It Pays To Be Sustainable

With real, long-term economic benefits, sustainability doesn’t have to be a cliché. It simply makes good business sense.

Sustainability-in-hotels-logoHoteliers are progressively under pressure to become more sustainable, offer impeccable service, and run ethical businesses as demanded by more environmentally conscious customers. The good news is that investing in sustainability in hotels not only helps mitigate operational impacts, but also reaps continuing monetary benefits.

As awareness on environmental degradation and the need to reduce our global carbon footprint increases, more travelers are opting for hotels that reflect a commitment to sustainable practices. Staying at one of these hotels gives a guest that feeling of being able to contribute through making a conscientious choice and increases their perceived value of the hotel. The rise in access to immediate information, the social media movement, and mounting guest sophistication have influenced hoteliers to be more environmentally friendly, ethical, and transparent in their operations. From a marketing and financial point of view, hotels that don’t pivot towards sustainability are missing out on all the benefits.

So what exactly does it mean to be ‘eco-friendly’? We are past that time of merely being “friendly” towards the environment. Countless scientific studies have shown that we need to make changes to our way of life if we are to have a hope of continuing it. The Hospitality and Tourism Industry has a significant impact on the environment due to its rate of water consumption, the use of consumable goods and energy, and waste generation, all of which can impact a hotel’s reputation and bottom line.

Along with increased awareness on environmental issues, there has unfortunately also been a rise in generalised statements of how a company is supposedly ‘green’, with no real substance.  The concept of ‘green washing’, a form of spin used to portray a company’s activities as environmentally friendly when they are not, is all too frequent in the hotel industry. Well-publicised global campaigns to “save the planet” really boil down to removing plastic straws in F&B outlets. These attempts are well-intentioned, but to actually cut emissions and minimise the negative environmental impact, there is more that can be done. There is no need for hotels to throw around words like ‘eco-’ and ‘sustainable’ for marketing alone, when implementing simple, authentic initiatives can bring real change and significant cost savings for the business in the long run.

Reduced inefficiencies, lowered costs, better risk management, improved staff engagement, and a competitive advantage are some of the long-term, tangible benefits to being sustainable. It doesn’t have to be daunting, it simply makes business sense for hoteliers to implement these initiatives to increase profitability and provide better guest experiences.

So where can hotels start to make an immediate impact on the bottom line?

Water

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Low-flow taps can reduce water consumption by 50 per cent.

Sri Lanka has been fortunate to possess an abundance of water due to its ancient hydraulic systems and vast natural resources. However, overconsumption, wastage, pollution, and degradation of resources mean this is changing, exacerbated by a lack of long-term plans to conserve water. Hotels have a compelling incentive to conserve water, and not just on moral grounds – it costs more to use and dispose of waste water.

A water management plan to track water consumption is a good first step to establish your baseline.  The installation of low-flow taps with adjustable flow restrictors that can reduce water consumption by over 50%; dual-flushing toilets that can save up to 60% of water per flush; and low-flow shower heads that consume almost half the rate of conventional ones at around 9.45 liters a minute, are all relatively low-cost installations. In 2013, the Holiday Inn in Flinders, Australia, recouped its AUD $22,000 (USD $19,500) investment in low-flow technology after 18 months, and cut water usage by 50%.

According to the 2018 International Tourism Partnership’s Report on Water Stewardship for Hotel Companies, hotels have a responsibility and interest in managing water sustainably. They can start by setting targets for water consumption reduction and better management. Simply raising (and maintaining) employee and guest awareness on water consumption can also improve water conservation.

A rain water harvesting system can be a practical option in Sri Lanka. Strategic roof designs or gutter placement can supply water for irrigation around the premises. Rainwater and grey water recycling can bring significant efficiency and cost savings at a moderate capital cost and quick payback period (less than a year in some cases). Strategies like these have already been implemented in some hotels in Sri Lanka. Jetwing St. Andrews saves 1.3 million liters of freshwater per annum by reusing over 75% of the water consumed after treatment in its Waste Water Treatment Plant.

Sustainable Energy Practices

Simple, no-cost changes like turning lights, fans, A/Cs, and sockets off when not in use, transitioning to LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs and investing in more energy efficient equipment, are all actions that will result in energy and cost savings. Managing energy is an important step in becoming more sustainable, and one where real financial benefits result from relatively simple actions.

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Sustainable energy choices save money. The boiler at Jetwing Lake alone saves almost Rs 6 million each year and has cut the use of 97,500 liters of diesel.

Jetwing Beach Negombo achieved an annual saving of over Rs. 1 million and 62,816 kWh of energy by switching to LED lights, and saved a further Rs. 165,602 by using a key card system for room lights (a saving of 9,373 kWhs of energy).

The transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable sources of energy will become mandatory if our consumption-based lifestyle is to continue. The Jetwing Group has experimented with sustainable use of biomass, with impressive results. They have installed biomass boilers using cinnamon wood at eight of their hotels with plans to implement them in all hotels by the end of 2019. Previously, cinnamon wood was a waste product without a market. Now Jetwing buys half of the 55 metric tonnes produced annually. The boiler at Jetwing Lake alone saves almost Rs. 6 million each year and has cut the use of 97,500 liters of diesel annually.

Solar is another energy source perfectly suited to Sri Lanka’s sunny climate

When Ulagalla by Uga Escapes first opened in 2010, it had the largest solar installation in South Asia. Once costly, the technology has become affordable and payback periods can be as little as 5 years. With a lifetime of typically 15-20 years, new contracting options with utility companies are making this low maintenance energy source even more attractive. The Jetwing Lake Hotel has a 300 kW double-facing solar installation that generates 35% of the hotel’s total electricity requirement, a saving of almost Rs.7 million annually. It produces on average 1,300 kWh per day, saving 260 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.

In 2016, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company embarked on a three-year program centered on reducing energy consumption. This program led to a reduction of over 13% from the baseline year, which decreased overall energy spend. The three-year energy cost savings were over US $11 million. The Langham Hospitality Group, through its New Zealand hotel ‘The Cordis, Auckland’ has been tracking its carbon emissions since 2006. The hotel saved 25 million megajoules (MJ) in energy consumption through on-going energy monitoring and retrofitting projects, and minimized 332,000 kgs of landfilled waste through recycling. According to the Group’s 2017 Sustainability Report, these initiatives added up to nearly NZD$ 700,000 in financial savings that year.

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The Swisshotel Chicago saved $250,000 annually by incentivising guests to select less frequent housekeeping.

Hotel Laundry

According to Green Hotelier, a hotel’s laundry room is one of the most environmentally impactful areas of its operations, notorious for the use of excessive water, energy, chemicals/detergents, and improper disposal of waste water.

Most guests do not care about having squeaky-clean sheets and towels every day of their stay. As long as they are clean when they arrive, more often than not, guests would opt to have their room laundry done after their departure and seldom during their stay.

The ecological and financial savings from this can be significant. The Swissotel Chicago introduced a ‘Make a Green Room Choice’ initiative in 2014, which gave guests the option of customizing the housekeeping service to their individual needs and incentivised them with a $10 credit to spend at any hotel F&B outlet for each day they opted out of housekeeping. The number of rooms that participated in this went from 10,530 in 2014 to 16,225 in 2017. The result was 1 million liters of water, and 2,700 kgs of detergent saved over a period of three years.

Not only was their ecological footprint significantly lower, but the hotel saved US$ 250,000 annually on payroll, detergents, water, and electricity. This simple initiative had remarkable, quantifiable results, including the intangible feel-good factor for guests who felt they were helping to make a difference.

Opting to wash with cold water, ensuring all machines are running on full loads, regular maintenance, minimising rinse cycles without compromising on wash quality, and reusing water from previous rinse cycles will all help to optimise energy consumption.

Food wastage in hotels can be a huge environmental problem, and an unnecessary business expense.

Sustainable Waste Management

Efficient waste management can save a hotel money, from raw materials suppliers to third-party disposal systems. Food waste is the largest contributor to landfills, at 21%. Raising employee and guest awareness on the impact of food waste, increasing composting, and recycling food waste as animal feed, are options to reduce this.

When food waste decomposes, the biogas released into the atmosphere is primarily methane (a greenhouse gas), which is almost 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Installing a biogas digester and using the gas as fuel has the triple benefit of reducing reliance on LPG, reducing landfill waste and releasing CO2, not methane, back into the atmosphere.

The digesters require a certain level of heat to be maintained, making them perfect for a tropical country. It’s also cost effective. The biogas digester at Jetwing Lake gives an annual saving of Rs.1 million and the staff kitchens are entirely run on bio gas. The digester takes in 4,500 kgs of food waste to produce 1,370m3 of biogas per month.

Hotels that have gardens can make a choice to maximise effective use of the space. The Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort in Fiji, for instance, grows much of its food onsite. Their organic garden grows fruits, vegetables and herbs, and any food that cannot be grown onsite is sourced from local organic farmers, with only sustainably-caught fish served on the menu. There is also a flower nursery on the property, which provides the flowers used for decoration around the resort.

Do not underestimate the power of collaborative efforts. While Sri Lankans tend to be naturally hospitable, there are also many instances where organisations or individuals are hesitant to work together despite being in the same industry, due to an unwillingness to fraternise with competition for fear of their ideas being copied. This attitude needs to change if the Hospitality and Tourism Industry is to achieve milestones to practice better sustainability. Sharing knowledge is mutually beneficial, as getting more people involved can spark innovation, avoid repeating past mistakes, and not have to reinvent the wheel.

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National Geographic estimates worldwide, 73 per cent of beach litter is plastic. The impact on beach tourist destinations is intensively negative.

Reducing Plastics

We’ve all seen those heart-wrenching images of plastics affecting our marine ecosystems. The issue of plastic waste stems from irresponsible consumption and disposal on land, which makes its way down water systems. Stopping the use of single-use plastics (bags, straws, cutlery etc.), opting for alternative materials, and recycling are some of the simplest actions one can engage in to reduce overall plastic waste.

The Mango House in Galle Fort aims to be totally plastic-free. Eco-friendly packaging is used for packed lunches where everything, down to ice tea in jam-jars, is bio-degradable or reusable. As co-founders of the Greener Galle initiative, the owners are proactive in arranging recycling as a collective for properties in the Fort area. Guests are informed about the initiatives through information cards in the rooms and on the website.

Jumeirah Vittaveli, a resort in the Maldives uses an in-house water bottling plant as part of an on-going commitment to reduce the hotel’s carbon footprint. By producing glass bottles instead of shipping in bottled water, the resort saves approximately 70,000 plastic bottles per year. It also cuts greenhouse gas emissions associated with importing these goods.

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Where do those individual plastic water bottles from hotel guest rooms really end up? Isn’t it time to switch to a more sustainable alternative.

Jetwing has also embraced the transition to glass bottles from plastic. Its Jetwing Lake hotel has its own in-house water bottling plant in a converted shipping container, itself rescued from becoming scrap. This initiative allows them to produce an average of 4,500 bottles and eliminate 45 kgs of plastic waste monthly, in turn reducing emissions from transporting plastic bottles.

Building a bottling plant may not be an option for every hotel, but there are plenty of suppliers who can provide water in glass bottles, and then collect them for cleaning and refilling. Where plastic can’t be cut out altogether, the advice is to recycle. But one might ask, how much of this plastic packaging and containers is truly recycled?

Recycling procedures vary amongst countries and even between different cities depending on the availability of facilities. All plastic containers are labeled with a Resin Identification Code (RIC) that tells you which grade of plastic you’re dealing with, and how well it can be recycled. It is always good to have open communication with your local recyclers/Municipal Council or body responsible for waste disposal to understand what can be recycled.

A conversation with your suppliers to raise awareness on the production and supply of specific types of plastic for your hotel’s use will create opportunities for improved management.

Think carefully about what you are providing to guests. Do your drinks need to be served with a straw? Are individually packaged toiletries required or are ceramic containers a more elegant option? As the tide moves strongly against single use plastics, what kind of emotion are you invoking in your guests by forcing them to use a single-use plastic bottle for water in their rooms?

Sustainable Process Management

Sustainability through improvements to process management can be a simple choice made every day and integrated into the business operations across the value chain. Hotels can exercise their purchasing power by opting to buy only from suppliers that meet a minimum standard (eg. those who use reusable plastic crates to bring produce, biodegradable packaging, avoid plastic containers, supply in bulk).

It’s also important is to communicate your sustainability initiatives to your guests – tell them about your journey, and share your story! Posters, flyers, booklets (go digital to reduce paper waste, or print on recycled paper), advertise on the hotel’s TV screens, website, and social media, and share information about your programs to guests through employees who interact with them. This will enhance guest experiences, make them more likely to share the stories of your efforts, return to stay, and even recommend the hotel to others.

All too often, many sustainability programs that start out strong lose momentum over time. This is because employees are not as involved or are simply unaware of why the hotel is engaging in green initiatives, which can even affect guest interactions.

Continuous training can help combat this by bringing employees on board the sustainability journey. Making employees feel like they are a part of the change and allowing them to take initiative on new practices and projects can make a difference. This involvement will contribute to employees retaining interest over time, as well as feeling more connected with the company culture, which will result in a lower turnover rate and associated labor costs.

Greener and more responsible travel is the future.

Being a part of this change will give your hotel an advantage over hotels that are resisting the transition. With benefits like lower costs, competitive edge, customer loyalty, and brand awareness, hotels that commit to real actions can quickly make a name for themselves.

Whatever initiatives your hotel decides to embark on, always ensure that they do not compromise on service quality, health, or safety. Data-driven companies will have more to work with. Sharing information and stories, statistics and data will benefit the entire industry and set benchmarks and standards that everyone can strive to achieve and surpass. This will continue to drive innovation and positive change, which is what the Hospitality and Tourism Industry in Sri Lanka needs.

Travelers are increasingly seeking deeper meaning in vacation experiences, and hotels that cater to these growing green demands with sustainability at the forefront of their business models stand a better chance of outshining competition. The whole purpose of going on a vacation should be just that, with guests not having to worry or feel bad about their impact on the environment. If the hotel has not only already thought about all the ways they can mitigate it, but taken a further step to do it for them, that’s great customer service!

Despite being a small island nation, we have been bestowed with many natural resources. The Hospitality and Tourism Sector not only has a responsibility to conserve our resources, but it is fundamentally dependent on them to retain its business. While going green does require initial investments, some of which can be costly, look to the long term for return on investment. With significant financial savings and positive impacts on your bottom line, sustainability is a no-brainer.

Hospitality Insider Issue 4