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Key insights from sustainability dialogue
September 6 2011

This past summer was both busy and productive for the hotel industry’s dialogue on sustainability. While the overall takeaway stressed more guidance and collaboration, several other key insights arose.

  • More guidance and resources now exist to help navigate the landscape of sustainability.
  • Footprinting is complex but solvable.
  • Industry collaboration and advancement is occurring at a time when the scope of sustainability is ever-increasing.

Labor Day usually marks the time when executives have to get back to work, but this past summer was both busy and productive for the industry’s dialogue on sustainability. First, our study from the Cornell University Center for Hospitality Research was published in July, proposing a framework for developing common industry sustainability performance indicators. This work was accomplished with the integral collaboration of corporate responsibility and sustainability executives from InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott International and Wyndham Worldwide Corporation, along with additional input from other hotel chains.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association Educational Institute also just published a textbook on sustainability titled Hotel Sustainable Development: Principles and Best Practices. This edited textbook contains 21 chapters from various authors and diverse industry representation.

Most importantly, the recent announcement of the Carbon Measurement Working Group, a joint initiative of the International Tourism Partnership and the World Travel & Tourism Council and led by nearly a dozen of the industry’s major players, was a culmination of industry efforts that have been going on during the past four months. Working to develop guidelines for calculating carbon footprints consistently, the group’s work will be beneficial to the increasing number of clients that ask related questions in corporate RFPs.   

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These are the three I’m highlighting because of my direct participation in them. However, the summer’s sustainability list does comprise several others, including books, consolidations and announcements. For the audience, the overall takeaway is that more guidance and resources now exist to help navigate the landscape of sustainability. Specifically for the current work, several insights are apparent:

• Stakeholders are asking for more uniform systems of analyses from hotels at property and company levels. Many large companies and events calculate the environmental footprint of travel and have supply chain initiatives to make procurement choices based on sustainability criteria.

• The industry needs synergies to arrive at solutions, which includes helping standardize the way questions are asked and answers are communicated.

• Best practices are becoming shared, and this can hopefully lead to catalyzing change.

• Property-level certification plays an important role in advancing sustainability to stakeholders, but while third-party certification won great strides during the past decades, professionalizing and standardizing the building blocks or criteria of certification based on materiality and performance is the focus. Likewise, certification itself is becoming more standardized and harmonized.

• Metrics of performance are beginning to take the form more understandable to the rest of the industry. Discussions of analyzing performance per occupied room, per available room or per square foot are time-old in the industry, and now we are beginning to speak a more common dialogue.

• Footprinting is complex but solvable. While on one end hotels vary in size, shape, class and location, which will inhibit meaningful comparison at this point, they necessitate distinction and one catch-all footprint value isn’t representative.

• Materiality and timeliness need to be further discussed with all stakeholders in terms of their practicality. Precise data demands are costly and time-consuming. A precursor should be “What is the purpose of the questions and what level of granularity can help achieve the purpose?”

Industry collaboration is the key motif in all these. And though it may seem monumental within our hotel world, this really is a common trend that will become more obvious in the coming years. Consumer goods industries also are collaborating on grand scales to develop common metrics, standardize footprinting, communicate information to customers and collectively approach key issues. The Sustainability Consortium, the Global e-Sustainability Initiative and the Eco Index are prime examples of how this type of work is being undertaken. Information will become more readily available, and joint approaches will be advanced across sectors. The hotel industry will be no different. Once this type of information is more available and understood in other consumer products, services such as hotels will be expected to do the same, all pieced together in a larger mosaic of travel and even lifestyle. 

Finally, industry collaboration and advancement also occurs at a time when the scope of sustainability is ever-increasing. Aside from the now in-your-face reality of climate change, other immense issues such as water scarcity, food-and-beverage procurement and urban redesign are spawning dozens of new issues, studies, stances, practices, programs, and info requests at the industry. It is unlikely that pace will slow, and the advancements of this summer mark the beginning of another chapter in this field.

Eric Ricaurte works with the hotel industry and its leading companies to advance sustainability through reporting and measurement. His current activities include consulting, industry engagement, academic fellowship, column writing and publication authoring.

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