The appeal of environmental stewardship — and the pressure to be personally accountable — hasn’t been lost on the hotel and airline industries. Sustainable travel has gone mainstream, with a host of hotels, resorts and airlines making “green” claims in order to reach out to (and attract) travelers concerned about the health of the planet and their own carbon footprint.
In the scuttle to tap into this lucrative, steadily growing market, the phrases “eco-friendly” and “green” have been commandeered by nearly every hotel promising to save the planet by not washing your towels or changing your linens unless you specifically tell them to do so. But if hotels and airlines actually laid their green cards on the table, how many of these altruistic claims would hold up to scrutiny?
Depending on the hotel, popular environmental initiatives that actually have a positive impact include programs that reduce water consumption, integrate alternative energy, incorporate recycled materials into structures, utilize eco-friendly cleaning products, reduce carbon emissions by buying locally produced foods and products, and choose alternative energy vehicles for onsite operations. Once initiatives have been undertaken and implemented, a hotel or resort can seek green certification.
And that’s where things get interesting. While in some countries standards exist that define what’s green and what’s not, and programs like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and Energy Star require claims to be supported by proof before certification is awarded, there’s currently no mandatory accreditation process or program in most places (including the United States) that a hotel must submit to before making environmental claims. Instead, an increasing number of independent programs offer certification without even the most rudimentary inspection of a property or its claimed initiatives. With no enforcement and no risk of penalties being assessed if claims don’t add up, the incentive for compliance may be nonexistent.
Currently in the United States, green hotel programs are offered in more than 20 states. At the time of this writing, a quick Google search of “green hotel” turned up 490,000 entries. While a number of properties and airlines are truly walking their talk, the unfortunate truth is that the term “green” can look suspiciously like an emerald-colored marketing tool.
What’s in a Name?
Brian T. Mullis, CEO of Sustainable Travel International, explains that certification programs fall into three categories. Carrying the least weight is first-party certification, where a hotel operator fills out an application, sends it in and gets an eco label in return — usually for a membership fee.
“Second-party certification, on the other hand,” says Mullis, “means that there are certain limits and barriers to entry. An application is filled out and then verified through a desk assessment. For instance, the application may require a disclosure of energy consumption and kilowatt hours. The assessor will be familiar with the average output for the size and type of property up for consideration and will recognize whether the figures fit. If the property has a sustainability policy, this can be checked as well. So there is a certain level of verification. Third-party certification is the highest level, and requires that an independent auditor verifies the applicant’s claims, along with the extent to which that applicant is engaging in the practices that they claim to have in place.”
Whether or not a hotel or airline has a label attached, there are a number of positive changes that are being implemented. Things that actually make a measurable difference include the switch to renewable energy sources appropriate to location, such as geothermal, wind and solar; fuel conservation; aggressive recycling programs to reduce waste production; the use of LED light bulbs; and local buying practices that support area producers while reducing carbon emissions created by hauling in supplies from afar.
An example of how a relatively small change can have a big result is a new program that RockResorts and Vail Resorts Hospitality have embarked upon, called Water on the Rocks. The goal is to eliminate plastic water bottles in guest operations, replacing them with reusable bottles and refill stations. Company-wide, this means that an annual estimated 640,000 plastic water bottles will be saved from the waste stream, along with the 4,000 barrels of oil that would be required to manufacture and ship them.
Proof that a hotel can be luxurious and green, the Hôtel Fouquet’s Barrière in Paris was recently awarded STI’s Luxury Eco Certification — one of six properties worldwide to meet all 100 criteria necessary for qualification. Green practices at the 5-star hotel extend to hybrid limousines as well as a fleet of E-Solex eco bicycles for guests’ use.
General Manager Pierre Ferchaud explains that one of the main challenges to going green was that the hotel was not initially built as an eco-friendly property. “[The hotel] quickly adopted its ‘Dignified Luxury’ concept, which refers to a reasonable middle ground between unscrupulous waste and an outdated form of austerity,” he explains. “Guests have been positively enthusiastic to the changes, as underscored by the satisfaction questionnaires.”
Renovating and retrofitting have their challenges, however, and the line between the positive impact of adding or replacing existing features with greener or more efficient ones begs the question of what happens to the things being replaced. For instance, adding low-flow water features is a good step — unless the old ones wind up in a landfill. When done responsibly, however — such as replacing fixtures and materials as it becomes necessary — the outcome can be impressive. At another historic property, Stone House in Little Compton, R.I., the 1854 manor house was recently renovated with an impressive number of eco-friendly features including a solar chimney, geothermal heat, salvaged slate roofs, recycled tumbled glass and crushed-shell pathways, zero-impact water recycling and a rainwater collection system.
The range of voluntary eco efforts includes Fairmont’s Green Partnership Program; Kimpton’s EarthCare; and a Green Check-in rewards program at Westi n Riverfront Resort & Spa in Vail Valley, Colo., that offers guests a discount on spa services if they arrive at the spa in their guestroom robe, reducing the need to launder a second robe. This property also provides guests with recycling stations on every floor, priority parking for hybrids, and has an onsite organic garden, an open-space protection policy and roof tiles made from recycled tires.
Some new resorts are being built green from the ground up, such as Aquas de Ibiza in Spain, planned entirely around the concepts of energy optimization and generation and sustainable operating practices. Free-cooling technology features automatic air renovation, high-performance/low-energy lighting systems, solar protection to reduce heat entering buildings and to lower greenhouse gas production, a water separation network, environmental light detectors and energy-generating glass panels.
Fly the (Eco) Friendly Skies
When it comes to measuring the carbon offset claims made by airlines, things get tricky. The problem is that emissions produced by each flight differ because of the variables involved in each calculation: aircraft size, altitude, speed, route, engine type and weight — including passengers and cargo. It’s enough to make an MIT grad’s head spin off into the clouds.
The International Air Transport Association has set a lofty goal of creating a zero-emissions airplane within 50 years, and the European Union has declared that it will apply an airline emissions cap by 2012. While the big industry news in aviation’s environmental advances centers around Boeing’s new green machine, the 787 Dreamliner, a number of programs are currently in place with existing aircraft and biofuel testing. Participating airlines include Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, Air New Zealand and JetBlue. Virgin raised the bar by recently completing the first flight using a commercial aircraft running on 20 percent biofuel. The Boeing 747-400 flew using 80 percent jet fuel and a 20 percent blend of coconut and babassu oils.
Meanwhile, the majority of carriers, including Avianca, EVA Air, Delta Air Lines and British Airways, currently have offset programs in place — though their overall effectiveness remains a topic of debate. The fuel conservation program at Qantas includes aircraft weight reduction, better scheduling and punctuality, enhanced flight planning and navigation and reduced reliance on auxiliary power units. While overall fuel reduction, tree planting programs and aggressive recycling are the most common offsets being practiced, some airlines are getting creative. At TAP Portugal, the in-flight magazine has become entirely carbon neutral, offsetting climate effects associated with its printing and production by generating credits through agricultural and forestry projects based in developing countries. As a result, TAP was distinguished by UNESCO and the International Union of Geological Sciences with the IYPE Planet Earth Award 2010 for Most Innovative Sustainable Product.
A hotel, inn or tour company’s travel brochures and websites have one main goal: to persuade you to book your vacation with them. Right now, it’s up to travelers to determine whether or not claims of environmental responsibility are true.
“If the company has an eco label, that demonstrates some level of commitment,” says Mullis of Sustainable Travel. “It matters that there is a publicly stated commitment to sustainable travel in some shape or form. We tell travelers, if you’re comparing companies and other factors are comparable, call and ask a few questions — such as, ‘What are you doing in the area of recycling, using renewable energy sources or helping with heritage conservation and local economic development?’ Everyone on staff, from the receptionist to the top manager, should be able to answer those questions. If quality and convenience are assumed to be equal, most consumers will make the green choice.”
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