Think Piece: Why are most spas still unsustainable?

Think Piece: Why are most spas still unsustainable?
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Isn’t it time for the trillion dollar wellness industry to wake up when it comes to sustainability ? Here at NOW we are confused that the spa and wellness industry isn’t doing far more far quicker to become sustainable for both people and planet, most especially in the name of sustainable travel and tourism. So we asked Chair of the Global Wellness Institute’s Sustainability Initiative Bonnie Baker a series of questions to help explain it. Bonnie is the Vice President of the Board of Directors of Green Spa Network and has over 20 years of experience in the Spa and Wellness industry. A Managing Partner of Satteva Spa and Wellness Concepts, she is also an anthropologist, licensed massage therapist, aesthetician and yoga instructor.

Why hasn’t the spa industry responded to sustainability before now?

Because of both practical and philosophical challenges.

  • A very small percentage of resort and wellness facilities are taking sustainability seriously by incorporating it into their core values.
  • Sustainability requires practices that promote regeneration over time. The industry invests in short term return rather than long term results in brand development and environmental impact. There is a perceived cost or impact to the bottom line figures when implementing eco-savvy measures.
  • Ownership / Management resist taking risks of implementing strategies toward sustainable outcomes due to “green washing,” and the stigma associated with it. Few companies are willing to take a stand and conduct due diligence necessary for talking or taking more robust action. Authentic “Eco” oriented competitors have the competitive advantage.
  • There is an underlying belief that personal wellness can exist in isolation, a perceived separation of people from Nature as part of the larger “Web of Life”.
  • The term Sustainability could be adding to confusion about a course of action. Sustainability implies maintaining the existing state of affairs while natural systems are inherently changing, evolving and fluctuating.

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What do you think are the most urgent issues concerning sustainability and health for both planet and people in wellness tourism and the spa industry?

The work of wellness must have a dynamic approach, incorporating individuals and the business into larger circles of connectivity and co-evolution that emphasize ecological, economic and social impact.

Reforestation, water, plastic reduction, air quality and alternative energy are the most urgent issues concerning health for the planet and people.

  • Reforestation is the most urgent need affecting the planet. Carbon emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels continue to rise and according to the UN, the world needs 350m hectares of forests to be restored by 2030 and help us stay under 2°C. That is over 13 billion trees per year planted (and surviving) 2 trees per person per year.
  • The original concept of Spa is “health through waters,” making water a fundamental resource for the Spa industry. Issues affecting water sources such as contamination and consumption are important topics for the Spa industry and travel sector alike as waterfront destinations see the consequences of ecological impact.
  • Although water conservation is perhaps not the most important issue for a manager’s agenda, water restrictions would certainly affect guest satisfaction, and the important point is that water efficiency, management programs and investment in water saving technology will reduce costs (up to 40%) and save the resource.
  • Plastics contamination and pollution of the oceans, waterways and eco-systems affects plant and animal life.
  • The increased need for organic ingredients requires a new approach to agriculture and soil health.

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Are there any solutions, and if so, what are they?

  • By building a treatment program, menu, or travel itinerary that highlights the native botanical, geophysical, or cultural features, a destination creates opportunities for programming, marketing and investment that clients and guests will find compelling. Guests feel more comfortable as they themselves recognize the urgency for the wellness industry to take measures to protect the environment and reduce the impacts of a the industrialized world.
  • Trees are the best technology to combat climate change, regulate the water cycle, and filter air according to the non-profit organization We Forest. Tree planting initiatives are abundant and can be tailored to global and local community initiatives through hotels and Spas.
  • Tactical approaches to eliminating toxic chemicals, using “eco-friendly” products, installing water purification systems, and linen re-use programs coupled with marketing, guest incentives and loyalty programs have proven to have positive results on many levels.
  • Innovation and alternative solutions to plastic such as algae are being developed as a possible packaging resource, for oxygen production and energy solutions, according to Anne Bramham of ASTECC.
  • Make sustainability more accessible, less “Elite,” celebrating small steps and a globally accessible approach.
  • Re-definition and re-visioning of economic models to prioritize ROI as a regenerative index.
  • “Green Spa” development, natural influences in “healing” design as part of overall infrastructure and program.
  • Initiate public conversation, encourage responsible media coverage and education for the public and politicians.
  • Stimulate deeper, more conscious “wellness” conversations.

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What would be the fastest or easiest issue to fix and what would it take?

There is no quick fix or easy solution in itself. There are three main levels for action: Plastic reduction, water conservation and reforestation are the most practical and impactful solutions for our industry.

All would take a commitment and management level mandates to implement policies and procedures that
(1) regulate the use of plastics and create recycling programs,
(2) install water flow equipment, filtration and regulate usage,
(3) channel resources towards reforestation efforts through larger non-profits and initiatives that are able to implement.
It is incumbent on businesses to step ahead of legislation and create their own sustainability statements and green core values. Creating internal sustainability departments and green teams dedicated to develop standards and research practical tools is one solution.

Resources can be found through LEED Certification, EarthCheck, New Plastics Economy Innovation Center and The Center for Responsible Travel (CREST). Agenda 2030 is a guide to the future and represents business opportunities for companies to design their own strategies. The Green Spa Network has practical tools and assessments for Spas that want to actively pursue a green path. Businesses are powerful change makers and are beginning to compete not only to be the best in the world, but to be the best for the world.

It simply makes sense to be kind to our benefactor, the Earth, to contribute to environments that are health-giving, and to begin to comprehend that the Human being and the Earth being are in the same need of Well-being.


To understand how spas can be sustainable (and highly unsustainable) in their practices, products, architecture, treatment and training of staff, read our feature Just How Healthy Are Spas.

NOW urge travellers to support only sustainable travel experiences. To find out if a spa is sustainable, download our Super Tough NOW Questions to Ask Before Booking a Spa.

Do you care about sustainability? Please leave a reply here or on NOW Forum.