Hotel Sustainability: Moving Into a New Phase

by | Oct 12, 2011

Over the past decade, hotel companies have implemented programs to reduce the waste generated and the energy used in their daily operations. Many have been successful in saving both resources and money as well as attracting environmentally conscious guests; however, the industry as a whole has yet to make sustainability an integral part of its strategic plans. The Two Tomorrows sustainability agency’s latest survey, the Tomorrow’s Value Rating (TVR) from 2009, indicates that the world’s ten largest hotel companies “are only just beginning to address the wide range of social and environmental challenges facing the sector.” Climate Counts, which scores corporations on the climate impact of their business, found similar results when researching six major hotel firms. “The world’s largest hotel chains may be seeking practical ways to address a range of broad environmental impacts in their operations . . . however, few appear to be aligning such actions as part of a larger and more comprehensive carbon management strategy. An average sector score of 19 out of a possible 100 suggests the sector has much work ahead.” Now that the low hanging fruit that has enabled hotels to claim they are going green has been picked, it is time for hotel companies to evolve their sustainability programs in order to address the new phase of challenges and opportunities they currently face.

After several years of running environmental programs, hotels need to evaluate if their current organizational structures supporting these projects continue to be effective. Early green programs were often developed in the Environmental, Health, and Safety department. Their initiatives to protect workers and the Earth from dangerous chemicals evolved into projects to reduce waste and operating costs. Other sustainability programs were managed by the social responsibility team, run through the Human Resources department, which focused on giving back to the community. As a result, many sustainability officers now reside in Operations or HR. These alignments made perfect sense ten years ago when changing out light bulbs and cleaning up local parks represented major sustainability programs within a lot of hotels. The benefits of these initiatives are real but, as our world enters a new era where stakeholders are demanding more transparency and third party certifications are evolving and becoming a requirement to conduct business, keeping these programs in their original locations is often limiting.

Sustainability has evolved into a much deeper practice than many business leaders initially believed was possible. It is a tool and philosophy that can be applied strategically to every department, from the new hotel design team and franchise relations to the sales, marketing, and food services groups. By using the lens of sustainability, it is possible to uncover new data points to track and reveal previously unseen metrics about current key indicators. Rather than having Operations or HR staff trying to implement sustainability goals for other departments, hotels need corporate sustainability officers that operate out of their own unique department and are empowered to assess and coach all other departments within the organization. Some hotel companies are realizing this and 2011 has seen the development of several new or revamped sustainability director and officer positions residing within environmental or sustainability departments. This organizational realignment will greatly increase the ability of hotels to address the new challenges faced by environmental teams in all industries, such as managing a green supply chain and deciphering what consumers will want one year from now.

Once these roles are established, hotels need to find visionary leaders who can inspire, educate, and spark excitement for sustainability from within the organization. One of their main tasks will be convincing departmental leaders that sustainability is not just another passing trend but a valid business model with real benefits. Each department within a hotel company should work with the sustainability officers to define how environmentalism affects their team, develop a clear strategy with measurable goals, and then create a plan to achieve their objectives. This will ensure sustainability goals are not in conflict with more traditional hotel aims of increasing occupancy and revenue per available room (RevPAR).

The bottom line according to the TVR survey is that, “Only three companies (Accor, InterContinental Hotels Group, and Marriott) seem to see sustainability management as important for protecting and creating commercial value.” Recently announced programs are showing progress and are very encouraging. The Carbon Measurement Working Group, formed by the International Tourism Partnership and the World Travel & Tourism Council, has pulled together ten major players in the hotel industry and is working to standardize how carbon is measured and reported. Hilton Worldwide has earned ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 certifications for all if its brands. Their programs should be applauded as well as emulated by other hotel companies. These examples make it clear that hotels can engage with sustainability in a deeper, more strategic way. As they do so, they will move the hospitality industry into the next phase of sustainability: one defined by strategic, proactive decisions instead of reactionary measures.

Matt Courtland of The Natural Strategy educates people on sustainable business practices while reconnecting them to the energy and inspiration found in nature. 

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