Amy Brown looks at how big hotel chains are working to align themselves with the Global Goals and the Paris Agreement, setting goals to tackle water scarcity, carbon emissions, human rights and youth employment

The estimated $550bn global hotel and hospitality sector is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries. And with some 17.2 million rooms booked each year, it is also one of the most impactful.

Tourism contributes about 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and those are set to grow by 130% by 2035, according to the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

The International Tourism Partnership (ITP) warns that the hotel industry must reduce its carbon emissions per room per year by 66% from 2010 levels by 2030, and 90% by 2050, in order to stay within the limits of the Paris Agreement.  

One of the biggest questions now facing the industry is how to cope with the impacts of climate change

Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says: “One of the biggest questions now facing the industry is how to cope with the impacts of climate change to ensure there is a transition at the destination level to responsible use of resources.” 

She adds: “That includes development of renewable energy solutions at the regional level, protection of coastal infrastructure from sea-level rise, and protection of ecosystems, which help to buffer the impacts of climate change.”  

Many hoteliers, however, are making impressive strides in managing their social and environmental impacts.

Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Four Seasons, Radisson and the InterContinental Hotels Group are among the 14 members of the ITP, a collaborative platform set up by the UK’s Business in the Community responsible business network. ITP members have set 2030 goals aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals on four key issues: water scarcity, carbon emissions, human rights and youth employment. 

“Being a purpose-driven organisation is a big driver for our members,” says Madhu Rajesh, director of the ITP.

“Our members recognise that their corporate clients and other guests want hotels that reflect a sense of purpose, and that unless you consider people and planet along with profit, growth will not be sustainable.”   

We have the potential to drive sustainable and inclusive growth across an industry that is rapidly growing

Hilton has said it will double its investment in social impact and cut its environmental impact in half worldwide by 2030 as part of its Travel with Purpose commitment. 

Marriott pledged by 2025 to train 100% of its employees to recognise human trafficking, a growing problem for the industry (see Hotels try to turn the tide on human trafficking). 

“We have the potential to drive sustainable and inclusive growth across an industry that is rapidly growing,” says Daniella Foster, senior director of global corporate responsibility for Hilton. “We’re opening a hotel a day, so it is important that we look at the future of travel and tourism through the lens of destination stewardship.”  

Jakarta's Mercure Convention Center Ancol won the 2018 Green Hotelier Award. (Credit: Accor Hotels)

Another ITP member, Soneva, which owns three luxury resorts in the Maldives and Thailand, is providing access to fresh water for local communities with its own water bottling plant, while India-based ITC Hotels Group, with its mantra of “responsible luxury”, has Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) platinum-certified each of its hotels, integrating elements such as 100% LED lighting, solar panels and living roofs. 

And the Mercure Convention Center Ancol in Jakarta, Indonesia, winner of the 2018 Green Hotelier Award for responsible hotel of the year, netted 51% water savings on its own property and worked with local government to help 7,300 people improve access to water. 

Air conditioning, kitchen and laundry facilities and hotel guest rooms contribute the most to energy consumption, prompting hotels to focus on energy efficiency, switching to renewable energy and electrification. Using ITP’s Hotel Carbon Measurement tool, some 24,000 member hotels saw a 6.8% reduction in energy consumption in 2016. 

We are encouraging our members to embrace Science Based Targets and to reduce emissions at scale

“That’s significant but a lot more needs to be done,” says Rajesh. “We are encouraging our members to embrace Science Based Targets and to reduce emissions at scale.”    

Hilton has committed to reduce carbon emissions by 61% by 2030, and was the first in the industry to set a science-based target. All Hilton hotels are required to use LightStay, Hilton’s corporate responsibility measurement system, to set annual targets for energy, water and waste usage. The platform measures goal progress, tracks energy use and carbon output.

Since 2008 it has reduced carbon emissions and waste by 30%, and energy and water consumption by 20%, saving more than $1bn in operating efficiencies. 

Hilton has committed to reduce carbon emissions by 61% by 2030. (Credit: Hilton)

At Climate Week New York in September the company signed up to the Climate Group’s EP100 initiative, the energy-efficiency counterpart to the RE100 initiative, committing to expand its smart energy management system and achieve a 40% energy productivity improvement by 2030, from a 2008 baseline.  

“If you just look at this from the perspective of running a business, energy is typically a hotel’s second-highest operating cost,” says Foster. “We’re focused on creating innovative solutions to do more with less.”

Whitbread, the UK’s largest hospitality company, uses 100% renewable energy at all its UK sites and has set a science-based target. It recently announced plans to halve its carbon emissions intensity by 2025 and as much as 88% by 2050. 

If large businesses create more demand, it should cause more renewable energy generating assets to be built

“This was a priority for us, not just because it’s the right thing to do to combat the adverse impacts of climate change,” says James Pitcher, director of sustainability at Whitbread. “If large businesses create more demand for renewable energy in the UK, it should cause more renewable energy generating assets to be built, which will benefit the whole country.”

Arnfinn Oines, who bears the title of social and environmental conscience at luxury hotel chain Soneva, says its resorts are 100% self-sufficient in water, collecting rainwater at its Thai resort and establishing a desalination plant at its Maldives resorts. In 2008 it began bottling all its drinking water in glass bottles, eliminating plastic ones. It opened a water-bottling plant on a neighbouring island in the Maldives, so the local population not only has access to more clean water but consumes it in refillable bottles. 

“Our goal was to provide the local community with water but also to eliminate single-use plastic bottles. It’s run by local entrepreneurs and is something we hope to bring on to more islands in our region, to show you can eliminate plastic-bottle waste and, at the same time, provide good drinking water and run a social enterprise,” Oines says. 

Hotel kitchens are working to reduce food waste. (Credit: ESB Professional/Shutterstock)

Water stewardship is key to Hilton’s initial $1m investment to drive sustainable travel and tourism in Africa, announced in 2018. Hilton’s goal is to reduce its water consumption by 50% and activate 20 context-based water projects in at-risk communities by 2030, with its Africa investment playing a big role. 

Whitbread has a large number of greywater recycling systems installed in its larger hotels, such as the Premier Inn Abu Dhabi, where the system has helped cut water usage by nearly a quarter. “That’s a significant achievement in one of the world’s highest water-consuming countries,” Pitcher says.    

The hotel industry is also facing growing stakeholder pressure to minimise single-use plastic, such as straws, cups, bottles and laundry bags. Hilton eliminated plastic straws from its hotels by end of 2018 and will phase them out of its global portfolio by mid-2019, on the path to its goal of cutting waste by 50% by 2030.   

In providing inclusive employment, the industry has massive opportunities and is making real efforts

Finding the best replacement for single-use plastics for a company as large as Hilton is not easy, says Foster. “We want to understand what the best alternatives are, things that have potential to go to scale. We need to understand if there is access to recycling or to composting, as that would influence the use of biodegradable products. We’re trying to be thoughtful about it and that may mean working with local partners to drive recycling infrastructure where none currently exists.” 

At Whitbread, 100% of waste from its owned Premier Inn and restaurants sites is diverted from landfill. Soneva ended use of single-use plastics in 2008 and recycles 90% of its solid waste. Organic waste is composted and used in the hotels’ vegetable gardens. 

To reduce food waste, Hyatt worked with other major hotel brands, the American Hotel & Lodging Association and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to develop the Hotel Kitchen Toolkit, which includes guidance and best practices around food waste reduction at hotels. At Hilton, each property has its own food and beverage waste reduction goal. 

Aya, one of the participants in Hyatt’s RiseHY youth programme. (Credit: Hyatt)

One in every 10 jobs globally is in the hotel industry. Hotels are often the major employer in developing countries and thus are responsible for the micro economy around them. The industry will need qualified labour to meet its huge growth over the next ten years.  

Many hotels are supporting youth employment to help ensure a supply of skilled labour and address an acute social issue. According to the International Labour Organization, more than 40% of the world’s young people are either unemployed or living in poverty.     

“In providing inclusive employment, the industry has massive opportunities and is making real efforts,” Rajesh says. The ITP Youth Career Initiative is a 24-week hotel-based education programme that provides disadvantaged young people with life and work skills. 

We are in a unique position to be part of the solution because hospitality is an industry where people can start in entry-level roles and build life-long careers

Hyatt’s global programme, RiseHY, pairs hospitality career opportunities with young people aged 16-24 who are neither in school nor working, with a goal to hire 10,000 young people by 2025. 

“At Hyatt, we are in a unique position to be part of the solution because hospitality is an industry where people can start in entry-level roles and build meaningful, life-long careers,” says a Hyatt spokesman.

Through sustainable procurement, hotels can also demonstrate leadership and minimise risk. If exploitation or environmental damage is uncovered in the supply chain, the risks to reputation and profit are real. 

Westin Hotels have found a way to upcycle sheets into children’s pyjamas. (Credit: Westin Hotels)

“The hotel industry is vast, and its procurement methods have enormous potential for good,” says Harvard’s Epler Wood.   

 Hilton’s commitment to double its spend in local sourcing by 2030 is a central part of its Africa initiative, according to Foster.

Hotels are big users of cotton, one of the most resource-intensive crops, with one kilogramme of cotton using 2,000 litres of water to produce, as well as pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. (See Unpicking the confusion over what constitutes sustainable cotton)

Mapping down to the farms where it is grown has allowed Whitbread to 'have fully traceable and sustainable cotton in our supply chain'

In Britain, Whitbread, which is second only to the NHS in the volumes of cotton it procures, has mapped its cotton supply chain down to the farms in Pakistan where it is grown. “This has allowed us to have fully traceable and sustainable cotton in our supply chain in the past year,” Pitcher says.

Some hotels have been innovating in procuring sheets made from alternative textiles, and in more circular approaches to textile waste.

The Peninsula Hotels, a luxury hotel chain operated by The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, is working with social enterprise and retail partners to upcycle cotton from its used bedcovers, turning them into robes for children.

The Westin Hotels & Resorts group worked with South Carolina-based Divergent Energy to develop a proprietary way to break down the fibres in sheets, re-weave them into fabric, and upcycle them into children’s pyjamas, a pilot project that it is rolling out throughout its group.

Independent hotels dominate the tourism sector. (Credit: Madrugada Verde/Shutterstock)

But while the major companies are demonstrating progress, there remain daunting challenges. Epler Woods points out that as tourism grows rapidly around the world, “destinations are becoming increasingly overburdened, and infrastructure is strained. In many regions, there is no sewage treatment and inadequate solid waste management. Hotels frequently do not take responsibility for the lack of adequate infrastructure, even if they seek to manage their own properties sustainably.” 

Those that are trying to act more sustainable are in the minority, points out Epler Wood. “The problem is that the big brands [which have sustainability programmes] only represent a small proportion of the hotel industry. The barrier is the dominance of small and independent brands, which have been shown by academic research to do much less to review sustainability in their business practices.” 

ITP’s Rajesh says to make progress, all hotels have to be on the same journey. “Our ambition is to make this an industry-wide movement for responsible growth and not just for larger companies.”  

But as more in the industry realise how they can balance profit with purpose, she suggests, others will follow suit. 

Amy Brown has written about sustainability and responsible business for over 20 years, specialising in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for organisations and companies across a range of sectors. She is co-editor of Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century.

Main picture credit: Senova

This article is part of the in-depth Sustainable Tourism briefing. See also:

Turbulence at 30,000 feet as airlines plot flightpath on CO2 emissions

Heathrow looks to peatland restoration in carbon-neutral plan

Hotels try to turn the tide on human trafficking

‘Over-tourism’ crisis and fuel emissions dog cruise industry

Cruise industry finds the answer blowing in the wind

‘The travel industry is at the front line of human trafficking. It must act’

travel industry  sustainable tourism  Carbon emissions  Whitbread  Hyatt  sustainable cotton  climate change  Science Based Targets  Hilton  SDGs  International Tourism Partnership  EP100 

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