Luxury hotels are not generally known to be synonymous with sustainability. Some of the most iconic elements of the hotel experience are entirely the opposite: enormous breakfast buffets, fluffy towels and robes, daily laundry, water bottles in the minibar, air-conditioning, deep bathtubs, little bottles of shampoo, disposable combs and toothbrushes. According to the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, the hotel sector accounts for around 1% of global carbon emissions. Add to that the travel involved in getting to the destination (flights, taxis, car hire) and the physical impact of tourists at the destination itself (such as damage caused to the coral reef), and it begs the question whether luxury hotels, renowned for their opulence, can ever truly be sustainable.

Demand for hotels which are ostentatious and unnecessarily wasteful is also dwindling as customers became increasingly conscious of their environmental impact. The Future Laboratory speaks of the “collective backlash against ostentatious spending” which is “fuelling new anxiety among luxury consumers”. Hospitality brands are therefore under pressure to adapt and strip back to essentialism.

Many hotels are rising to the challenge in various innovative ways. Asides from helping the planet, a bonus side effect is that these hotels are also able to develop their brands by supporting and celebrating local environments, knowledge and craft, whilst building sustainability into the experience for their guests.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Tokyo Hotels has created the world’s first hotel to be powered exclusively by hydrogen, sourced from food waste and waste plastics. They also grow their own produce inside the hotel using hydroponics and LED light source photosynthesis.
  • Hilton has launched carbon neutral business meetings, using a Meeting Impact Calculator to estimate each meeting’s energy, water, carbon and waste consumption and allowing delegates to offset their carbon footprint through carbon credits. The credits are then allocated to various global clean energy projects, such as the development and maintenance of wind farms or the construction of geothermal powerplants.
  • Iberostar uses its hotels’ largely coastal locations to focus on the ocean as a natural priority in its Wave of Change movement, which is centred around the three pillars of plastics reduction, responsible seafood consumption and coastal health. They employ a full-time team of dedicated marine experts to ensure sustainability initiatives are scientifically based and measurable. In the Dominican Republic, they set up a Coral Reef Lab for the purpose of studying the impacts of coral bleaching and also serving as a genetic bank for coral. It is also used as an educational facility for guests to learn about coral reefs and their importance.
  • Fairmont has installed a number of beehives on their hotel rooftops to facilitate the pollination of surrounding plants. The honey produced by the bees is also used in the hotel’s restaurants and spas.
  • Salinda Resort in Vietnam organises a “beach clean” day once a month, where staff and guests join forces to remove rubbish from the beaches.
  • Vumeirah Vittaveli in the Maldives treats seawater to create fresh drinking water and bottles its own water in recycled glass bottles.
  • Six Senses in Ibiza uses Deep-Sea Air-Conditioning technology, harnessing the sea to naturally cool the property.

So, what can other hotels do?

  • Be transparent. Invest in technologies which record carbon emissions, show the pro rata results to guests and offer carbon offsetting opportunities
  • Remove single use plastic items from rooms and use bulk dispensers to offer locally sourced soaps and lotions
  • Source food locally and focus on seasonal ingredients
  • Donate unused soaps to homeless shelters, medical facilities and community centres in poorer communities
  • Embrace the sharing economy (think of the popularity of Airbnb and Uber) and encourage communal amenities such as water-refilling stations, mini-fridges and coffee machines in an open guest space
  • Use local construction materials and work with the natural topography of the land
  • Install LED light bulbs and water saving devices on taps and showers

It is clear that sustainability is no longer a consumer trend; it is an expectation and a demand. Overt displays of wealth are no longer aspirational, and luxury hotels need to adapt and illustrate greater awareness of people, the planet and social causes. Brands can be strengthened by working with their natural environment and championing projects which are a natural fit depending on their specific location (for example, coastal hotels might partner with ocean projects). Finally, hotels can appeal to the growing customer conscience and help to educate their guests by making sustainability part of the experience. From kitchen gardens and hedgehog sanctuaries to beach clean-ups and coral-reef labs, let the customers join you in your mission.