Sustainability in hotels









Sustainability in hotels

By Sylvain Richer de Forges

The hotel industry is one that is rapidly expending and not without significant environmental and social impacts. There are still countless hotels which choose to develop in remote environments without adequate measures and development objectives that protect the environment and local communities. This trend should change as hotels are in a unique position to educate and lead change towards more sustainable concepts and practices.

Every business line addressing sustainability faces unique challenges and opportunities. Hotels is a very unique business sector that both offers great challenges and huge opportunities through the adoption of a sustainability strategy. While many businesses would only deal with specific industry sectors and stakeholders, when it comes to hotels the sectors of influence are very broad and could drive large scale changes in practices from multiple angles. Indeed, hotels are offering unique educational grounds considering the large number of people from all around the world which transit through them. Despite this simple fact very few hotels have to date taken the sustainability agenda beyond regulatory or compliance requirements.

General confusions on sustainable hotels are apparent. Here a sustainable hotel would be defined as an entity continuously looking to minimize its impacts on the environment and society while maintaining a healthy business model. It is not a single achievement but a continuous improvement strategy.

It makes business sense

We have heard the same story countless times that adopting more sustainable practices also makes good business sense but this statement is especially true in the hotel industry. Indeed hotels are high consumers of water, energy and waste within a relatively small surface area, therefore reductions in consumption effectively translates to significant financial savings.

Hotels are intensive ventures where it takes many years to recover the initial investment. The time for recovery can be significantly cut short through operational savings in energy and water costs predominantly as well as other areas.

Furthermore, tourism predictions point to the fact that the demand for sustainable tourism is expected to rise significantly in the coming years, therefore adopting more sustainable practices not only provides direct cost savings but will also increasingly serve as a key sales point driving business growth.

Another trend is the fact that more and more travellers are looking to escape their busy city urban jungle lives to hotels which provide an immersion back to nature. The search for pristine environments with fresh air, living trees and sites which still hold a diversity of species is becoming the new luxury trend. As people will increasingly move to densely populated cities, this aspect will become more and more apparent.

A holistic approach is key

Most hotels sustainability programs are often only focused on water and energy and sometimes waste as well. While return on investment can be achieved faster through these aspects, there are a range of other aspects hotels should look seriously into which have important implications on the sustainability of the business.

Below are certain key elements which can serve as a general sustainability framework which we will here refer to as the generic DSRSO-approachTM:

–          1) Design: the sooner a hotel can look into sustainable consideration the better it is as only so much can be achieved post construction. If an establishment can start at the design stage than a great deal of efficiency can be achieved passively. Aspects such as maximizing open spaces, preserving trees on site (if any), designing the spaces to make the most use of natural lights and cooling will be key contributors in the overall efficiency of the buildings (and thus cost savings).

–          2) Construction: Construction is also very important as many environmental impacts would happen during this phase. There are many aspects that can be looked into to minimize impacts; from training of the construction team to avoid environmentally destructive practices, setting specific guidelines and putting additional monitoring measures. Very important is also looking into the raw materials used for the built structures as hotels can make use of a significant amount of recycled items without affecting the quality of the structures and comfort. Cost can also be reduced through such practices.

–          3) Retrofitting: The next logical phase is to retrofit the newly built facilities with technologies and appliances which are energy and water efficient. If well planned actually most of a hotel efficiency should be by design (passive efficiency) however this can be further improved through technological inputs. Areas of focus are light fixtures, chiller systems, pumps, water heaters which all can be customized for greater efficiency. If the conditions are suitable, renewable energies should be looked into as well.

–          4) Setting the management: Moving from the hardware elements equally important is to look at how the hotel will be managed. A hotel could be built in the most sustainable way but if it is not managed with a similar mind-set it is wasting the efforts. Management is crucially important and the sustainability agenda should be an integral part of the business model affecting the core decision framework rather than just be a departmental affair. Building a culture of sustainability within the organisation takes time and requires a bottom up approach in which every employee can contribute.

–          5) Outreach: last but not least is setting up outreach programs which could be in the form of a CSR agenda. While a hotel can greatly influence through its in-house activities sharing best practices achieved within but also much beyond the boundaries of the hotel is the next phase. Hotels can use their facilities as education grounds as well as test bedding of innovative technologies and also develop their own educational programs.

A unique potential to educate

Hotels have a unique opportunity to act not only as leisure environments but also as educational centres. The reason for this simply relies in numbers; indeed considering the number of people who transit through hotels around the world at any given time from very different backgrounds and origins the potential to educate is enormous. If only a small fraction of transiting hotel guests would retain something from their stay through educational programs this would already be a significant achievement.

Providing information passively is a specific challenge to this industry sector. Indeed, as people pay to stay in hotels they may not be interested to be bombarded with information they did not ask for. The information can however be displayed and provided in a non-intrusive way which always gives the guests the option to either learn from it or ignore it. This mind-set is very important when setting educational programs for hotels. Examples would include the use of in house TV channels, booklets or display boards throughout the facilities.

Hotels can educate on a range of subjects preferably on issues which are in line with their surrounding and business model. For instance an eco-hotel could choose to educate on environmental sustainability whereas a city hotel could educate on the cultural heritage of its given location. Considering their unique transitional position, any given hotel should at least have some educational focus!


While a general framework (DCRSO –approachTM) acting as a “magic recipe” for a sustainable hotel sounds convenient, like with other businesses it does not work this way and customization is key. Indeed, while many hotels would be quite similar in their built structure and locations (e.g. a typical city hotel), many hotels are actually in unique sites and using unique designs which require customization if looking into a sustainable approach.

Opportunities on a given site will only be available to certain; for instance a site on a beach front could benefit from sea breezes as a central cooling mechanism and the design developed around this concept whereas a hotel near a lake could make use of the fresh water for cooling systems, irrigation and consumption; geothermal energy could be available to some while solar or wind would make more sense to others and so on…the location of the site should shape the sustainability strategy.

The initial assessment of the site at the earliest stage possible is crucial to maximize the potential in terms of sustainability and being able to make the right initial choices.

Pushing the concept

While the vast majority of hotels would simply adopt a basic sustainability strategy focusing on energy-water and waste efficiency, the opportunities to go much beyond are limitless. Design can be customized to the extent of greatly benefiting the surrounding environment and communities.

Some examples of meaningful initiatives could include (but are not limited to): renewable systems that produce onsite energy and redistributing the excess to the grid; purifying rainwater and distributing the excess to the community; providing and enhancing natural habitats to shelter a rich degree of biodiversity for instance through the preservation of trees, creating or preserving water ponds or installing extensive rooftop gardens; collecting the food waste from hotels restaurants and reusing the waste for composting/gardening or biogas production…

An ecosystems approach                              

While many hotels or in fact businesses in general would claim to have sustainability strategies without addressing biodiversity and ecosystem issues this is clearly not possible. Any business serious about sustainability should include biodiversity and ecosystems preservation/enhancement as a core element of their strategy. These two elements are complex and because of this most entities would rather just omit them from the equation; this is not sustainable!

While certain sites are more prone to conservation programs, making use of the ecosystem and preserving the inhabiting biodiversity can be adopted by any hotel. A city hotel for instance in a central urban location obviously will not have much terrain or biodiversity to preserve within its premises, however much can be done by incorporating elements in the design which will create species habitats. This may include making use of rooftop gardens, creating ponds or even developing conservation programs and partnerships beyond the facilities.

Last it is important to understand that sustainability in hotels is not about addressing targeted aspects such as most commonly energy and water but rather about a holistic approach which can only come from the understanding of the impacts and potentials unique to a specific hotel.

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