NOW talks to Eva Malmström Shivdasani, the co-founder and creative director of hotel brand Soneva and the visionary who first coined the phrase ‘sustainable luxury’ in 1995 when the hospitality industry still thought ‘green’ was just a colour.
All the environmental crisis we face have a huge toll on humanity – on poverty, security, public health and disaster preparedness. The interconnected nature of our eco systems and climate means that no country or community can be immune to any of these threats. How can we best harness human power and creativity to come up with solutions for all of our sakes?
Yes I agree. Harm to the environment and social injustice are linked. As a result of our experience at Soneva, our belief is that many of the solutions already exist. The challenge is to focus our efforts on this. Our experience as leaders of a sustainable organization is that one needs to continuously drive this agenda from the top and reward and recognize those with initiatives.
There are examples of the negative environmental and social impact of corporate greed all around us. Some companies are starting to realise that addressing sustainability issues can actively spur economic activity and growth – how would you galvanise more companies to act responsibly?
By two-way action – from one side government incentives and from the other side via a strong individual grass-roots movement. I believe that one person really can change the world – they can inspire such a positive change and alter other people’s behaviour. It’s great to see such a growth in awareness over the past few years about things like the environment, the planet’s health, animal rights, etc and largely this has been driven by ‘ordinary people’ on platforms like social media. The media also has an important role to play in educating people to use their wallets to force companies to be more responsible and ethical.
What in your opinion is the most pressing sustainability issue facing the travel industry today?
Wastage. From food, water, power and air con usage to unused soaps and unecological products, there is huge wastage in the hospitality industry which is unnecessary. It adds to the huge strain on the earth’s precious resources.
Do travellers care about sustainability?
Twenty-two years ago no one cared much about ecology. In every interview I made at the time I tried so hard to convince the journalists that it was extremely important to “educate” their readers about the environment, but I felt like a “lone voice in the dessert”. Even Sonu did not care much at the time. My hosts (staff) thought I was mad. They were amazed that I had ordered furniture “with holes in them” (recycled teak) and that I would not let anyone cut a tree or even branches, and they thought it was ridiculous.
Then little by little our guests started to open their eyes, and some even kept asking what wood we used for the buildings and the furniture (and our hosts became strong believers). Today, many guests are very aware of environmental issues and many chose to stay in hotels they feel take care of the environment and the locals. Unfortunately, I don’t think enough people care. At the Sonevas, we hope to instill interest in all sustainable issues. The children are fascinated to see our Eco Centro, as well as learning a lot in our “Den” (kids club). I always believe that if we teach the young generation, they will go home and teach the older”.
Can you share a favourite place to stay, or a useful product or service, that you feel is doing something genuinely sustainable for people and planet? Do you think it’s important for ‘eco’ companies to prove they are sustainable, rather than just say they are?
Yes there is so much ‘greenwashing’ going on today that I think it’s important for companies to really demonstrate how they are committed to sustainability to ensure they have credibility. I am a bit biased as I love to stay at Soneva because I know everything is organic and natural, however I also really admire companies like Stella McCartney and Patagonia. They really put sustainability and ethics (for people and animals) at the very heart of what they do, and they don’t deviate from their beliefs. They prove that sustainability is actually great for business. At Soneva, we strongly believe in the same thing.
What do you do in your daily life and when you are travelling in the name of sustainability?
I would never support any brand that treats people, animals or the planet badly. I would never eat any unethical food like caviar, foie gras, shark fin soup or similar. I would never wear any fur or unethical skins like crocodile, sting ray, serpent, etc. I believe that consumers should vote with their wallets and exercise this power more to drive collective change in the world. When the demand stops, the killing stops.