Your next hotel stay could be better for the planet — here’s how

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The idea the travel industry can be “green” makes many skeptics roll their eyes.

Flying business class on a gas-guzzling airliner isn’t exactly showering Mother Nature with love and hugs. Neither is having housekeeping come by every day to stock up on new towels and bed linens. But it’s impossible these days to avoid the topic of sustainability when it comes to hotels and airlines.

The question remains: What’s being done about it?

Only 1 in 10 travel companies had sustainability as a priority in their business, Skift reported, according to a study out this week from the Global Business Travel Association and Transport & Environment.

But the World Travel & Tourism Council this month launched the latest iteration of its Hotel Sustainability Basics program, which has 12 criteria ranging from linen reuse programs to community benefit. Hotel companies like Accor, Radisson Hotel Group (which encompasses Radisson-affiliated hotels outside the Americas) and Melia Hotels International are part of the launch group.

The CEOs of Marriott International, Hilton, IHG Hotels & Resorts and Four Seasons signed on to the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance earlier this month as part of their latest effort to significantly curtail — even cut back entirely — carbon emissions over the next few decades.

A key component of the WTTC’s Hotel Sustainability Basics program is showing how simple it can be for a hotel owner or guest to go green, no matter the location.

“Any global scheme faces challenges on individual metrics as issues are context specific. On the environment, water is a different issue in Scotland than in Egypt. Similarly, people and cultural contexts are different all over the world,” said Virginia Messina, senior vice president of advocacy and communication at the WTTC. “As such, it was important to define criteria and measurements that are globally applicable.”

Green tweaks to your next vacation

A lot of the recommendations are already current practices at hotels, like less frequent linen changes during a stay (though guests can always request fresh towels or have the sheets changed on a more frequent basis) and ditching single-use plastics.

Yes, your bathroom at home may look chic with minibottles of shampoo and conditioner from that luxury hotel you stayed at last winter — but the bulk, refillable dispensers are a lot better for the environment. This is increasingly common at midscale hotels, but even luxury brands like Six Senses and some Park Hyatt properties are doing this, too.

“When I was going to our teams and said we’re going to take away single-use bath amenities, which we’re all doing now, they said, ‘You can’t do it [at] luxury hotels,’” IHG CEO Keith Barr said last year during a roundtable at a New York University hospitality conference. “I’m going, ‘Well, we do it over at Six Senses, and we’re charging $5,000 a night for these hotels.”

Barr is one of the CEOs to join the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, on top of IHG’s self-imposed Journey to Tomorrow sustainability initiative that targets all of the company’s new-build hotels to operate at very low or net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. The company also plans to achieve a 46% reduction in carbon emissions from the company’s existing hotels by the same deadline.

Marriott announced a plan to go net-zero at its hotels by 2050, and all the major brands, like Hilton and Hyatt, have their own plans to significantly cut back on carbon emissions.

Step by (green) step

Guests might immediately detect some of the green-fueled changes underway, from eliminating plastic water bottles in favor of glass to hotels encouraging you to reuse your towel. But real estate owners sometimes balk at the behind-the-scenes initiatives to go green.

Many of these initiatives aim to show sustainability isn’t some terrifying drain on a hotel owner’s cash supply. Instead, it’s about making progress in steps: Install solar panels one year while maybe waiting to replace an old boiler with a more energy-efficient condensing one.

Grow a vegetable garden to make your on-site restaurant “farm to table” and perhaps you’ll even make more money in the process. In return, guests get a significantly elevated dining experience compared to the old days of bland hotel restaurants. After all, who doesn’t love posting a plate of fresh vegetables or honey from the rooftop bee sanctuary to their Instagram feed?

Other initiatives, like giving back to the community, appear to already fit in with the rising demand for lifestyle hotels, a concept built around fitting in better with a surrounding neighborhood and relying more on bars and restaurants that cater more to locals than the guests staying upstairs.

Pack it all together, and the future hotel stay certainly seems to be a little more mindful of the surrounding world.

“That was sort of the logic getting into this,” Messina said. “How can we tackle the smaller players? How can we come up with something that is at least going to get everyone on the same level and also create consistency and alignment?”