You like the look of their photos, you love the sound of their suites, but how do you know if that hotel is deserving of having someone with a conscience to stay? As the demand for more eco and ethical brands increases, the world is brushing up on its greenwashing skills. It’s important to recognise that just because a website tells you an establishment is eco-friendly, it doesn’t mean it is.
So what are the virtues to look for? In the past, promising luxury and being environmentally sensitivite were at odds. Now style and sustainability are snuggled up together in seductive escapes, and we don’t have to compromise on comfort or scrimp on indulgence when seeking guilt-free getaways… As long as we’re intuitive about what qualities to look for. If the places we choose to spend time at are a reflection of our values and hopes for a better future for people and planet — mirroring these considerations will get you to the best addresses. Just asking the right questions makes you an eco-activist.
1. Is their ethos aligned with the UN’s sustainable development goals?
Back in 2012, when the United Nations declared the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, corporates and consumers were given clear calls to action – from ending hunger and poverty to improving education and equality, and preserving oceans and forests. Any hotel or hospitality business that is in tune with the Global Goals is, by its very nature, more sustainable.
It sounds complicated, and how do we measure commitment? We need to identify those that don’t just tell us how they’re working to present solutions to world problems but who show us how they’re doing it. A personal approach could be to decide what you care about personally and then work out the hotels walking their talk along those lines. For some examples of hotels that are doing it right, see here.
2. Energy efficiency
How do we measure how energy-efficient accommodation is? It’s a good start if a property talks in a no-nonsense way about how it conserves or limits its consumption of electricity. The Holy Grail is operations run entirely on renewables, with solar panels heating water, energy-saving bulbs throughout and not a whiff of diesel-run generators. New energy-reduction verifications, kitemarks and seals of low carbon-emissions are appearing all the time, but what matters is metrics. Ask: do they measure their energy use and set targets to bring it down year on year?
3. Water saving
Choosing a host that is a savvy water-saver with rainwater-recovering strategies in place is sensible — especially in ‘water-stressed’ destinations. In 2019, the World Economic Forum declared water scarcity and the lack of fresh water to meet demand as one of the most significant threats to our planet’s health. (Worth noting is the correlation between access to safe, drinkable water and a low GDP.) Ask: do they have low-flow showers, low-consumption toilets, do they recycle greywater and is it easy for us to reuse towels and sheets to save on laundering?
4. Waste free
How much trash they send to landfill isn’t an obvious measure of whether a boutique guesthouse or five-star resort deserves to have you in its beds. But a ‘plastic free’ goal is pleasing — nigh-on mandatory for a truly green host — it’s impressive if achieved right down to no clingfilm in the kitchens. A business sending less than 20 per cent of rubbish to landfill usually knows to brag about it, and if you see them talking about circular economies and closed-loop systems that’s a good indicator.
Ask: can they flaunt proof that they recycle, or compost, and whether their waste-disposal system is a paragon of efficiency. They might think you’re a bit odd, but it may well prompt them to prioritise this side of things if they didn’t already.
Often, woke well-intentioned folks think it’s enough to look at the hardware when it comes to judging the eco-friendliness of a hotel. Yes a building having green credentials corroborated by LEED or BREEAM is a big tick, but it’s also about assessing kindness to humans.
Ask: do they hire locally? Are their environmental practices talked about and understood by the whole team? Do they support local charities and initiatives? Do they champion indigenous culture, heritage and traditions? Is it somewhere they could and should act as guardians to staff in terms of giving them nutritious meals and funding healthcare or childcare?
6. Sustainable food and drink
Organic, local and seasonal is what you’re looking for. Check they celebrate home-grown cuisine, avoid beef and favour low-footprint vegetarian ingredients from small independent producers. Yes it’s about low food miles and supporting food systems that follow a Slow Food ethos, but it is not just about the integrity of what we eat and drink there, it’s whether their menu is having a positive, measurable impact on wider food systems. Now that the pandemic has kicked buffets to the kerb at least food waste is down.
7. Chemical free
Striving towards a healthier world involves eliminating pesticides and pathogens — and it’s about hospitality thinking holistically when it comes to design and housekeeping. It takes a brave business to buck the post-pandemic trend towards harsh antibacterial cleaning products to still stand proud when it comes to doing things a more natural way. The use of non-toxic, biodegradable, plant-based, UV or electrostatic purifying methods are a green flag they’re thinking about the long term and bigger picture.
8. Preserving and conserving nature
As Sir David Attenborough underscores in must-see call-to-action documentary A Life on Our Planet, we all need to fly the flag for biodiversity in every way we can. What does this mean when observed through a hotel-choosing lens? They don’t have to have a botanical garden — a living green wall is a good sign. Rolling manicured lawns in arid destinations are not a good look. Ask: does all the planting use native flora?
If they’re in a city, do they host a beehive or roof garden? Biologist and naturalist Edward O Wilson posits in his book, Half-Earth, that we must strive to conserve half the Earth’s land and sea if we’re to get things back on track; there’s no doubt the more of our planet that we can rewild the better. Considering the promotion of healthy ecosystems, protecting natural resources and safeguarding a rich range of species involves a responsible management of energy, water and waste – by doing this a hotel is tuned in better with Mother Nature in a wider way regardless of its surrounds.
9. Overall, it’s simple – does it seem to you that a hotel is having a positive impact?
Any business whose existence and activity is doing social, environmental or economic good for those who are less well off and the regeneration of the planet at large deserves a check-in. In a greener world, hospitality is kinder to stakeholders not just working to please its shareholders. We can do our bit by giving the good guys our cash to stay with them and by asking lots of questions.
Juliet Kinsman is a travel writer and founder of Bouteco, a sustainable luxury consultancy (bouteco.co). Her book,The Green Edit: Travel (Easy Tips for the Eco-Friendly Traveller) published by Ebury is out now.