.” 

“If we are going to call our policymakers to task—and we will—we must first hold ourselves accountable.” —Amy Roberts, Executive Director, Outdoor Industry Association

For some companies, the best way to address climate change is to make sustainability the heart of everything they do. To meet this aim, Fishpond became a B Corporation, dedicated to social and environmental good. “I think as a B Corp… it pushes us to be the company we talk about,” Le Coq says. “You have to have actions behind it. It’s policed, and you have to be accountable to it.”

Burton has also refocused its business to revolve around sustainability. “We’ve kind of fully changed the way we run our business,” Kenney says. “For example we have a set of 2020 goals around sustainability, and a lot of them are around climate and carbon.” Burton aims to reduce carbon emissions 20 percent by 2020, including for all hard goods, and has a full solar array at their Burlington, Vermont, global headquarters. They also have soft goods initiatives including using bluesign textile standards and organic cotton.

“Our two main efforts are to green our own house and try and motivate other people to act,” is how Kenney explains Burton’s strategy.

Our two main efforts are to green our own house and try and motivate other people to act.” —Ali Kenney, Burton.

NEMO Equipment focuses on working with employees who share the company’s sustainability values. “We consider ourselves a values-led business,” says NEMO Equipment Vice President of Marketing Kate Paine. She emphasizes the importance of a decentralized approach to sustainability.

“For so many reasons, it’s really important that it’s really decentralized and not people at the top of these companies saying ‘this is what we should do,’” says Paine. She says every employee is involved in sustainability decisions in their particular role such as selecting a printer for the catalog or deciding on a t-shirt vendor. “It’s all of those little decisions that add up a lot.”

Focusing on sustainability means focusing on supply chains for many brands. Standards like the Higg Index and bluesign for sustainable textile production can help guide brands. “For us, it really is about understanding our own supply chain first,” says Paine, who uses the Higg Index at NEMO Equipment

Fishpond works with a unique collection of recycled materials, including commercial fishing nets, when creating its products. Retailers like Jagged Edge Mountain Gear also keep sustainability in mind when purchasing. “We’re big fans of wool, and we work with a lot of wool companies,” Dalton says. “It’s something we like to support since it’s such a sustainable fiber. Where we can, we try and put our buying dollar where our heart is as far as being stewards.”

Logistics is another important component of the supply chain. Paine notes NEMO’s logistics coordinator works to make sure they are shipping as many full containers as possible, and they ship by sea whenever possible. They also utilize a distributed warehouse system to reduce freight and transit.

The end of the product lifecycle is also an important component in the sustainability puzzle, and an important element of the circular economy many brands are embracing in lieu of the traditional linear economy. For Paine, keeping gear out of landfills is critical. “We’re committed to making gear that lasts,” Paine says. “We do have a lifetime warranty and we offer full repair services on products, so when people contact us, it’s always an effort ‘how can we make this gear stay alive and out of a landfill?’” 

Patagonia’s Worn Wear program allows consumers to trade in used gear in good condition for merchandise credit, reselling the gear to others to give it a second life. The company offers online tutorials showing how to repair gear, and it also accepts worn-out Patagonia products for recycling.[/block]

 

Advocacy and lobbying local and national representatives is mission critical. A lot of companies are already active, others are just getting in the swing. In 2018, OIA added climate change to its priority issues and will be making it a key tenant of our Capitol Summit event in April and through all of our communications with members moving forward.

 

According to OIA’s Andrew Pappas, the association is encouraging member companies to join and even lead conversations about business-friendly policy solutions. Additionally, says Pappas, OIA is helping brand executives to lean on their local, regional and national leaders to incentivize reversal strategies. Having the OIA’s Sustainable Business Innovation team under the association’s umbrella means the companies can simultaneously push for policy changes while also doing the internal mitigation work noted above. Whether by adopting the Higg Index to measure their supply chain impacts or by attending Sustainability Working Group meetings, OIA member companies are collaborating to walk the walk and talk the talk.

When Kenney travels to Washington, D.C. to lobby, whether with OIA or with a group like Protect Our Winters (POW), she often brings professional athletes and Olympians such as Kelly Clark and Danny Davis with her. “We bring our pro riders and that’s probably one of the most successful ways that we’ve done it,” Kenney says, noting bringing a well-known athlete can mean an increased chance of getting a face-to-face with a senator instead of a staffer. “If you bring an Olympian, then they all want a selfie with the Olympian,” Kenney says.

She finds face time with elected officials and their staffers can produce results. “I find it really effective, actually, and we’ve had people change positions on certain policies after visiting,” Kenney says.

Companies like Patagonia are also encouraging consumers to get involved. Patagonia Action Works helps customers get involved with activism opportunities, and the company has donated almost $90 million worth of grants to activists and environmentally-focused organizations.

 

More than 30 U.S. cities have declared their intentions of moving towards 100 percent renewable energy in recent years. Ski town Aspen, Colorado, and Burlington, Vermont—home of Burton’s world headquarters—have reached this goal, along with a handful of other cities.

Squaw Valley / Alpine Meadows is working with local Tahoe-area utility provider, Liberty Utilities, on a renewable energy generation project with the intention of having the resort run solely on renewable energy by December 2018.

“If renewable energy is attainable and affordable right now and we can store it for use when the sun’s not out or the wind isn’t blowing and that technology is available right now, why wouldn’t we move into that mode right now?” Wirth says. “Why wait another generation?

Industry leaders will gather in Telluride, Colorado, this spring to discuss how our companies can move the needle on climate change. Join OIA, industry leaders and climate experts in Telluride, Colorado, for an afternoon and evening of education and action on the planet’s most important issue.

 

While different members of the outdoor community work in different ways to address climate change, brands, retailers, politicians and consumers agree action is critical for the industry to thrive.

“As you look at the outdoor industry and the economic impact that we have overall as an industry and understand a lot of that depends on the places we adventure and that all of that is in danger right now with rising temperatures and all the other impacts we’re seeing to those lands in particular,” Paine says. “It endangers outdoor recreation itself and that is the backbone of what keeps us all in business from an economic standpoint.”

Le Coq points out how consumers can see the direct impacts of climate change and how important it is to engage them. “There’s a responsibility we have as businesses now that’s critical,” Le Coq says. “It’s not greenwashing our brand, but it’s actively engaging the purpose of our brand.”