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As recent headlines have opined, our globe-trotting ways are killing the planet. The proof is in the numbers: tourism has the third-largest environmental effect of any industry in terms of energy consumption. While air travel has been at the forefront of recent discussions, lodging also has a significant carbon footprint. Globally, tourist accommodations account for 1 percent of CO2 emissions, and hotels rank among the top five most energy-consuming buildings in the service sector, behind structures like hospitals.
According to a 2019 report by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), 70 percent of global travelers would be more inclined to book eco-friendly accommodation. The industry seems to have taken the hint: eco-lodges and “green” hotels are trending. But these days, it can be difficult to discern between environmentally friendly digs and those just trying to profit from the craze. Globally, there are an estimated 250 to 300 entities that claim to certify tourist accommodations as sustainable. They vary in reputation and offer somewhere in the ballpark of 8,000—yes, 8,000—certifications, many of them meaningless.
Take the Green Hotels Association, for example. To the uninitiated, its endorsement seems to be a legitimate seal of approval. But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that the organization does not certify establishments or even require that members adhere to any standards—science backed or otherwise. Rather, it’s a marketing operation that lists accommodations on its website in exchange for an annual fee, starting at $201. The association distributes newsletters to its members featuring ideas and advice that ranges from the rudimentary, such as enforcing smoke-free rooms, to the downright false: “live potted plants keep air healthier,” its website reads, a claim which has been debunked by scientists. The GHA then uses its member directory essentially as a distribution list to shill products, like heated towel racks, and sell merchandise (flags reading “A ‘Green Hotel’ Committed to Help Save Our Planet” go for $68 a pop).
So how can you tell if a hotel is just stamping a feel-good leaf on its literature or if it’s actually taking steps toward sustainability? We’ve consulted the experts on the questions you should be asking to make sure you’re putting your dollars in the right place.
Is it certified as sustainable by a reputable organization?
Gregory Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, a research group based in Washington, D.C., tells travelers to look for the Global Sustainable Tourism Council logo on hotel websites. The organization publishes minimum sustainability standards for the travel industry that account not only for environmental aspects, such as energy and water conservation, but cultural considerations as well, including the protection of sensitive or meaningful sites. While the nonprofit does not certify hotels itself, it verifies that the standards used by third-party certification bodies, such as Control Union and Video Srl, do evaluate whether hotels comply with GSTC criteria. Its icon, a burgundy foot fashioned out of an infinity symbol, seen on a hotel or certification agency’s website, is an easy way to identify businesses that have been through a rigorous vetting process.
The website Book Different is another great resource for finding reputably certified hotels. It aggregates lodging options that have been verified by a variety of organizations, such as EU Ecolabel and Green Seal (which have good reputations but are not yet GSTC certified) and other GSTC-vetted organizations like EarthCheck and NEPCon. Book Different requires that all certifying bodies listed on its website perform in-person audits. Then Book Different applies its own labels to hotel listings, which it terms “staygreen checks.” The site’s “staygreen” indicators—kelly-green check-mark icons that show up next to each listing—are based on four tenets: long-term management plans, fair interaction with the local community and employees, cultural sensitivity, and, of course, environmental concerns. Hotels can be awarded checks for any or all of those categories.
What is its carbon footprint?
It’s not yet standard for eco-lodges to list their carbon footprint, so it’s a good sign when they do and indicates a strong level of accountability. Alongside filters for basic amenities such as parking or breakfast, Book Different provides carbon-footprint scores using a formula developed at Breda University of Applied Sciences’ Centre for Sustainability, Tourism and Transport in the Netherlands. It yields an estimated value based on the amount of direct greenhouse-gas emissions—the CO2 released by any machines owned or controlled by the hotel.
As far as interpreting the score, Randy Durband, CEO of the GSTC, says that going carbon neutral—when there’s no net release of human-caused CO2—is what hotels should be striving to achieve. While hotels that fit the bill do exist, including the Albus in Amsterdam and the Bucuti and Tara Beach Resort in Aruba, the industry at large is playing catchup with the technology that’s available. Book Different employs an easy-to-spot green foot icon for businesses that emit less than 33 pounds of CO2 per guest per night, which it deems the average hotel output. It uses a gray foot icon for anything greater than that.
Paul Peeters, a professor at Breda, stresses the urgent need to decarbonize the industry while starting with a more realistic baseline figure: for the current state of the industry, he suggests that 50 pounds of CO2 a night per guest is reasonable. But he thinks eco-lodges can—and should—strive for close to zero, using only renewable energy such as wind or solar.
How were locals consulted?
The GSTC’s Miller recommends seeking hotels that have addressed social considerations as well as environmental ones. In addition to the obvious positive effects of enhancing cultural heritage and economically benefiting the area’s existing community, involving locals is a good way to mitigate immediate environmental problems. People who live and work in the surrounding areas are the experts in its history of land use and speak up about issues like water and noise pollution, the disruption of ecosystems, and potential stresses on the community from overtourism.
It should go without saying that a hotel should never jeopardize local resources, and that its acquisition of land and water should comply with local rights. Some other signs to look for are whether a hotel has contributed to necessary infrastructure to handle additional tourists; whether its employees, including managers, are from the resident population; and if it prioritizes local and fair-trade products. In short, lodges and their neighbors should be equally excited to talk about what the business is adding to the community.
How does it conserve resources on a daily basis?
“Daily practices are essential,” Durband asserts. Despite all the resources that go into the construction phase, operational practices once a hotel is up and running—from cooking to housekeeping to overhead lighting in common areas—account for the vast majority of energy consumption during the property’s lifetime.
Heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems are particularly important as they’re among the greatest carbon emitters. Lighting and hot water also comprise significant chunks of wasted energy. Ask if efficient appliances have been installed and whether they’re regularly serviced for optimal performance.
Likewise, protocol should be in place for both guests and staff to reduce energy consumption. For example, hotels can set up automated systems to turn off lights and HVAC systems when guest rooms are unoccupied. Alternatively, the housekeeping checklist can include a peek at the thermostat to ensure it’s set at a reasonable temperature while no one is there and to turn off the lights when they’re through.
It’s worth noting, though, that even when sustainable policies exist on paper, practices can vary across different green markers. “Hotels may operate very sustainably in certain aspects and do poorly on others,” Durband says. For example, they might use motion detectors and other energy-savings devices and processes but make little effort to minimize the use of plastics. Others may make false claims, such as saying, “We won’t wash your towel if you hang it on the rack,” only to have housekeeping staff put it through the laundry anyway despite the guest following the printed instructions.
Theoretically, hotels should be able to show you records of staff-education sessions and training materials. In practice, however, the easiest way to find out is to simply ask hotel staff. All of an organization’s employees should be able to tell you the last thing they did to meet the hotel’s sustainability goals—whether it’s waiting to run the dishwasher until it’s full or diverting food scraps to the compost—and why it matters.
What is its long-term sustainability plan?
According to Miller, a deliberate, demonstrated commitment to long-term sustainability is perhaps the most significant indication. While short-term practices, such as replacing small shampoo bottles with bulk containers, are important, look for more permanent investments, like locally sourced, rapidly renewable building materials (such as cotton and bamboo) that allow for passive heating and cooling. These design features may be more expensive for properties up front but actually end up saving them money in the long run and are less easily reversed according to the whims of management.
Sustainability is an ever evolving project. If nothing else, hotels should have a thoughtful, written plan for enacting their environmental goals. This document should lay out precisely when staff training sessions occur and how they go, as well as when and how regularly resource audits happen, including what benchmarks are used. As Miller notes, “Environmental sustainability is hard, committed work.”