Cornell’s Hotel Sustainability Benchmarking Index Provides Review of Industry Efforts

By David Berman | July 25, 2023

More and more, efforts toward sustainability in hospitality are taking hold. Most of the big brands out there have at least pledged publicly to practice sustainability in their hotel operation and development practices.

How exactly the industry is faring in these efforts is a compelling area of research. The Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration’s Center for Hospitality Research released the 2023 Hotel Sustainability Benchmarking Index in June as a measure of the industry’s sustainability efforts. This is the 9th iteration of the annual report, authored by Eric Ricaurte and Rehmaashini Jagarajan.

This year’s index is the first “post-pandemic” dataset, as the data covers the calendar year of 2021.  The study is being carried out through a partnership between the Cornell University Center for Hospitality Research, participating hotels, Greenview, and an industry advisory group, according to the report. Over 25,000 hotels from 31 international hotel groups participated by providing data.

The 2019 dataset was used as the baseline for comparison against 2021, providing a glimpse of pre- and post-pandemic energy and water usage.

This year’s index shows a “general decrease” in energy and water usage among participating hotels, the report said. Ricaurte and Jagarajan credit the pandemic as the primary factor in the results, as many hotels operated at lower occupancies than usual.

Year-over-year, greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption and water usage all improved on a per-square-meter basis for all hotel categories. For each occupied room, however, the results were varied.

For all hotels, the weighted average change of greenhouse gas emissions for each occupied room showed a 7.25% increase. The overall average change, however, showed a 6.96% decrease. Resorts, full-service resorts and full-service non-resorts performed the worse for each occupied room.

The weighted average change of energy per occupied room showed a 12.78% increase in energy consumption for all hotels; the overall average change showed a slight decrease of .16%. Again, resorts, full-service resorts and full-service non-resorts performed the worst in this category.

Water per occupied room increased by 20.23% for the weighted average change and 9.94% for the overall average change, a worrisome trend, the report said. No category of hotel showed a decrease in water usage for weighted average or overall average change.

The report also compared how hotels performed across star ratings (as indicated by Expedia). As the star rating increases, greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption worsened in general.

Hotels in Norway had the lowest carbon intensity (13.5 kg carbon emissions per square meter) whereas those in Hong Kong, China had the highest (214.5 kg CO2e/m2).

The research in the index has multiple uses, including helping hoteliers benchmark their performance and various stakeholders, including governments and business traveler, calculate the environmental impact of a hotel stay.

Jacob Chestnut, an assistant professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration who specializes in socially sustainable operations, said there’s a fundamental tension between luxury and efficiency that adds context to some of the index’s findings.

He added that there’s a “pandemic asterisk” associated with this year’s dataset, as 2021 was still an unusual year for many properties in the industry. One area where this can be seen is in water usage. In general, higher-end hotels were less efficient than the lower-end. Chestnut theorized this was a direct pandemic effect, as cleanliness became a selling point to attract guests to luxury properties.

“Before the pandemic, these hospitality firms really wanted to put under the radar all the cleaning, right,” Chestnut said. “So you go to a luxury hotel, and you don’t want to see the people spraying disinfectant around, like it’s a luxury experience. COVID really changed that. So there’s like this signaling effect around cleanliness and things like that, where you don’t want to make that obscure. You want to make it totally transparent.”

Over time, Chestnut feels that the industry will naturally improve its sustainability efforts simply because it’s cost efficient to do so. As equipment and materials need to be replaced, it benefits hospitality firms to purchase sustainably rather than not. The floor for sustainability in hotels should therefore rise year-over-year.

“They’re going to need to do renovations and the renovations that they do are going to be more sustainably beneficial than whatever was existing,” he said. “So I think that (it’s) almost by necessity, and I don’t mean necessity like a regulation or anything like that. I just think the necessity of feasibility is going to push the industry more and more towards sustainability.”

Additionally, it behooves luxury properties surrounded by beautiful environments to care about those environments, as customers are going to their properties to experience them, Chestnut said.

Whether the industry will go above and beyond the minimum for sustainability is yet to be seen. But Chestnut is optimistic that companies will make it a priority as consumer awareness continues to grow and the impacts of environmental damage continue to be felt.

“I think that, certainly, a lot of them will,” Chestnut said. “And I think that the reason for that is that talking to these people, I think they legitimately care about it. So I don’t think it’s greenwashing. I think that there is a legitimate desire to minimize the environmental impact of tourism and hospitality.”

The full 2023 Hotel Sustainability Benchmarking Index can be found here.


David Berman

David joined Hotel Interactive at the start of 2023. He previously worked as a page editor for Gannett’s Design Center and the editor-in-chief of The Daily Nebraskan. He graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with degrees in journalism, marketing and advertising/public relations in 2022.

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