Highlights from a research project that lays out the framework of the most realistic and implementable steps to get a hospitality sustainability action plan started from the hotelier's perspective.
Sustainability in hospitality – A challenge that is here to stay
Despite the current political and economic crisis, sustainability is a topic that remains very high on the agenda of business decision-makers. This is also true for the hospitality industry. Challenging objectives exist in abundance. For instance, the Global Hotel Decarbonization Report published in 2017, claims that the hotel industry must reduce its emissions by 90% by 2050. Reaching these targets will require fast and far-reaching action.
The pragmatic question for hoteliers is how to navigate the often confusing lists of prescriptions for sustainability and where to begin? The literature on change implementation suggests that for change to be effective, three things need to be in place: a certain dissatisfaction with the status quo, a vision of a desirable future, and defined first steps for implementation.
Given that dissatisfaction about the current state of affairs is certainly present, and that motivating visions for a more sustainable future are being offered by a range of actors – including political parties, industry bodies and NGOs – we will focus on the last element in this trilogy: the concrete, specifically defined first steps towards a more sustainable industry.
A hotelier's journey to sustainability
The methodology we applied was unconventional. Whereas classical literature reviews focus mostly on academic journals and summarize research results either in a narrative or in statistical terms, we decided to zero in on any mention of a specific sustainability-oriented action that can be implemented in a hospitality environment. Also, we extended the scope of our research beyond academic journals and looked at consultancy documents, industry association booklets or sustainability certification guidelines, to name just a few.
The result of our research was a comprehensive list of 1189 unique sustainability actions which we then set out to organize. We started with the well-known concept of the “triple bottom-line” and used the distinction between ecological, social and economic sustainability as a starting point. Through systematic integration and synthesis of individual actions we eventually arrived at 50 main content areas, out of which 23 were in the ecological area, 22 in social sustainability and five in the economic domain. Below we describe the main content areas that may serve as starting points for hoteliers on their journey towards sustainability.
Environmental sustainability: energy, water and waste
The sustainability actions focused on environmental sustainability could be clustered in three different areas: energy, water and waste. With regard to energy, specific measures included the use of renewable energies, optimization of the built infrastructure, various measures related to lighting and heating/ventilation/air conditioning (HVAC), maintenance and management. In the domain of water, the main focus was on water savings and pollution reduction, whereas in the area of waste the main focus areas were waste reduction, recycling and optimized purchasing strategies. For all three domains, measures related to the co-optation of guests and staff to support sustainability initiatives were mentioned.
RENEWABLE ENERGIES AND GHG
HEATING, VENTILATION & AIR CONDITIONING (HVAC)
SENSORS AND MANUAL CONTROL
GENEAL WATER SAVING
Social sustainability: employees, guests and society
Measures related to social sustainability crystallized around three main topics: employees, guests and society. With regard to employees, one can distinguish sustainability actions that are supported by employees vs. sustainability actions for which employees are the beneficiaries. The latter category includes increased attention to employee welfare, various issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion and legal and ethical standards, as well as more sustainable employment relations and leadership.
In the domain of guests, the dominant topics were related to transportation, the physical environment, F&B issues and sustainability as part of the service experience. With regard to society, a dominant place was taken by general CSR policies and corporate philanthropy, complemented by a sustainability focus on the local context, including local procurement and local development.
SUSTAINABILITY THROUGH EMPLOYEES
HRM FOR SUSTAINABILITY
SUSTAINABILITY FOR EMPLOYEES
EMPLOYMENT AND CAREERS
DIVERSITY, EQUITY & INCLUSION
LEGAL AND ETHICAL STANDARDS
ACCESSIBILITY AND DIVERSITY
AMENITIES & PRODUCTS
FOOD & BEVERAGE
CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
LEGAL AND ETHICAL STANDARDS
PROTECTION OF DESTINATION
Economic sustainability actions were regrouped in five major areas that are closely aligned with the functional organization of a hospitality firm along the value chain. They included purchasing, marketing, strategy, management, finance, but also creativity and innovative approaches to sustainability.
STRATEGY & MANAGEMENT
Choosing the right action for your hotel
In which of these actions hoteliers should invest depends, of course, to a large extent on the unique characteristics of the property. We suggest five key questions that may help in the selection and prioritization process.
1. Consider your geographic location - Every property is situated in a unique geographic location with particular challenges related to the environment, the climate, transportation, employment etc. For instance, rainwater harvesting and water preservation will be a key priority in hot and dry locations, whereas it may be relatively unimportant in, say, a property in the UK. Conversely, more sustainable employment policies may be at the forefront of challenges in many developed economies, where the available workforce is getting increasingly scarce.
2. Be mindful of the ownership structure - What can be done in terms of sustainability will be constrained to some extent by the ownership and management structure of the property. Chain-affiliated properties will often have to follow corporate sustainability programs and guidelines, with limited opportunities for local initiative. Owner-operated properties have substantially more leeway, but may not be equipped with the same amount of resources.
3. Consider your main strategic focus - The selection of sustainability actions can also be related to a strategic focus for gaining competitive advantage. If the property focuses on a cost-leadership strategy, the selected options will differ from those that may be most promising for a differentiation strategy.
4. Evaluate available resources - Sustainability initiatives come in all formats. From simple to complex, from small to large, from cheap to very costly. The amount of available resources (in terms of finances but also management attention) has to be considered.
5. Respect legal and institutional constraints - The local regulatory environment may mandate certain standards (e.g. with regard to water and energy issues) that the property cannot deviate from. An affiliation with a sustainability-oriented label may also involve constraints that need to be respected.
As with many things in life, the first step may be the hardest. It is encouraging to see, that more and more hotel properties are firmly engaged on a path to greater sustainability.