As eco-hotels expand beyond the jungle and into the mainstream, more properties than ever before are selling themselves as green. David Propson reports on the changing color of hospitality and what it means for you.
Is your hotel everything it claims to be? We've all seen the discreet bathroom placards indicating that, in an effort to conserve water, our linens will not be washed unless requested. These ubiquitous sheet-and-towel programs are an easy way for hotels and guests alike to bask in the warm, green glow of environmentalism. But pay attention: often, housekeeping washes those towels even without your approval, according to Ronald Sanabria, who has spearheaded Rainforest Alliance's efforts to standardize ecotourism certification in the Caribbean and Central and South America. "It's easy to claim to be green," he says, "but God knows what's going on behind the scenes." For the hotel industry, which has long had a troubled environmental reputation, so-called greenwashing—taking on the appearance, but not the substance, of environmentalism—is a big concern. A nature tour here, a recycling bin there, who's going to notice if you're dumping waste into the coral reef or running up energy bills like a Vegas casino's?
There's no doubt that green hospitality has come a long way from the traditional eco-hotel tropes of thatched-roof bungalows and on-staff naturalists. More than a decade after the pioneering Lapa Rios Ecolodge in Costa Rica began championing waste management programs, renewable energy sources, and ecological preservation, hotels new and old are trumpeting an astonishing array of environmental measures. In Paris, near Montmartre, the Ibis Porte de Clichy has a façade covered in photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight into electricity. At San Francisco's Orchard Garden Hotel, which opens next month, every room will have the city's first door-key-card–controlled electricity system—remove your card when you leave and the whole room automatically "turns off." The nearby Hotel Triton has decorated a room on each floor using environmentally safe paints, furniture created from salvaged forest-fire wood, and organic hemp towels and sheets.
No one would accuse these hotels of greenwashing; indeed, they're among the industry leaders. But as green becomes the color of the day, many luxury chains and boutique properties, already experienced in catering to lifestyle fantasies, are scrambling—sometimes carelessly—to bottle it and market it to guests. Perhaps this is the inevitable result when a feel-good trend such as greening meets the realities of the marketplace. It's not just that legitimate and effective environmental measures are expensive and unwieldy for hotels to implement or that there are inherent conflicts between mass tourism and environmentalism—the industry is also plagued by a lack of consistent and uniform standards. Without government regulation or universally accepted certification programs (see "How Green Is My Hotel?"), travelers have little help distinguishing between competing claims for their green dollars. Unless hotels can show guests they're meeting the highest standards, they risk alienating the very affluent, intelligent customers they're trying to attract.
Perhaps the biggest problem, for both hoteliers and travelers, is one of definition. To put it simply: what on earth does "green" mean anymore? A hotel that draws on solar power is green. So is one that composts food waste or passes scraps on to pig farmers, like the Lenox Hotel in Boston. So is the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu in Quebec, which has "adopted" a whale. And so is Turtle Island resort in Fiji, which helps to provide both medical care and high-school educations to members of the local community. Is one hotel more environmentally committed than another?
Ecotourism, by its traditional definition, places equal emphasis on energy, conservation, ecology, and community—issues that are integral to most eco-lodges. But experts such as Hitesh Mehta, a Florida-based landscape architect and board member of the International Ecotourism Society, suggest that "ecotourism" should be thought of as a category within a larger idea: sustainable travel. Mass tourism can be one of the most depleting effects on the environment, explains Sean Southey of the United Nations Development Programme's Equator Initiative. Jets and cars consume fossil fuels, hotels create tons of waste, and trekking humans encroach into natural areas. Sustainable travel seeks to reduce negative impact both locally and on a global scale.
To approach sustainability, one must first calculate the sum of a building's environmental impact, often called its ecological "footprint." A sustainable hotel should have as small a footprint as possible; it should sit lightly on the land. Eco-lodges do this in part simply because they are physically quite small. It's a different story at larger hotels and resorts. "One large hotel in an urban setting can have as much effect, for good or ill, as the eco-lodges of an entire region," says Tedd Saunders of Boston's industry-leading Saunders Hotel Group, which owns the Lenox Hotel. But economics and logistics make it difficult to replicate an eco-lodge's benefits in urban areas and on a larger scale.
In fact, a true zero footprint is nearly impossible to achieve. Take, for example, energy consumption, an issue close to the hearts of many travelers concerned with global warming and energy dependence. Hotel companies are already trying to cut down on electricity use (not to mention energy bills). They might replace incandescent lightbulbs with fluorescents, install motion sensors to reduce power use, or add new glass or insulation to cut heating and cooling costs. Many new properties are being built from the ground up with all these technologies in place, but retrofitting an existing building—to create a sort of "hybrid" hotel—is an expensive endeavor.
Solar and wind power are both still rare in the hotel industry. Large buildings would require massive solar arrays to derive more than a fraction of their power from the sun, and harnessing wind is wildly impractical in an urban setting. Four Sheraton hotels in New York, New Jersey, and San Diego are trying carbonate fuel cells, which create "clean" electricity through a process whose only by-product is water. Although the San Diego Sheraton receives 60 percent of its power from fuel cells, in most hotels, these cutting-edge devices have only a limited effect.
And a carbon footprint isn't just a matter of how much electricity a hotel sucks from the grid. A strict accounting would also include all the energy needed to construct the property in the first place, including that used to transport the building materials from the far points of the globe. Most hotels could become truly "carbon-neutral" only by purchasing green credits or carbon-offsetting (e.g., paying a company to plant trees to counteract the hotel's carbon-dioxide emissions).
Just as carbon neutrality is a noble yet expensive goal, so is achieving an invisible footprint on ecology, be it through minimizing waste, increasing water management, or supporting local communities. Among eco-lodges and their scaled-up offspring, "eco-resorts," the incentive to adopt more stringent standards is strong. The big unknown, however, is whether the rest of the industry will follow suit.
Ultimately, the decision facing both the hotel industry and travelers isn't "green or not?" but "how green?" Though some observers scoff at sheet-and-towel programs as lipstick on a pig, Southey considers them a positive sign. The hotel industry has made great changes recently because properties suddenly realized they had to keep up with the industry leaders. "The goalposts have shifted quite radically," Southey says. "The question is, What's next?"
The answer, most likely, will be lots of little steps. Hotels sit at the top of dozens of supply chains—from bananas to coffee to furniture—many of which are undergoing their own sustainable revolutions. A property can be only as good as its suppliers, which makes hotels handy barometers for the sustainability of the entire consumer economy. Currently, some hoteliers say they want to add more environmentally friendly fixtures, wallpaper, or lighting but are holding off until the prices drop—or the quality improves. Others are making those changes now and betting that travelers appreciate the difference.
"People for the longest time associated environmental sensitivity with inconvenience, and we're trying to debunk that," says Stefan Mühle, general manager of the Orchard Garden Hotel. Michael Freed, whose Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, incorporates extensive sustainable elements, says such attention to detail is just an example of what makes any hotel great: it communicates a sense of place and suggests a way of life. Hotels don't have to follow their customers, Freed argues. "Guests see things we do that they can take home with them," he explains. Hotels can lead guests and introduce them to the compatibility of sustainable practices and a luxury lifestyle.
Ecotourism has always emphasized education—"an interpretive experience," as Mehta puts it, of the local ecology and culture. Why shouldn't all sustainable tourism—from high-design resorts to generic business hotels—make that a goal? After all, most people's "natural" environments look a lot more like hotel rooms than rain forests. The most important test for a green hotel may be whether it can teach even concerned travelers a thing or two about how to live better once the vacation ends.
David Propson is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared in Wired and Business 2.0, among other magazines.