Sustainability is a buzzword on the lips of all in the travel industry. As companies become more aware of their impact on the environment, and as customers demand greener products, everyone from airlines to car rental companies are looking at how they can reduce their carbon footprint.

Hotels, too, are keen to do their bit, and from Hilton’s We Care programme to Hyatt’s social responsibility scheme Hyatt Earth – which now has 80,000 “environmental ambassadors” around the world – most chains are taking steps to conserve water and to reduce waste and CO2 emissions. But some groups have particularly ambitious plans.


In China, the 26-room Urbn Shanghai is breaking new ground, reducing its footprint even to the point of omitting a vowel from its name. It claims to be the country’s first carbon-neutral hotel since opening in 2008, and follows the brand’s policy of rehabilitating existing structures, occupying a 1970s post office. The interiors are made entirely from local materials, recycled wood from old houses, and reclaimed bricks. Urbn Hotels is planning to open a further 15 properties in business cities across the country over the next three years.

India’s second-largest hotel chain, ITC Welcomgroup, is also setting benchmarks for building design and practice, promoting a new kind of “responsible luxury”. Niranjan Khatri, general manager for the company’s Welcomenviron programme, says: “We are the only company of our size and diversity that is water positive, carbon positive and solid waste recycling positive. What this means is we are saving more water or carbon than we are wasting.”

A good example of a carbon positive property is the ITC Hotel Sonar in Kolkata. It has been so successful in reducing its CO2 emissions that Khatri says “it is the first and only hotel in the world” to make money by selling the carbon credits it earns under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism. This allows richer nations to work towards their emission-reduction targets by buying credits from developing countries that reduce greenhouse gases (visit

Another of the group’s hotels making headlines is the ITC Royal Gardenia in Bengaluru (formerly known as Bangalore). The property, which is part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, opened last autumn and has since become the first hotel in India – and the largest in the world – to receive a platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating for sustainable construction from the Indian Green Building Council, one of 16 established members of the World Green Building Council.

The hotel is said to consume 35 per cent less energy as a result of its design. Anand Rao, its general manager, says: “The main lobby is not air conditioned because it has been designed for the wind to pass through, and a central courtyard has a pavilion with a natural grass roof.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Khatri says: “Now green is part of our DNA, we are striving for platinum in all our new properties. We do water harvesting in every hotel and, in Delhi and Bengaluru, we have installed solar-concentrated technology that harnesses the sun’s rays and converts water into super-heated steam that is used for our cooking and laundry.”

In a country such as India where poverty is rife, waste is not only an environmental problem but a moral one. Khatri says: “We say waste is not waste, it’s wealth in the wrong place. For example, with our spent cooking oil, instead of chucking it down the drain, we give it to Indian railways and they are running engines with it.

“Having said that, nearly 45 per cent of the waste we generate in hotels constitutes wet food waste. We convert that into manure. But food waste is a touchy subject because giving leftovers to underprivileged people means there is a fear of contamination and food poisoning, so we do not give our wet food to anybody.” But Dipak Haksar, chief operating officer for ITC, adds: “We do follow a practice of giving dry food to orphanages wherever a local NGO food bank operates.”


The US Green Building Council, which developed the LEED certification system in 1998, claims buildings in the country account for 72 per cent of electricity consumption, 39 per cent of energy use, 38 per cent of all CO2 emissions and 30 per cent of waste output. In a bid to combat these figures, the points-based ratings it offers new properties acts as an incentive for them to think green.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are only 39 LEED certified hotels in the US – of these, two are platinum standard and 13 are gold. The Element Lexington, the flagship hotel of Starwood’s “eco” brand, has gold status. Brian McGuinness, senior vice-president of global brand management for Element, Aloft and Four Points by Sheraton, says: “Element is green from the ground up. We’re piloting a lot of eco-friendly initiatives that have the potential to roll out to our other brands.

“For instance, we’re piloting a state-of-the-art energy management system at Element Lexington and we’ve just installed networked electric car charging stations at all our hotels.” There are eight Element hotels in the US, with three more opening in the next couple of years, and McGuinness says there are plans to open properties all over the world.

Marriott, which manages about 3,000 properties in 70 countries, is aiming to reduce its carbon emissions by 25 per cent (based on 2007 figures) by 2017. Barbara Powell, senior director of international social responsibility, says: “If we want to reduce energy we have to look at installing more efficient equipment, whether it’s boilers, air conditioning units or low-flow showers and toilets, and that investment costs money. But what’s great is that a lot of this technology is [providing a better] return on investment, which helps us to get these new innovations in.”

In a company as large as Marriott, even small changes can make a big impact. It has introduced plastic key cards made of 50 per cent recycled material, and, in the US, toilet tissue without a cardboard core. Powell says: “We were also the first to roll out the Bic Ecolution pen made from recycled and recyclable materials. We buy about 27 million a year for our meeting rooms, bedrooms and front desks.”

The company has also announced a blueprint for a green-friendly Marriott Courtyard prototype hotel, available from next month. Powell says: “If our developers find an owner who wants to invest in the prototype then they know they are building a hotel that will meet LEED certification.”

Following the example of properties such as the Proximity in Greensboro, North Carolina, which was the first hotel in the world to earn platinum LEED status, luxury brand Ritz-Carlton, a wholly owned subsidiary of Marriott International, opened an eco-focused property in Charlotte, North Carolina, last autumn with the aim of attaining LEED certification. The building is said to use 30 per cent less energy than a conventional hotel by using “ultra-efficient materials and the latest construction technology”. It has a “living” roof to improve insulation, while recycled leather and wood from sustainable sources have been used in the interiors. The hotel donates some unused food to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina, and guests can borrow a bike instead of getting a taxi.

Heidi Nowak, director of sales and marketing for the Ritz-Carlton Charlotte, says: “We are the first Ritz-Carlton to term ourselves as LEED – the hotel was built to attain gold certification and we feel confident that we will attain this rating and possibly even platinum.”


While certification can be helpful to the public, there are so many different accreditations and awards out there that it can be hard to tell which are of value. This has led some groups to introduce their own internal standards. David Jerome, senior vice-president of corporate social responsibility for Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), headquartered outside London, says: “Many of our hotels have environmental certifications; however, as a global company, we’ve seen the need to create our own unified sustainability standard. This is why we developed Green Engage – a system that reflects most global environmental certifications and allows our hotels to map their performance against LEED and other standards.”

So why is being green important to IHG? Jerome says: “We believe guests expect hotel companies to be environmentally aware without compromising on comfort. We aim to make our hotels more carbon efficient than staying in your own home.” He adds that feedback from the public via IHG’s Innovation Hotel website ( helps inspire the company to introduce new green measures.

Practical steps being taken by IHG include using long-life lighting systems for new Holiday Inn signs, which will save an estimated US$4.4 million annually. Jerome says: “More than 900 hotels have signed up for Green Engage and we anticipate the scheme will save our properties 15 to 25 per cent in energy use. Our aim is to roll out Green Engage to as many of our 4,400 hotels as possible by the end of the year.”

What about the UK’s largest hotel chain, Premier Inn? Alex Flach, construction and maintenance director at owning company Whitbread, speaks with candour when he says: “We probably aren’t leaders of the pack in terms of sustainability but we definitely have to get our act together if we want to improve this and be in business in 50 years’ time.”

Whitbread has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 26 per cent by 2020, and has developed a more eco-friendly Premier Inn offering. The first of these, a new-build in Tamworth, Staffordshire, opened in 2008 and is said to be 80 per cent carbon neutral, using about 17 per cent less energy than conventional Premier Inns. A second trial hotel, the Premier Inn Burgess Hill in West Sussex, will open this autumn.

Flach says: “What we are now doing is taking what we have learnt and seeing what we can roll out for all our new developments. We will refurbish about 130 restaurants and 10,000 hotel rooms this year and we are allocating a sum of money to each of these projects to improve their sustainability and energy efficiency.”

So are budget hotels more environmentally friendly than luxury ones? Flach says: “I think budget hotels use considerably less energy and water. If we use a third [of what high-end properties do], I would be surprised. It is probably even less.”

While that may be the case, luxury brands react strongly to those who claim you can’t have a high-end product that is sustainable. Ritz-Carlton’s Nowack says: “They are completely mistaken.” London Battersea’s Rafayel on the Left Bank hotel, which opened in December, is also hoping to prove cynics wrong by offering 65 luxurious rooms fitted with recycled leather furnishings, soap dispensers and low-energy lights. (For a full review visit

The Brussels-based Rezidor Hotel Group has several brands in its portfolio, including budget offering Park Inn, mid-range Radisson and luxury Missoni. However, Tim Cordon, general manager of London’s Radisson Blu Portman hotel and responsible business co-ordinator UK for Rezidor, says: “The objective of all three brands is the same – to minimise our impact on the environment and reduce carbon emissions.”

He adds: “Quite a few of our hotels are LEED gold now, the Park Inn Heathrow being the most recent.” So how do hotels reach gold standard? “They focus a lot on the basic things, such as dual-flush systems in the toilets and timers on lights,” he says. “But it goes further than that – it looks at the ethos of the management right through the business to make sure it’s not just greenwashing.”

So what steps is Rezidor taking? Cordon says: “Hotels are guilty of setting the temperature of their pools to 28-29°C, but really it doesn’t need to be that warm. Even reducing it by one or two degrees can make a tremendous difference. This is something we are looking at. Saunas and steam rooms are also big energy users. However, we have to strike a balance between providing a service and saving energy.”

Marriott’s Powell agrees. “We want our guests to have the most comfortable and easy stay we can give them, and a lot of what we are doing is behind the scenes. For example, energy reduction we are hoping they don’t notice. Guests are starting to ask more about recycling – this has always been done back of house, but we are now starting to pilot in-room recycling as an option, and in public areas and meeting rooms.”


Last year Fairmont surveyed 1,400 of its President’s Club loyalty scheme members to gauge their awareness of, and interest in, its environmental programme. It found that almost 60 per cent said a property’s green policies influenced their choice of hotel in some way.

Rezidor’s Cordon has found a similar reaction. “Customers are asking about what we are doing in a very detailed way now. And I don’t just mean when they check in at the desk – some of our big corporate customers who book thousands of room nights are anxious to know how we are measuring our impact on the environment and what we are doing to reduce it.”

So can hotel guests do anything to help? Khatri at ITC Welcomgroup says: “Asking people to re-use towels is old hat. When we started in 1996, you know what the response was? Three towels re-used per month in the whole chain. Today it’s about 30 towels per hotel per day. But we need 100 per cent change. Human behaviour is difficult to change, that is why we have legislation.”

If you are a member of Rezidor’s loyalty scheme, Goldpoints Plus, you can use the points you earn to offset the carbon you accumulate during your stay. But Cordon says: “We are a little cautious about going into offsetting in a big way – while it has its merits, I think the focus should remain on reducing carbon rather than offsetting it.” In the meantime, perhaps the best thing we can do as individuals is to keep applying pressure on hotels to raise their environmental standards.