FIS disagrees with athletes that its ‘sustainability efforts are insufficient’, but just how sustainable is FIS?
Following the recent publication of an open athlete letter, written by Austrian downhiller and Protect our Winters (POW) ambassador Julian Schütter and signed by nearly two hundred athletes from multiple disciplines, the International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) has released a letter in response. The letter states that FIS does “not agree with the suggestion […] that its sustainability efforts are insufficient”, claiming that “in response, FIS would like to take this opportunity to outline its current and future actions on sustainability.”
The letter explains that, since he was elected in 2021, President Eliasch has placed sustainability “right at the heart of the federation”, and that sustainability “is a priority in everything FIS does”—a statement that stands in contrast to the athletes’ claims.
The athletes’ open letter, entitled “Our sport is endangered”, was addressed to the President of FIS and his council members and was delivered during the recent skiing world championships in Courchevel Meribel. In the letter, the athletes state that they “are already experiencing the effects of climate change in our everyday lives and our profession”. They go on to describe how more and more events are being cancelled “due to extreme weather events or lack of snow”, while “pre-season training slopes are getting rarer and shorter every year, because glaciers are shrinking at a frightening pace”.
This winter many ski resorts across the Alps had to close down pistes in late December and early January due to the lack of snowfall and rainy conditions, with the northwest area of Switzerland recording a temperature of 20.9C (70F) over the Christmas period.
Temperatures reaching such heights, and frequently sitting above zero, presents challenges for the production of artificial snow, which the athletes fear will shift public opinion about skiing to “unjustifiable”.
According to research by the World Wildlife Fund, producing one hectare of artificial snow requires 95 million cubic meters of water and 600 gigawatt-hours of energy per year, at an estimated cost of €136,000.
The letter, which was signed by leading winter sports athletes Mikaela Shiffrin, Federica Brignone and Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, went on to state that “the winter sports community needs to take the lead in the fight against climate change”, and expressed that the current sustainability efforts at FIS were “insufficient”.
The FIS response to this accusation focused heavily on the President’s twenty-year history of commitment to climate protection through various roles within the UK government, particularly in the areas of deforestation and Net Zero, as well as his memberships of various climate-focused initiatives. FIS also addressed some of the issues raised by the athletes who felt that FIS could do more to take a bigger lead in the area of sustainability.
But just how sustainable are FIS, and are the comments made by the athletes justifiable?
Using the same sustainable framework used to assess other international federations and major sporting events, how does FIS compare across Global Sustainable Sport’s seven Sustainable Pillars of Sport?
FIS and its partnership programmes
As stated in their letter, FIS are a signatory to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, which commits the federation to halving its direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
FIS originally joined the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework in September 2019 and would appear to have joined the UN Race to Zero inititive in November 2021, but this is not clear from their announcement, nor is it recorded on the United Nations list of Signatories to the Race to Zero. They are not included as initial signatories on the latest initiative, Sport for Nature.
FIS, unlike other sports organisations and some international federations, have not yet published any of their UN Sports for Climate Action reports. Reporting on climate actions is now a mandatory requirement for membership of this UN framework. While publishing this report is not compulsory many sports organisations view publication as an important part of their membership and a way to clearly demonstrate their sustainable actions in this area.
According to its letter, FIS have become the first “Climate Positive international sports federation” through its FIS Rainforest Initiative, through which it is investing to “offset those annual emissions many times over”. However, there seems to be no information on this initiative through the FIS Governance or Sustainability section of its website.
FIS is a founding member of the Mountain Summit, a group of sports organisations set up in December 2019 which is concerned with the current state of the world’s mountains and has committed to protect them. However, FIS is not a member of the recently formed Carbon Fibre Circular Alliance, nor of any other recently formed initiatives such as the EU Erasmus+ supported ‘GAMES’.
Participation and bringing “Children to the Snow”
For many years FIS has been strongly committed to the “promotion and development of recreational skiing and snowboarding”.
“Bring Children to the Snow” is their core initiative, which promotes “snow activities as the healthy recreational activity for children and youth in winter.”
This is achieved through the highly successful FIS SnowKidz and World Snow Day. Snowkidz was established many years ago and has won many awards for its children’s engagement programme, which is primarily aged at children between the ages of 4 to 14. Whilst these programmes also engage their families, there are no obvious programmes for teenagers, young adults, and adults.
The 12th edition of World Snow Day was held on 15th January 2023, engaging 126 somethings(?) from 41 countries. As stated in the FIS press announcement:
“World Snow Day faced the unique challenge of variable snow conditions. Many parts of the world are currently challenged by low snowfall and some Organisers postponed their events. Events which were postponed were moved to the sister programme of World Snow Day called SnowKidz. These events will still take place but later in the season.”
This further supports the call by the athletes for urgent action around climate change when World Snow Day cannot take place due to a lack of snow.
One major issue raised by the athletes in their letter was the event calendar, particularly the need to address the movement of athletes and teams from one part of the world and then back again during the season.
As a result of climate change, the winter season is becoming more and more compressed. More often than not the World Cup Opener, which is meant to herald the start of the winter season, is starting without snow, which, according to the athletes, “will backfire and take any anticipation for winter away”. Their recommendation is to move the start of the season to late November and end in late April.
Similarly, the athletes have encouraged a re-think of the geographical organisation of events to reduce carbon emissions produced by athletes and fans moving between Europe and North America. Scheduling the races of Beaver Creek and Aspen, in the United States, back-to-back would “reduce approximately 1,500 tons of CO2”.
Many other sports are addressing the need to re-think their sporting calendars to reduce their carbon footprints, and FIS are certainly not alone in facing the challenge of significantly changing the way they host their flagship events.
FIS and the environment
In 2020 FIS published its “Mainau Manifesto” which declares its “FIS Vision and Mission” around sustainability. However, there has been nothing published since 2020 that builds on this manifesto, which is largely repeated through the FIS “Sustainability” section on its website.
It is positive that FIS has a “Sustainability” section on its official website, particularly when many international federations do not, but, apart from the manifesto, the section lacks any data, reports or publications. Ironically, those federations that do have sustainability sections on their websites focus on the broader pillars of sustainability, whereas FIS’s “Sustainability” section only focuses on climate.
In November 2021 FIS announced the launch of its FIS Rainforest Initiative, which was due to be one of its first steps towards becoming the “first Climate Positive International Sports Federation by 2022”.
It stated that the “FIS Rainforest Initiative will offset FIS carbon footprint many times over through conservation projects of rainforest, initially in the Peruvian Ashaninka communities in the Amazonas.”
FIS engaged Planet Mark to calculate the carbon footprint of FIS, which was done by dividing its events “into six distinct categories based on their size and scope”. The footprint was calculated using a range of variables, and then Cool Earth were engaged to work on a “partnership to support the protection of the rainforest” with an annual reporting programme.
Cool Earth is an organisation co-founded by the FIS president, Johan Eliasch, in 2006 of which he is the current chairman.
The release goes on to say that FIS will provide “toolkits” to help FIS Organisers to reduce their footprints, and states that:
“FIS is committed to minimising its carbon footprint in every possible manner and has already started with initiatives to reduce travel by optimising competition calendars and arranging training opportunities in closer proximity.”
The President of FIS, Johan Elisach, then adds his own statement:
“As an outdoor winter sport, FIS has a duty to be role model in the area of sustainability and to take the lead in protecting our environment.”
“We hope by taking action now, others will follow in our footsteps. There is no time to lose, the time to take action is now.”
These statements clearly support the request of the athletes in their recent open letter, so it is interesting that, fourteen months after this statement was made, athletes are calling for similar action—particularly when the President has clearly set his stall by his climate actions and leadership.
The President of FIS once again re-affirmed his commitment to climate action by stating that:
“Our commitment to being a Climate Positive sport is a long-term, year-in, year-out priority.”
By 2022 the FIS initiative has gone one step further than “Buying Carbon Credits” by “investing not only in preventing deforestation, but also in healthcare, schools, women’s enterprise, cacao production and community assets.”
It then goes on to state that the Rainforest Initiative is focused on a three-tiered process that will ‘Measure, Educate and Reduce’, with the focus on measuring the carbon footprint, educating FIS organisers on their own footprints, and helping them to reduce it.
Despite these two releases there is a lack of information on the FIS website as to the specific details of the FIS Rainforest Initiative, or its partnership with Cool Earth, a company co-founded by the FIS President, and there seems to be no report from Planet Mark as to the carbon footprint of FIS. Meanwhile, FIS is not listed as a member of Planet Mark in their impressive list of certified members.
Courchevel Méribel 2023 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships
The Courchevel Méribel 2023 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships Organising Committee recently announced that they had successfully achieved their ISO20121 certification, “which attests to the environmentally responsible management of the event and the commitment to staging a sustainable event.”
The certification audit was conducted by AFNOR and was conducted in two stages, pre- and during the event.
From the outset the event established clear objectives that it wanted to achieve, which included:
- Preserving the mountains and their fragile ecosystem
- Organising a responsible event
- Offering a festive, inclusive and accessible event
- Leaving a positive legacy
It is not clear how much involvement FIS had in the ISO accreditation process, but clearly they are encouraged to see that their flagship event has been driving the agenda. Hopefully, this will encourage future world championships and other FIS events to follow.
The remit of the Courchevel Mèribel event is clearly broader than that of carbon offsetting, and it is hoped that when FIS publish their Sustainability Strategy it also goes beyond the carbon reduction programme.
FIS and Sustainable Governance
FIS has a very prominent Governance section on its website, which includes sections on:
- Mental Well Being
These are all important issues and clearly core to much of what FIS does, but the lack of a clear Sustainability Strategy which covers the full range of ‘Pillars’ means there are also significant gaps in its social policies, such as gender, inclusion, and diversity, as well as the lack of information about its environmental programmes.
The lack of clear reporting is also an issue, and the absence of any information on the FIS Rainforest Initiative or its partnership with Cool Earth, a company co-founded by the FIS President, or indeed the UN Sport for Climate Action are areas that need to be urgently addressed.
In requesting information from FIS it was hard to identify a person responsible for its sustainability programme, a subject which was also raised by the athletes in their open letter.
In their letter, the athletes request that FIS:
“Install a sustainability department that ensures that sustainability becomes a key aspect of all governance processes and operations, which must be controlled and certified by an independent organization.”
In many major federations such as FIFA, The International Olympic Committee, World Athletics, World Rugby, World Sailing, and the International Biathlon Union, as well as many others, there is a dedicated team or individual responsible for the federation’s sustainability strategy. Given that FIS is the world’s largest Winter Sports federation with a clear passion for sustainability, it seems strange that no such person or department exists.
FIS is certainly transparent in the publication of its annual accounts, which are available through its website, but there is a clear lack of information and transparency about its sustainability activities.
FIS and Media Coverage
FIS has a huge global footprint with a dedicated communications and marketing team. Its championships are broadcast all over the world and it has the perfect platform to truly engage its public in the need to think more sustainably about the future.
The incredible success of the recent #GreenFootballWeekend, which was driven by a small group of sports stakeholders including Pledgeball, Count Us In, Sky Sports, BT Sport and The Football Supporters’ Association, showed the power that sport can have in engaging fans. The event saw 84,000 football fans scoring sustainable ‘Green Goals’, or pledges, for their teams. Over 120 clubs took part, which amounts to almost the entire football league in England and part of Scotland.
Clearly there is huge interest amongst the winter sports community for there to be greater action taken by FIS in the area of climate change. By engaging with the athletes who have written the open letter to FIS, they could develop one of the largest ambassadorial programmes in sport, something that also seems to be missing from its strategy. That would send a strong message from FIS to event organisers and the public about the urgent need to address climate change. Instead, FIS have chosen to ‘disagree’ with their athletes, potentially distancing themselves from the core of their sport.
The presence of a section on Sustainability on their website and a carbon offset programme does not amount to an organisation that is the leading the fight against climate change and driving the sustainability movement forward. In fact, it could be reasonably be claimed to be the opposite.
GreenPeace and “Green Washing”
An article published today in Kleine Zeitung in fact goes further than that, quoting Ursula Bittner, an economic expert at GreenPeace Austria. Bittner states that:
"Terms such as climate-neutral or, in the case of the FIS, even climate-positive are misleading. They are nothing more than pure greenwashing."
Greenpeace goes on to say that:
"Instead of consistently reducing CO₂ itself, the FIS claims to pay for compensation projects such as afforestation or forest protection and are therefore climate-positive. The term climate-positive is used when you overcompensate for your own CO₂ emissions. By how many total CO₂- The FIS deals with emissions, how it becomes climate-neutral or climate-positive and which projects are responsible for this is completely opaque and incomprehensible. Apart from that, there is no information on how much and how CO₂ emissions are to be saved. There is no sustainability report on the website, and it is not clear which projects are supported. On the website of the partner Cool Earth, however, donations can only be made for the organization in general. It remains in the dark, whether the emissions of all scopes, i.e. direct and indirect emissions, have been offset."
Gone are the days when broad sweeping statements and claims of climate-positive or Net Zero are sufficient to impress athletes, fans and the media without supporting evidence.
The financial industry has taken a huge hit over ‘green washing’ claims, and the financial authorities are frantically trying to review the reporting of ESG to ensure that sustainable claims are supported by actions.
With the International Olympic Committee postponing the awarding of the Winter Olympics in 2030 due to a range of factors and the winter sports industry facing some enormous challenges, more needs to be done to urgently address climate change by the key stakeholders in the winter sports industry.
Salomon’s 2022 Impact Report
Yesterday saw the publication of Salomon’s 2022 Impact Report. One of the largest winter sports manufacturers, it has published ‘a comprehensive examination of the brand’s sustainability efforts. The report is the first of its kind produced by Salomon and is an in-depth examination of how the company conducts its business within the outdoor industry.’
In commenting on this publication, the president of Salomon was quoted as saying:
“In the past, Salomon has not been very vocal about its commitments, but this has never prevented us from being a responsible company,”
“Being 100% connected to mountain sports since the first day of our existence in 1947, in Annecy, has made us very respectful of our playground—nature—and our communities.”
Similarly, Atomic, one of the world’s foremost producers of high-performance ski equipment, published its first annual climate impact report and a partnership with Protect Our Winters (POW) in January 2023.
To address the impact of their business operations, Atomic has committed to a Science Based Target initiative, pledging to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050. To achieve these goals, Atomic has a strategy based on three pillars: transforming the value chain, innovating for sustainable performance, and collaborating for mass movement.
Sport can play a key role in this area of climate change and lead by example. Given the statements made by FIS and its obvious interest in sustainability it seems strange that, instead of leading the sustainability movement from the front, it is facing open letters from its athletes and accusations of “green washing” from GreenPeace and the media.
Questions will also be raised about the fact that the one initiative that FIS seems to be focusing on, the FIS Rainforest Initiative, is a project that is being managed by a company, Cool Earth, that was co-founded and is chaired by the FIS President. The lack of information and clarity on this project is clearly of concern to the athletes and the FIS community.
The President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, is quoted as saying “Change or be changed”. These are wise words indeed given the challenges facing sport, FIS and the winter sports industry alike.