Do hotels care about sustainability?

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The power of the hotel industry to effect real sustainable change in the world is huge. But when it comes to sustainability in hospitably, it starts with a single step, made by a single person. And do enough people in enough hotels really care about sustainable travel? And if they do – do they have the power they need to do anything about it?

There are many examples of passionate hoteliers and independent hotels out there in the world effecting real change – taking us beyond green and eco-friendly hotels to something far more exciting and rewarding for both traveller and planet. But many are not certified and audited by an accredited sustainability certification programme – so their achievements are difficult to know or track.

Many others are effecting change and can prove it because they are driven by a passionate, committed owner that supports sustainability from the heart and their hotel team work with certification body EarthCheck. Early leaders include Mr. Rattan Tata, previous Chairman of Tata Group (owner and operator of the Taj Group brand) with over 70 accredited hotels across the Taj portfolio whose culturally inclusive and humane approach underlines all their stakeholder interactions and conscious initiatives aimed at making a difference to the neighbourhoods in which they operate. And Sir Michael Kadoori, chairman of HongKong and Shanghai Hotels (which owns and operates the Peninsula Hotels brand), who genuinely believes that luxury brands are in a unique position to influence their customer’s choices on sustainability, that luxury need not be wasteful, and that the highest standards of luxury can be delivered in a sustainable way. And Ulrich Ladumer of Vigilius Mountain Resort in Italy, whose ‘eco, not ego’ vision drove him to build a modern refuge dictated by nature. More recently in 2017, the Noorlander Family who owns the legendary beachfront Grand Hotel Huis ter Duin in the Netherlands committed to the rigorous sustainability programme, led by Stephan Stokkermans who represents the second generation to lead its third generation to become a leader in sustainable hospitality.

The Peninsula Hotels
Credit: Peninsula Hotels

Inside large hotel companies, many general managers and managing directors also care, but while a few may be able to effect real change, most do not have their owner’s backing to spend money on the bona fide sustainability certification programmes that help and advise hotels to effect and monitor real change for the better.

Many of the larger hotel operators have created their own CSR or sustainability programmes – such as Hyatt International’s Hyatt Thrive, Accor Hotels’ Planet 21, Hilton’s Lightstay and InterContinental Hotels’ Green Engage. They are easier and require less bandwidth for hotels, but they are not certified by accredited certification programmes and do not offer CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) accredited carbon measurements, scientific benchmarking and independent audits.

There are a few notable exceptions of international hotel operators and hotel owners that care and do both, such as the EarthCheck-certified Four Seasons Cairo at Nile Plaza, the Four Seasons Resort Sharm El Sheikh, and the InterContinental Hong Kong and InterContinental Singapore.

But change isn’t happening quickly enough, and all the current confusion around Sustainability Certification Programmes isn’t helping the situation.

Hotel culture is crucial to this issue. Sustainability is often seen as something that’s easily ‘passed down’ to a member of staff who may not have the tools they need to understand or explain very complex issues, or the revenue-generating skills and experience to effect any real change. Some hotels are also nervous of engaging with and talking about their sustainability policy, because they worry that they will be exposed as greenwashing or that their (sometimes genuine) efforts will be seen as them doing too little.

So many hotels sit on the fence, say that there will be costs involved, that any sustainability efforts won’t affect how many guests book a room with them, and that sustainability isn’t a priority as there are so many more matters with which they need to deal. But as we have stated in NOW before and will continue to state – a hotel living only for and by itself on a vulnerable planet isn’t much good to anyone or anything at all – least of all its bottom line.

Soong Saa Private Island
Soong Saa Private Island / Credit: Reto Guntli

Many individuals who work inside hotels, from cleaners and chefs to therapists and sommeliers, also care a great deal about sustainability on a personal level, but may be too tied by budgets and culture to do very much about anything when they are at work.

Like in the world at large, of course – there are also a whole raft of people in the hotel industry who just simply do not care. Their ethics and values may be tied up with another big life issue, they may be either too time or cash poor to be aware very much of anything other than their to-do list or getting food on the table, or they may be too committed to their own pleasure and immediate gain to bother very much about anyone or anything else at all. We all know people like the latter, but let’s not stop them from galvanising the rest of us to act, and act now.

Put simply, a hotel is a business, which needs to make money to survive and thrive – like any other. So let’s scream and shout from the rooftops so that hotel owners and franchisees and hotel operators can hear us: SUSTAINABILITY SAVES MONEY – AND IT ALSO MAKES MONEY!

We are of course talking about genuine sustainability – not greenwashing (Greenwashing Explained), which travellers of all types and ages are wising up to. Real, sustainable practices makes money by saving money – whether that’s by minimising travel costs in a supply chain by buying local, minimising food and packaging waste, reusing and recycling almost everything, being intelligent about water use and energy, training and using local staff. Having such sustainable practices – and telling the world about them – also brings in more business from the conscious traveller, an increasing number of whom – especially ‘millennial’ travellers in their 20s and 30s – only want to be staying in genuinely sustainable hotels.

As well as increasing profit margins and contributing to bonuses, the money such practices make can then, of course, should also be used to support tangible socially responsible programmes that help local people and the communities they live in thrive. How many hotels are doing this?

The hospitality industry needs more inspiring leaders and collaborations to support each other and make sustainability visible to travellers across the world. As Céline Cousteau has told NOW, ‘we should show corporations who are interested in profit examples of how you can make a profit and also do right’.

At this most urgent of times, our planet deserves more than half measures. Building resilience to save it will not be cheap or easy for hotels, but it will help the hotel industry to thrive in the long term, and will satisfy travellers, who will increasingly want proof of sustainable actions. We want to know what’s in it for us, for sure – but we also want to know, what’s in it for humanity and the planet?

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Caroline Sylger Jones

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Caroline SYLGER JONES is the editor of itmustbeNOW Magazine and a travel journalist who has been reviewing hotels, spas and healthy holidays since the late 1990s for leading travel publishers, newspapers and magazines including The Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian and Condé Nast Traveler in the UK.

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