Green Hotels

Beyond Good Hospitality

Ten years ago, the Sheraton Rittenhouse Square didn’t even have smoke-free rooms. Now the Philadelphia hotel has air that’s swept clean of such pollutants as mold, pollen and bacteria every 34 minutes. What’s more, the cut-glass front desk is 100 percent recycled, there’s a stand of oxygenating palms in the atrium lobby, the bedding is organic cotton and the paint is volatile organic compound-free. The hotel’s managers say the eco-amenities added two percent to construction costs, but this amount was soon offset by the increased bookings of environmentalist guests.

Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel, like the Sheraton a former member of the hotel establishment, has gone green with a special "Boston Naturally" weekend package that includes a canvas knapsack for each guest, walking maps and free public transit passes. The hotel’s windows are energy-efficient, laundry water is recycled and a rigorous paper-saving campaign saves 300 trees a year.

These days, a hotel has to do more than not wash its towels every day to be considered environmentally correct. The Texas-based Green Hotels Association, for instance, has 200 members representing 17,000 rooms in the U.S., and hoteliers like Janet Byrd of the Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport, Maine (where Styrofoam is banned, kitchen waste is composted, recycled paper is used and the grounds are certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation) say that eco awareness is good business: Byrd says bookings increased 25 percent after the green marketing campaign began.

This is hardly a phenomenon in the U.S. alone. Scandinavia’s Scandic Hotels, for example, is partnering with the Swedish environmental group Natural Step on such initiatives as creating the 97 percent recyclable hotel room, complete with furniture produced from local trees, pure wool or cotton textiles, and very little metal. The leading global body is the International Hotel Environment Initiative (IHEI), a nonprofit group founded in 1993 that now represents 11,000 hotels on five continents. It’s difficult, given differences in cultures and attitudes, to develop guidelines that work for such a diverse range of accommodations, but IHEI has published handbooks, purchasing manuals and user-friendly action packs, as well as Green Hotelier magazine.

The model of the foreign-owned tourist skyscraper, exporting its profits and operating with zero input from the local community, may be fading, but that’s not to say that victory has been achieved. "A lot of the larger hotels are making efforts to be more sustainable environmentally," says Costas Christ, senior director for ecotourism at Conservation International. "But they haven’t approached the side of the equation that addresses local people’s needs and benefits. Do they buy local produce? Do they hire local people?"

A model, Christ points out, could be the ecolodge developed as a collaboration between the nomadic Shampole Maasai people of Kenya’s Rift Valley and the Africa Conservation Centre, headed by David Western. More than 100 local community members were involved in building the lodge, and their expertise is behind the marketing and managing of it. The Shampole Maasai own 30 percent of the ecolodge, a stake that will grow to 80 percent within 10 years. Meanwhile, the ecolodge is a linchpin in the preservation of a 25,000-acre conservation area. Half of the funds raised by tourism go to support local conservation efforts.

While large hotel chains are unlikely to ever be as conscientious as this, they can certainly start paying more attention to the communities whose hospitality they enjoy.