Sustainability Is No Longer Optional by John Burns

Sustainability has been a buzzword in the hotel industry for a dozen years, maybe longer. Truthfully though, it has been more marketing jargon than an active commitment to minimizing our impact on the environment. But that’s changing.

Societies around the globe are increasingly sensitive to sustainability, and to the companies that appear genuinely interested in supporting it. This awareness of the issue, as well as actions to implement impactful programs, is increasingly evident in the travel industry.


At a global level, key organizations are announcing travel-related initiatives, such as UNESCO’s Sustainable Travel Pledge and the United Nation’s World Tourism Organization’s Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism.

More specific to the lodging industry is the World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) Hotel Sustainability Basics program. It consists of a dozen indicators developed by the industry, for the industry. According to the WTTC, they “represent 12 actions that are fundamental to hotel sustainability.” The initiative includes what WTTC terms a “validation program” that will launch in the fourth quarter, 2022.

Multiple airlines websites now list the carbon footprint of flights and itineraries, then offer travelers (or their employers) the opportunity to purchase corresponding carbon offsets. Meanwhile, the auto rental industry’s principal sustainability plan appears to be a gradual transition to electric vehicles.

For hotels the options, and their rate of adoption, are less clear and concrete. The age, design diversity, ownership fragmentation and capital availability in the global lodging sector means that upgrading hundreds of thousands of properties to strengthen their sustainability requires hundreds of thousands of site-specific action plans.


The scale of the required effort is daunting. Balancing this is the fact that customers are placing a higher and higher priority on patronizing companies that prioritize sustainability. Our customers — our guests — are seeking detailed information and evidence of action. Increasingly, corporate rate and meeting facility RFPs specifically inquire about sustainability initiatives.

In the hotel industry we have a wealth of sustainability-supportive actions available to us. We have the communication channels through which to inform prospective clients of our efforts. Some are large, lengthy and expensive. 

Others, fortunately, are more immediately and inexpensively implementable. Options include: 

Front of the House

  • Recycling — not just guests’ paper and containers, but across the property, including bottles from the bars and
  • metal/plastic containers from the kitchen.
  • Replacing single use personal hygiene amenities with a bulk dispenser.
  • Designing/rewiring guestrooms to include key card operated master on/off light switches at the room entrance.
  • Installing occupancy sensor equipped thermostats that adjust guestroom temperature when unoccupied.
  • Raising the lowest possible air conditioner temperature setting.
  • Lowering the maximum hotel water temperature.

Back of the House

  • Donating unused food and unconsumed meals.
  • Using environmentally friendly cleaning chemicals.
  • Organizing employee carpools and supporting public transport vanpool programs.
  • Retrofitting hotels with LED lighting. Where practical, installing motion sensor-controlled corridor lighting.
  • Installing multiple electric vehicle (EV) charging stations on property. Charging EV drivers a lower parking fee.
  • Implementing laundry and dishwashing technology and techniques that reduce water consumption.
  • Updating elevator and escalator equipment to automatically adjust to low or no user demand.
  • Replacing old windows and doors with more efficient models.
  • Upgrading HVAC systems to current generation, high-efficiency technology
  • Researching options for on-site solar or wind power electricity generation.
  • Restructuring purchasing procedures and pressuring vendors to reduce delivery trips to the hotel.
  • Encouraging hotel companies to establish programs to assist hotel owners with energy-saving system replacement plans.
  • Seeking sustainability-supportive processes and procedures, then training and rewarding staff for their adoption and consistent use.
  • Soliciting, rewarding and sharing sustainability ideas within the property, brand and industry.

Advocacy and Promotion

  • Prominently announcing the hotel’s sustainability efforts and achievements on property and online.
  • Offering guests the option of purchasing carbon offsets.
  • Setting national and regional lodging industry association standards and reinforcing them with certification programs.
  • Recommending that lodging industry sustainability standards and certification apply equally to vacation rental and sharing economy accommodations. Should this not be achievable, promoting the hotel industry’s higher sustainability standards.

The presence of significant and ongoing sustainability efforts are more and more an accommodation selection determinant. Participation isn’t simple or cheap, but it’s no longer optional. And that’s fine, because at the end of the day, sustainability is good business.