Sustainability within the hospitality industry has come a long way since the arrival of in-room suggestions to reuse towels and save water. Hotels and other hospitality businesses are increasingly taking a more mature approach that incorporates socially responsible practices as well as sound environmental and economic policies.
As public awareness and consumer confidence in sustainability grow, the pressure is on for the travel and tourism sector to walk the talk – according to Booking.com’s 2018 Sustainable Travel Report, 87% of global travellers say they want to travel sustainably. In 2019, we can expect to see hospitality companies implementing more innovative practices to benefit people and the planet as well as financial performance, while also ensuring that guests are aware of their good deeds.
Sustainable tourism: The big picture
Government and public support for the promotion of sustainability across industries has been mounting in recent years. In 2015, 193 nations agreed to work towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 goals designed to ensure a better future for all through the introduction of significant changes by 2030.
Representing 10.4% of global GDP and supporting one in 10 jobs worldwide according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the travel and tourism sector has the potential to make enormous social, environmental and economic contributions – a fact that travellers increasingly recognise.
“As going green becomes mainstream, it will take more than claims of good intentions for businesses to convince conscientious consumers”
The United Nations captured this zeitgeist in declaring 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, a campaign which has spread further awareness while spurring businesses and travellers to embrace ethical policies and actions.
More recently, the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has developed a statistical framework for Measuring the Sustainability of Tourism (MST) to be adopted as an international standard in 2019.
From green to transparent: The proof is in the report
As going green becomes mainstream, it will take more than claims of good intentions for businesses to convince conscientious consumers. Transparency will become even more important in the future as ethical travellers seek evidence to back up messages of corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Leading the way are hotel groups such as Nordic Choice Hotels, Scandic Hotels Group and AccorHotels, which have set new industry standards in CSR transparency by releasing annual public reports and other detailed information on the sustainable practices they follow.
Notably, the most effective brands focus not only on their environmental impact, but on their impact on society; for example, Nordic Choice’s “WeCare” sustainability approach highlights six areas of action, which include local social responsibility, ethical trade, diversity and initiatives against child trafficking.
Making a big difference through small habits
In addition to knowing the facts and figures of a company’s CSR approach, socially minded travellers want to see such measures in action. Millennials in particular care about supporting brands that resonate with their values – a 2015 survey conducted by Nielsen found that 73% of those born from 1977 to 1995 are willing to pay more for sustainable goods, compared to 66% of all global consumers.
The banning of plastic straws is one clear example of how hospitality brands have responded to changing consumer attitudes. “Single-use” was declared Word of the Year 2018 by Collins Dictionary, which noted a four-fold increase in use of the word since 2013.
Growing public concern about the environmental damage caused by single-use plastics has led businesses to rethink everyday practices. Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line, McDonald’s and Starbucks have all launched initiatives to phase out the use of plastic straws, and we can expect to see more businesses replacing single-use plastics with eco-friendly alternatives in 2019.
Social commitment and travelling with purpose
Innovative brands are also highlighting their engagement with social causes, often resulting in a more authentic experience for guests, who play an essential role in making these community initiatives possible. For example, Good Hotel London combines premium hospitality with a social business concept. The floating hotel docked on the River Thames provides long-term unemployed locals with hospitality skills, on-the-job training and a full-time salary. Afterwards, trainees are redirected to permanent job opportunities in the local economy.
In Vienna, Magdas Hotel is dedicated to helping refugees overcome barriers to employment and social integration. Two thirds of the hotel’s staff are people with a refugee background, and the hotel celebrates this diversity, encouraging travellers and staff to interact. Meanwhile, beyond the hotel industry, Starbucks has made a commitment to hire 10,000 refugees worldwide by 2022.
“As socially minded travellers continue to seek brands that reflect their values, many may also turn to volunteering as a way to interact with and contribute to local communities”
As socially minded travellers continue to seek brands that reflect their values, many may also turn to volunteering as a way to interact with and contribute to local communities. Organisations like Adventure Alternative, WorldVentures Foundation, andBeyond and The Village Experience offer travellers the opportunity to work on humanitarian projects during their journey.
Entering the circular economy
Finally, the shift towards a circular economy system has the potential to transform the hospitality industry. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines a circular economy as one that is “restorative and regenerative by design,” as opposed to a linear “take, make and dispose” economy. It’s a model that resonates with the “leave no trace” ethos championed by nature lovers and the ideals of responsible travellers.
The exterior of QO Amsterdam, a hotel built on circular economy principles, features thermal panels that react to the outside climate to conserve the energy needed to regulate indoor temperatures. The hotel has also been designed with recycled materials, such as carpeting made from 100% recycled yarn previously used in fishing nets. And to reduce wastewater, QO has developed a grey water system in which all water that comes from showers and sinks is used again to flush toilets.
More sustainable innovations are on the way. Scheduled to open in 2021, Norwegian hotel Svart will be the world’s first energy positive hotel concept by the Arctic Circle. Reducing its yearly energy consumption by 85% compared to modern hotels, Svart will harvest enough solar energy to cover both hotel operations and the construction of the building.
For the future of sustainable hospitality, going in circles may not be such a bad thing.
Dr Dimitrios Diamantis is Dean of Graduate Studies at Les Roches Global Hospitality Education, Switzerland, and Dr Alain Imboden is an Associate Professor and Accreditation Officer at Les Roches Global Hospitality Education, Switzerland