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Rampant Green-Washing/ Lack of Sustainability Standards Must Stop

The industry needs to come up with a viable system to determine what constitutes a green hotel. If not, unscrupulous green-washing will threaten everyone.

Friday, July 25, 2008
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While the lodging business is spending much time fretting over ‘going green’, someone forgot to define what ‘green’ is anyway. It’s an increasingly alarming problem, one that’s making it impossible for hoteliers to have a system of standardization in which to make critical decisions.

Say what you will about the various hotel rating systems, at least there are clear guidelines as to what makes a three-, four- or five-star hotel. When it comes to sustainability and environmental friendliness, a lack of hotel industry-specific criteria threatens to lump those with a conscience in the same group as those trying to pull a marketing heist on unsuspecting guests.

As it stands right now, hotels that simply don’t wash sheets or towels every day get the same credit with consumers as hotels that are making a top-to-bottom concerted effort to make real change. Unscrupulous green-washing is not only dishonest to travel buyers, but also to those hoteliers that are embarking on meaningful change.

But even more insidious than the green-washing effect is that hoteliers are left flying blind when trying to build sustainable initiatives into their businesses. And let me be clear, the U.S. Building Council’s LEED standards were not created for the hotel industry. So while executives are scrambling for LEED certification many of those rules and regulations are not designed for the hotel business. It would be like the airline industry taking cues from the Department of Agriculture. Different businesses need different sets of criteria.

I applaud hoteliers for going about greening their properties, but the end result will be a hodgepodge of disparate solutions that further confuse clientele. There needs to be a set of hotel industry-specific standards that levels the playing field and eliminates the ability for the dishonest to capitalize on uninformed consumers.

Now imagine trying to launch an honest effort to build a ‘green’ hotel with no set of rules and regulations. Would you be doing enough? Too little? Will decisions you are making today be good enough to take you through the lifecycle of a building that is just now under construction?

Take, for example, the new ELEMENT brand from Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. It’s the perfect example of a brand that is trying to frame itself in the context of environmental responsibility. But there is no benchmark from which brand designers and developers can work against to know if what they are doing is enough or too little.

“There is a ton of green-washing out there and our strategy is to do the right thing,” says Brian McGuinness, global brand leader of ELEMENT, admitting there is a swirl of confusion out there in regard to this very serious issue. “We don’t truly understand what it means to be green, but we are putting our best foot forward to at least be eco friendly.”

He says the brand will continue to increase its sustainability efforts as time goes on. But most importantly, he wants to make sure that consumers understand the truth.

“It is a highly competitive space and people are making a lot of claims. We will not green-wash. We will work at it and take one step at a time. We’ll figure something out before we claim it,” says McGuiness. “Honesty is the best policy in this area.”

But even the well meaning can still be misled without an official system in place. One person’s ‘green’ can still be perceived as chicanery by another.

For example, a couple of weeks back Hotel Interactive® hosted its latest Buyer Interactive Trade Alliance and Conference (BITAC®) event. At this purchasing and design-focused meeting the issue of green kept popping up. And most interesting of all was how easily it is to get suckered into the comfort zone by thinking you’re doing the right thing when you’re not.

Gary Coward, SVP with Concept Amenities Inc., brought up the very real issue of what does a word really mean. Coward noted that people are bandying about “biodegradable” without ever truly understanding what it means. After all, a plastic bottle is biodegradable; it just takes something like 400 years. So if your hotel uses biodegradable products, what exactly does that mean? Is it two weeks, two years or two centuries? And is your definition in line with consumers and industry peers?

These are the very real issues the hotel industry has to tackle together.

Then there are consumers. Edward Kaen, CEO of the Keating Hotel San Diego, said consumers simply take environmental claims at face value, further perpetuating the green-washing phenomenon.

“More than 90% of travelers say they think hotels that claim they are green are actually green, even if they are not. They don’t bother to look into claims any further,” said Kaen.

The industry needs to act now to determine its own environmental stewardship destiny. States like Florida are already at the forefront of the movement with its ‘Green Lodging Program.’ Perhaps the industry should take a cue from initiatives like that. Or not. I simply don’t know.

What I do know, however, is that it is paramount the industry begins a dialogue on what is or is not considered green and sustainable in order to stem the tide of green-washing before it becomes impossible to stop.

So my question to you is this: What do you feel about the green-washing issue and embarking on a set of hotel specific standards?

Send your thoughts to GHaussman@hotelinteractive.com. Let’s see if we can bring about some real discussion on this issue and the challenges that need to be overcome to make this a reality.
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RE: Rampant Green-Washing/ Lack of Sustainability Standards Must Stop article link

We have formed the non profit International Green Hospitality Association to address many, if not all of the very pertinent topics and issues raised in your editorial.

We are currently seeking qualified individuals to serve on the Board of Directors. We expect the first organizational Board meeting to be held in late September in Arizona.

If anyone has suggestions or would like to volunteer their services as a Board member please let me know.

Best Regards,

Ray Burger

Posted by: Mr. Ray Burger - CHA, MHS
Email: ray@pineapplehospitality.net

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