I started my path on sustainable tourism exactly ten years ago in Morocco where I was supporting small accommodations and hotels to obtain the Green Key international eco label and to save water through Travel Foundation’s programme called Every Drop Counts.
From the beginning of this journey I discovered that there was an area where it is easy to implement changes with huge environmental positive impacts: the bathroom.
The reasons were obvious: more efficient showerheads and taps save substantial amounts of water and energy (used to heat the water or pump it around the building) as well as limits the volume of grey water to be treated. A showerhead is easy to change, low in cost and has a payback of a few months if the original one is very inefficient. I visited hotels with shower water flows between 20 and 22 litres per minute, which is twice the amount recommended by international eco labels!
One can only imagine the amount of water and energy that could be saved annually!?
A quick calculation: let’s consider that a new showerhead can reduce the flow by ten litres per minute and the guest uses it only once a day for ten minutes (already a low figure) — the savings would be around thirty six cubic meters per year per room permanently occupied!
Most of the decision makers consider that this is not an interesting area for cost savings because water is cheap; they do not consider the real cost of water, including pumping, treatment, heating (keeping in mind that a hotel needs to heat a third of its water needs).
The financial savings is so considerable that it becomes ridiculous. It’s even inconceivable to still find that these older devices are still place, especially in destinations where the water resources are at risk; massive water wastage will lead to more tension between local communities and hotels.
This part of the business is so easy, it should be mandatory and it’s a shame if a hotel’s owner or managing company is not following the sustainability experts advice during the hotel’s building phase; they would save so much time, money and natural resources!
After the technical aspects, I also had a look at the communication in the bathroom: the famous towel reuse programme. Again, the positive impacts are immense: water, energy, labour and chemicals are embedded in the towel cleaning.
What has happened over the past ten years? The initial situation was simple: no one cared about reusing towels. At some point, some hotels started to communicate about it, asking the guests to participate to the towel reuse programme. Then, every hotel started to create its own communication. Most hotels, at the time, believed they were doing something cool and positive but they have mostly been using guilt as a leverage: “Save the planet”, “Help save the environment”, “Do you know how much chemicals we use to clean your towels”… highlighting the negative aspects of having new towel every day. This kind of wording was analysed and there are now much better ways to engage the clients to participate, such as using social norms. In a few years the messages to reuse the towel have flourished in bathrooms like Caulerpa Taxifolia in Mediterranean Sea. Looking at this trend, it is amazing to realize that the industry at large did make a move – but is it really a change?
I’m afraid it’s not.
Let’s look at one more aspect: the staff training. This is the Achilles’ heel of most hotels. It is very complicated to change the way housekeepers are working – what they have learned and even their sense of ethics (which dictates to change all towels in the bathroom). One can also not forget the limited amount of time to clean each room which really means that a housekeeper should not lose any time making a decision regarding the towels. As a consequence, it happens that towels meant to be reused are replaced, making the client very angry. Imagine that you already took time to review all the documentation (sometimes written so small that you need magnifying glass to read it!), to understand finally where to hang your towel and now very proud of yourself, you realize that these very towels have been replaced, destroying all your efforts to save the planet, to reduce the use of a significant amount of chemicals, while on vacation…you will feel bad, betrayed… It is enough to write a negative online comment!
And what should guests think about the resort hotels asking them to reuse the bathroom towel while offering a free flow of 2m X 1m beach towels?
I had the chance during my career to adapt and implement over a period of two years a programme called “Kuoni Water Champion” in Thailand, aiming to help 26 hotels to reduce their water consumption. During this action we emphasized as much as possible towel reuse and we tried to introduce a new approach following the Make A Green Choice programme initiated by Starwood in Europe, Africa, Middle East division in 2015.
This programme has three advantages; firstly, by giving guests the choice to decline housekeeping services, housekeepers do not have to make the decision regarding towels in a room; secondly, it is rewarding guests who participate in the action (via a voucher, loyalty points or donation) therefore diminishing the feeling that when participating to a towel reuse programme the biggest winner is the hotel; and thirdly, it also means that there is real monitoring and follow up where guests are encouraged to participate in and are made aware of the programme upon their arrival. There are certainly some downsides to this system; it may in a mid or long term reduce the need for housekeepers and contribute to unemployment; however, at least there is an alternative to the towel reuse communication.
For each problem in the hotel industry, there is a solution. Some chains or individual hotels are really committing and doing their best. However, there is still a majority of industry players refusing to embrace the sustainability topics, keeping closed eyes on potential sources of revenue or cost efficiencies.
When will the hoteliers and hotel owners understand that sustainability is not a gadget but the best way to manage a hotel and increase their benefits? When will the architects stop building inefficient buildings?
Should we wait another ten years to realize that we could actually shape right now – with a little investment, repeated trainings and a lot of good will – a more sustainable industry where the hotels will not be seen as energy and water squanderer and where tensions with local communities are avoided?
 A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels, by Noah J. Goldstein, Robert B. Cialdini , Vladas Griskevicius