How Sustainable Hospitality Can Help Combat Climate Change

The travel and tourism industry represents 10.4 percent of the global GDP and supports 1 in 10 jobs worldwide.

In the past five years, the hotel industry has grown by 2.3 percent. This contributes to a total of EUR 1.28 trillion in 2018. If the industry continues to grow at this rate, more than 80,000 hotels will join this industry by 2050.

Hence, it is only natural that this sector has immense potential to make significant social and environmental contributions. 

According to the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, tourism contributes to about 5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Predictions say that this could grow by 130 percent by 2035. 

To reduce this significantly, the International Tourism Partnership has noted that the hotel industry will have to align with the Paris Climate Agreement. The industry will then have to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions per room every year by 90 percent by 2050.

The hotel industry is growing at a rapid pace giving way to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. It is high time that the hospitality industry pauses and rethinks its actions. 

This article will explore why the shift to sustainability is inevitable. It will also dive into the methods that existing hoteliers, owners, and designers are employing to decrease the pressure the industry has on the environment. 

The Shift is Inevitable

Bill Bensley is the Bangkok-based designer and hotelier behind sustainable properties like Capella Ubud in Bali, the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, and Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia. 

Sustainable Hospitality
Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia

For the past three decades, he has worked relentlessly in sustainable hotel design. Recently, he released a white paper called ‘Sensible Sustainable Solutions’. This paper educates the hospitality industry on practices they can employ to shift to sustainability.

Bensley explains why the industry can’t ignore the planet burning in front of their eyes for too long. “In my eyes, the planet burning is as good an incentive as any to get serious about sustainability. It is essential to our survival. My family had a small farm where we were pretty much self-sustaining. I raised bees, quails, chickens, ducks, rabbits, mushrooms, a huge variety of veggies and of course a compost heap. Hence, it makes me smile to hear the word sustainability used so frequently these days. People think of it as though it is a new idea!”

Accor, a French multinational hospitality company is one of the big names in the hospitality industry serving the cause of sustainability. The group operates in 100 countries, with more than 4,800 hotels and 280,000 employees worldwide.

Veronique Augier Nel, Director of Communications & CSR – Asia Pacific speaks about how at Accor, the focus on sustainability dates back to the seventies when the group created the gender equality charter, a first in the industry in 1976.

“Accor was also the first hotel group to initiate a sustainable development programme internally. The need to put sustainability as a priority has been there all along for the group. In an industry that relies so much on its people and environment in order to thrive, we owe it to the communities wherever we operate to care and nurture every single part of nature and talents we have been blessed to work with. Our guests and internal talents are also demanding greener experiences and are also willing to play their part,” she said.

Famous for becoming the world’s first post-carbon resort, The Brando is located on the private island of Tetiaroa in French Polynesia. Apart from being a sustainable luxury resort, it also deeply believes in protecting and preserving the culture around the region. Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio have been among the many who have cherished this concept.

Speaking to Thomas Tisseur, the Coordinateur RSE for The Brando, he explains to us that it is necessary to reduce the waste the hospitality industry generates. He stresses the need to implement and execute solutions that reduce our impact on the environment. 

He lists the following points that the industry has to work on – 

  • To reduce our global energy consumption in water, electricity, fuels, etc.
  • Reduce our production of food waste and treat the overproduction
  • Sensitise staff and guests
  • Protect the local environment
Sustainable Hospitality
Living room area of The Brando

Apprehensions about the term in the industry

Usually, money is the biggest mind block that gets in the way for the industry to make the shift. Bensely explains that when people hear the word sustainable in hotel design, they instantly think in terms of money. They forget to consider the many advantages of such a hotel.

“Therefore in a lot of our proposals we simply make it part of the way we work rather than slapping the word sustainable or green onto it. They accept our proposal and budgets. We then gradually explain all the hidden sustainable aspects of the project. Here aspects of beautiful design and green building work hand in hand. For example with my WorldWild project in China, it first started off as a ‘zoo’. But it has now turned into a 700-hectare wildlife refuge north of Guangzhou to educate millions of Chinese on the value of Mother Nature. Also, 85 percent of the land will be for naturalised wildlife environments and rescued animals. Just 15 percent will be for 7 hotels and 2500 rooms. The press is calling it a human zoo, which I find quite funny,” exclaimed Bensley.

Design Principles and Architecture

Bensley takes us through his process and how he learns so much with each new hotel he works on.

“We also work with consultants who are experts in their field, to make sure we are doing the best we can do. For upcoming projects, usually we start with a client who wants to create a hotel. We then work together to find a hotel operator with a similar ethos. Brands like Six Senses or Shinta Mani are doing great work. While there are others such as Marriott and IHG who have pledged to implement Sensible Sustainable Solutions into their standards. The white paper is truly a handbook to put to use,” shared Bensley.

Bensley was instrumental in proposing the 23 tents idea to the hoteliers of Capella Ubud in Bali.

Sustainable hospitality
Capella Ubud Terrace Tent in Bali

He said, “We started off as the landscapers on the project, with the original plan architecturally being an enormous hulk of a hotel. This would have obliterated the natural beauty of the site, which is a valley sacred to the Balinese. I’m a lover of nature and a landscape architect by training. Hence, I persuaded our good client Suwito to swap the 120 room hotel for a 24 tent camp that tiptoes ever so softly on the land. We also changed hotel operators to a more luxurious brand – Capella. This allowed us to raise the room rate, which is now the highest on the island. Just this year Capella Ubud was at #1 in the world by Travel and Leisure.”

“I used this principle that I call Low Impact High Yield. You spend far less on building materials for just a handful of tents than you would for an enormous, carbon dioxide emitting concrete structure of 120 rooms. At the same time, not a single tree was cut. A tent hidden in the jungle is ever so exclusive and sells for far more than a bog-standard room,” he added.

Sweet Bocas is another innovator and pioneer in sustainability. It is on a private island in a UNESCO World Heritage Site archipelago, known as Bocas del Toro. This 15-acre estate has a seven-bedroom villa situated in the northwest of Panama.

Sustainable Hospitality
Sweet Bocas

Annick Belanger, Founder of Sweet Bocas explains to us how permaculture was at the foundation of this project. “It has always been a priority at SB to build a sustaining model for the estate. This endeavour relies on the study of permaculture which has as its foundation – sustainability. We developed the projects with early permaculture leaders who worked with Bill Mollison, the founder of permaculture. More recently we engaged two experienced permaculture farmers from France and Quebec.”

Sweet Bocas has several techniques in place to preserve the environment around the property. “We maintain a supply of freshwater in a coral lake that fills with rain water. We harvest water from the roofs of structures as well. The lake provides the purest freshwater. It also has valuable algae that we use in the soil mix with compost and organic matter to feed the gardens. Chickens are producing eggs and their waste helps enrich the soil. All of this feeds the fruit trees and vegetable gardens. This in turn provides the estate with nutritious food for our guests and staff. Everything recycles in the process.”

Belanger further emphasises on the importance of structural designs and use of architecture that contributes to sustainability. “SB is built on an ancient coral reef which became covered with sediment. This had eroded when farmers cut the tropical hardwood trees when they used the land for grazing. This happened hundreds of years ago. When we arrived at the property, there was a swamp filled with saltwater from the rising seas. After careful study and analysis, we began to understand that coral laid under this layer of sea water-soaked earth. We started excavation. Over a period of three years of round the clock earthworks, we elevated areas of solid earth. Thus creating a coral basin. In a short period of time rain filled the basin and created the fresh water lake.”

At Accor, Augier Nel mentioned that the group has a sustainability team. “To implement our CSR actions, the group created an internal sustainable development programme, first Earth Guest in 2006, then Planet 21 since 2011, which encompasses the six pillars of focus: Talents, Guests, Communities and Partners, as well as Food & Beverage and Buildings. There are 76 actions that hotels must fulfil in order to obtain internal certification of Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. One of the ten compulsory actions to complete is to have a CSR Champion within the hotel.”

The Brando too has worked on multiple projects throughout the hotel to improve the hotel’s sustainable performance. Tisseur mentioned, “The Brando hotel employed a corporate sustainability responsibility (CSR) expert for this purpose.”

The Brando’s expert works on many projects like – 

  • Continuous improvement of the sustainable hotel’s performance. (waste reduction, find eco-products, create new eco-installations
  • Sensitise the staff and the guests by introducing our technical installations, vegetable gardens, and the eco-station
  • The expert is in charge of the intern audit and certification programme
  • He organises events like CleanUp Day, zero waste formation, surveys, etc.
Sustainable Hospitality
Pool side view of The Brando

The Brando also has several eco-installations in place – 

  • The SWAC (Sea Water Air Conditioning) collects cold deep seawater at 3000 feet under the sea level. At this depth, the water is at 39°F all year. This deep seawater cools heat exchangers made of titanium plates and the air conditioning loop which goes to the entire resort to cool villas, restaurants, and staff housing. Thanks to the free coldness of the seawater, the Brando reduces its amount of energy by 90 percent compared to a traditional air conditioning system.
  • 5000 solar panels and two B.E.S.S. (battery energy saving system). This solar panel field is the biggest in French Polynesia and it produces 75 percent of The Brando’s energy needs. The batteries store energy during the day and provide electricity during the night.
  • Back-up generators in case of big energy needs or during the rain season where the sunlight energy is weaker. These generators are hybrids, they can use coconut oil or fuel.
  • The sunlight energy provides hot water too thanks to water heaters. This technology is really common in French Polynesia and it provides 90 percent of sanitary hot water needs.
  • Own potable water thanks to the technique of reverse osmosis which is creating potable water with seawater. The Brando also uses rainwater to create potable water thanks to a settling technique.
  • Treatment of grey and black water in the islet thanks to the wastewater treatment plant which is using aquatic plants to clean these types of water.
  • In the sorting and recycling center, The Brando tries to find a local solution for all its types of wastes. For example, it uses the food waste to create a powerful compost and working with a Tahitian company, it creates biofuel with cooking oils and refills the ink cartridges
  • An eco-station where scientists could come to work on many projects like ocean acidification, coral bleaching, islet biodiversity, etc.

Speaking about the measures hoteliers and owners can employ in the pre-opening phase of the hotel, Bensley suggests the following points – 

  • Installing full solar power that can power the hotel but also heat the water for showers, etc.
  • Fully upcycled interiors full of character
  • Refitting windows to be more eco-efficient and cut costs
  • Reducing plastic intake in the supply chain
  • Making all amenities at requests only

Bensley explains that when it comes to bathroom amenities, the industry should use 100 percent local materials. He also discussed the use of igloo boxes that allows hoteliers to create a plastic-free supply chain.

He explained, “For the Shinta Mani hotels. There are different colour codes for meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables/fruits: Green = vegetables/fruits, Yellow = Poultry, Red = Meat, Blue = Seafood. There are three sets of igloo boxes. One set is with the kitchen, one set with purchasing, and one set is with the supplier. We either freeze or separate animal-based produce by ice. For wrapping, we use wax paper. This can then be sanitised and reused. At a later time, it can be recycled. Any suppliers who do not abide by the plastic free supply chain requirements have their contracts cancelled.”

At Accor, Augier Nel mentioned that the group utilises the energy of the sun, water, and earth to run their hotels. “Our hotels use solar panels like the Pullman Maldives Maamutaa (opened two years ago); the resort has installed over 2,000-panel boards on the rooftop of their team accommodation area to reduce resort’s energy use, decrease CO2 emissions and upsurge the use of renewable energy. These panels have the capacity to produce 665kWh. To give you an idea, the entire staff area is supplied with hot water through these solar panels alone.”

Sustainable Hospitality
Solar Panel at Novotel ibis Bengaluru Techpark

In Singapore, Fairmont Singapore, and Swissôtel The Stamford have launched an aquaponics farm, the clever fusion between hydroponics and aquaculture, within the compounds of the hotel. ” This makes it the first of its kind in the industry serving ‘hotel farm to table’. Fish and plants are grown together in a closed system with the ability to produce about 1,200 kg of vegetables and 350 kg of fish monthly for the hotels’ kitchens once it is fully operational. Nestled between the hotels’ two buildings, the 450 sqm rooftop farm is deceptively small, yet is enough space for thousands of leafy vegetables – from kangkong (water spinach) to several kinds of lettuce – to grow.”

Since 2009, Plant For The Planet is a programme which enables Accor to finance tree plantation with laundry savings and acts for more ecological agriculture through agroforestry in 250+ projects in 26 countries.

Augier Nel stated, “Over 7.2 million trees have been planted to date. In India, from the year 2014 to 2018, with the help of local communities, we have planted 33,175 trees in Darjeeling. The trees include 20 different species and is planted across 200 hectares of land. With support from 47 farmers and two planting communities, around 2000 people have benefitted. Our next plan includes planting 17,000 trees in the Himalayan region.”

Sustainable Hospitality
Fresh Greens from Pluck’s Inhouse farm at Pullman New Delhi Aerocity

Tackling Water Waste

Tisseur explained how water can be the biggest issue for some island territories. It is extremely crucial for the hospitality industry to put a check on their water as well as food consumption and develop solutions to use these resources more efficiently. 

He said, “ To save the water and reduce our consumption, we can collect the rainwater on roofs, collect the water from water tables and treat and reuse the black and grey water thanks to the wastewater treatment plant. Hotels should buy meters to track their water consumption by services and create a plan to reduce water consumption. They should install water savers inside their rooms and incite their guests to reuse their towels several times instead of clean them every day. For food waste, hotels can buy ecodigester to transform their food wastes in compost.”

Augier Nel discussed the initiatives Accor is carrying out to tackle water waste.

  • Bathtubs are no longer considered a must-have
  • Rainwater harvesting, recycling greywater, and water restrictors in guest rooms and staff locker rooms help in water conservation
  • Every hotel has a Sewage Treatment Plant which is mandatory as per pollution laws and is implemented in all hotels
  • Recycled water is used for irrigation purposes, cleaning basements, cooling towers, and used as flushing water. This drastically reduces water consumption of the property if STP (Sewage Treatment Plant) is monitored regularly.
  • Water aerators/flow regulators can be installed in washbasins and showers; in washroom areas, water consumption is controlled with a dual flush system.
  • In locker rooms and in public washrooms, sensor taps also help control wastage.

Handling Food Waste Smartly

Bensely is glad that the COVID will encourage a ban on buffets that will go a long way in managing the food waste. He said, “Smarter portion sizes could also be beneficial, but that is not a designer’s prerogative – I leave it in the Chef’s hands. That being said, composting certain leftovers is good for the garden. It can also be fed to farm animals if there is a farm to table model. In terms of water, selecting eco shower heads (that still have a decent pressure) or rain water collection are helpful alternatives.”

For food waste, across all its properties, Accor have installed organic waste controllers to control food waste as much as possible.

  • We have sensitised and trained our employees to reduce food wastage, control waste during preparation, procuring only required quantity, proper storage at the correct temperature, and manage portions during serving.
  • Staff canteens too have posters; educating and encouraging all employees to not waste food.
  • In direct impact areas such as employee cafeterias, several hotels now have ‘No Bin’ days where employees learn about and participate in zero wastage.

“Take Novotel & ibis Bengaluru Techpark for instance; both the hotels have zero food waste policies. All leftover green waste is processed through an organic waste converter and transformed into manure. This manure in turn is used in the hotels’ gardens. However, the bulk of the manure is supplied to local nurseries and farmers to use,” Augier Nel added.

Permaculture To The Rescue

Additionally, Belanger suggests the hospitality industry to look at permaculture more closely and develop projects around that. She shared, “Start by becoming familiar with the study of permaculture. It is all about the design concept. While shifting to this model, I can only speak of benefits. As an inhabitant of the planet earth, we will all benefit from a sustaining model.”

Sustainable hospitality
Dining area of Sweet Bocas

Supporting Local Communities

At Accor, the group believes that sustainability is not just limited to the environment but also includes supporting the local communities. Fighting against epidemics, protecting children from sexual tourism, redevelopment, etc. are some areas that the group focuses on.

Augier Nel discussed, “One of the examples is the Kalathur Project, where we partnered with the HOPE Foundation to reach out to 91 families from Kalathur village of Pattukottai Taluk in Thanjavur District in Chennai who were severely affected by Gaja cyclone. Each family was provided with 70 coconut saplings to restart their livelihood along with six months of manure to ensure the saplings grow well and yield a good produce in the years to come. These families are the marginalised farmers who require support without which they will be unable to stand back on their feet and it will be years before their lives return to normalcy.”

Accor also supports the ‘Shikshaantra Plus’ programme, which focuses on transforming the entire school including its infrastructure, faculty capacity, learning environment, and remedial education to support the children’s holistic development.

“Currently under this programme, we have adopted two government schools in Gurugram District, covering over 800 students. With this programme, we aim to address issues like poor infrastructure, low student-teacher ratios, low learning levels, and a greater drop out in government schools. The ‘Complete School Transformation’ model, in collaboration with State education departments, aims to improve school processes. So far, we have provided a computer laboratory for school students, installed RO Plants, extended sports room and facilities, appointed teachers for Mathematics, English and Science subjects to help students bridging the learning gap and organised WASH and general health awareness sessions.”

Accor properties in Hyderabad also support The Mallika Sewing Program, assisting a community of 60 women living with HIV/AIDS to become self-sufficient. “These women learn handicraft skills such as silk-weaving, jewellery making, and embroidery as well as business skills to empower them to take control of their livelihoods. The merchandise is sold in Accor, with a portion of its proceeds being reinvested in the project to train the next generation of women,” added Augier Nel.

The Key lies in Minimal Intervention 

In his white paper, Bensley mentioned that minimal intervention means respecting the land one works on. Rather than ripping out the natural features of the land to plonk down something new, one should get to know it. One should try to complement it. For nothing is more perfect than what Mother Nature presents to us.

He explained, “On a wooded site a small architectural footprint that fits between the trees often works best. What one loses in floor space, they can gain in atmosphere and privacy. If one takes the time to set out on to the site all of the architecture in temporary stakes and strings, it will lead to learning something new about the site that saves money and makes the product better. We did this at Capella Ubud, the Four Seasons Koh Samui, Shinta Mani Wild. In Koh Samui it allowed for the placement of 70 villas which perch above and within the trees: this allowed for the 856 coconut trees which graced the site to stay intact. Magic!

Bensley also stresses on how governments can step in and kickstart a global change in the way the hospitality industry works.

He shared, “It can’t hurt to incentivise operators to become more sustainable – grants and subsidies do exist for hotels which for example go solar or implement energy-saving measures. This just needs to be pushed further and further, until hotels are running on the energy they provide. For eg., all the electricity we need at our studio in Bangkok is generated by the sun. In a single hour, the amount of power from the sun that strikes the Earth is more than the entire world consumes in a year. What are we waiting for!”

Sustainable Hospitality
Creation of Green Walls with plants and recycled plastic at Accor

Develop Sustainability Practices Amongst Employees

Augier Nel concluded that it is crucial to instil good practices and habits amongst the employees towards sustainable hospitality. “At our organisation, the driving force remains our sustainable development programme, Planet 21, around which everyone revolves. Once sustainability becomes a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for all at all levels of the organisations, acceptability comes naturally, changing mindsets as involvement becomes a must for all.”

Nielsen conducted a study on millennial consumer behaviour that found that sustainability is a priority among the travel-prone generation.

66 percent of global respondents said that they would pay more for products and services from companies dedicated to positive social and environmental impact. (Nielsen, 2015). Another survey by TUI found that two-thirds of vacationers are open to make lifestyle trade-offs if it benefits the environment. (TUI, 2017).

According to’s 2018 Sustainable Travel Report, 87 percent of global travellers say they want to travel sustainably. 

To support these endeavours, government and public support for promoting sustainability has increased across industries.

In 2015, 193 nations agreed to work towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Designed to ensure a better future for all, there are a set of 17 goals. By introducing and executing them, significant changes can take place by 2030.

With travellers and governments invested in sustainability now more than ever, the hospitality industry should implement practices that benefit people and the planet as a whole.

Also Read: Regenerative Travel: Begin Enriching Ecosystems While You Travel


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