Before You Book: Eco-Friendly Hotel Or Just Greenwashing?

can of green paint and brush

velo_city, Flickr

We’ve all stayed at hotels that proudly boast, via little signs on the bed and/or bathroom sink, that they’re doing their part to save the environment. Don’t want towels changed in order to save water? Just hang ‘em up, and the housekeeper will know that you’re a carbon footprint-savvy traveler.

Sure. I can count on half of one hand the number of hotels that have actually paid attention to the location of my towel. I’ve seen countless housekeepers dump the contents of in-room recycling bins into their trash bags. I don’t have any expectations at motels, but when it comes to boutique, “eco-friendly,” or high-end properties making these claims, I find it infuriating.

My focus as a writer and traveler is on sustainability issues, and I’m overjoyed that an increasing number of hotels are more aware of their environmental impact. What doesn’t thrill me: the amount of greenwashing, or false eco-claims, that take place in the hospitality industry. This problem isn’t unique to hotels, but it’s prevalent.

African man holding fish

safari_partners, Flickr


We’re living in an era of climate change. Lowering our individual and collective carbon footprint should be something we do, to the best of our abilities, on a daily basis. Hotels are hip to the fact that an increasing number of travelers have an elevated eco-awareness, and they want to capitalize on that.

In the absence of a word-of-mouth or written recommendation, it can be difficult to ascertain a hotel’s eco-integrity (although certain chains are well-known for their green policies; a 2012 Reuters report cites chains like Six Senses Resorts & Spas, Taj Resorts, Kimpton Hotels and Marriott).

Sites like Green Traveler Guides, however, (full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor) exist as unofficial industry watchdogs, reviewing properties and assessing their green policies. If you’re looking for a hotel or resort that’s genuinely green, sites like GTG feature properties that are both green and great, as well as provide tips on how to be a more eco-minded traveler. Other resources include sites like Green Lodging News.

hotel with exterior living wall

Rev_Stan, Flickr

For a quick study, here’s a checklist of what to look for when researching hotels:

  • If the only mentions refer to buzzwords like “organic,” “local,” “eco-friendly,” “eco-lodge,” or “environment,” caveat emptor. There’s no law that prohibits the use of green jargon; it’s up to you as a consumer to do your homework.
  • Is there a bona-fide recycling (bonus points for composting) program?
  • Does the property employ locals/incorporate and support local culture and community? How?
  • Is the property built and furnished with natural and/or reclaimed or renewable materials wherever possible?
  • Are there green options for guests, such as bike rentals and local culture-based activities?
  • Does the property have green certification from a legit international or domestic organization or program?
Laurel Miller, Gadling
  • Does the property use alternative fuel or electric carts for guest transit on-site and off?
  • Are bathroom amenities and cleaning agents chemical-free? Bonus points your in-room goodies are locally made.
  • If there’s on-site dining, is the food seasonal and sourced locally whenever possible (which reduces fossil fuel output as well as promotes local food security)? Do family farmers, ranchers and fisherman supply ingredients? Is there a chemical-free on-site rooftop or other garden from which the restaurant sources product?
  • Does the property have a “living roof” or walls?
  • Is the property using alternative resources for operations? Examples include solar or wind power, geothermal heating and reclaimed water systems.

Denver’s Union Station undergoing LEED Gold makeover

Denver Union StationThe historic Union Station in Denver, Colorado, will soon be undergoing a major restoration project that will turn it into one of the most progressive transportation hubs in the United States.

According to Inhabitat, the project is aiming for LEED Gold certification and will preserve the train hub that connects the Amtrak system with regional modes of transport, like Colorado’s celebrated FasTracks light rail system and local bus lines. The restoration will also include the addition of a 130-room Oxford Hotel-affiliated boutique hotel, a retail center, and six public plazas.

The new Union Station is projected to bolster the reputation of Denver’s LoDo (Lower Downtown) District as a model for urban revitalization. Short for Lower Downtown, LoDo was the first settlement in the greater Denver area and is now one of the most happening parts of the city, with breweries, cafes, galleries, and creative businesses taking over the district’s Victorian and turn-of-the-century buildings. The new Union Station is scheduled to be completed in 2014.

[via Inhabitat; Flickr image via Cliff]

New visitor center opens at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful

On August 24th, the National Park Service opened a new $27 million dollar visitor center near Old Faithful in Yellowstone. The high tech and environmentally friendly building replaces an older visitor center that originally opened in 1972 and struggled to keep up with traffic in recent years, which have seen record numbers of visitors to the park.

Officially dubbed the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, the new building was built in conjunction with the Yellowstone Park Foundation, a non-profit organization that raised more than $15 million to help fund the project. The OFVEC is expected to host 2.6 million annual visitors, who will be treated to a host of interactive displays including one that demonstrates the hydrothermal process that leads to the eventual eruption of a geyser. That one is particularly helpful while you’re waiting for the real Old Faithful to erupt just a hundred yards away.

The new building follows a number of strict guidelines for sustainability and energy efficiency, including the use of mostly recycled and bio-based materials. Additionally, the visitor center uses approximately 1/3 less energy than other buildings of its size, while sitting on a shallow foundation designed to protect the hydrothermal systems at play underneath. Furthermore, over 99% of the construction waste from the old building was crushed on site and used as backfill, aiding the carbon footprint even further. As a result, the OFVEC has earned a Gold level rating on the LEED scale, the first structure in the park to gain this distinction.

In addition to the interactive displays housed inside the “Young Scientist” exhibit area, the new visitor center also boasts a comfortable theater, a classroom for use by local schools and other organizations, a library, gift shop, and a resource room. The spacious lobby also features an information and orientation desk, and a nearby sign keeps everyone aware of when the next eruption of Old Faithful will occur. They geyser erupts every 90 minutes, give or take a few, and the new visitor center will give you something to do while you wait for that next spectacular display.

I visited the new center a few weeks back, and found it educational and fascinating. The new science displays are aimed at kids, but are also informative and interesting for us big kids too. You’ll definitely want to checkout the artificial geyser that “erupts” every 7 or 8 minutes, showing you how the entire process works both above and below the ground. I also applaud the efforts by the Park Service to take a more environmentally friendly approach, as the building looks spectacular and is good for the planet too.

Golf legend Arnold Palmer signs SpringHill hotel project

Golf master Arnold Palmer can now add “hotelier” to his impressive resume.

Palmer is partnering with Concord Hospitality Enterprises to build a 109-key SpringHill Suites by Marriott hotel near his Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania. The hotel will be jointly owned by Palmer Hospitality LP, Concord and Keith H. McGraw, is slated to open late next year.

What can guests expect? A lot of green. Palmer’s golfing career will be the inspiration for the hotel’s design, which will feature everything from his awards to golf memorabilia. The hotel will be a LEED-certified prototype that was pioneered by Concord in conjunction with Marriott.

The all-suite concept will offer separate areas for sleeping, working and relaxing, and will feature complimentary daily breakfast buffet, in-suite microwave and mini-fridge, pull-out sofa bed, free high-speed Internet access, swimming pool and whirlpool, fitness room and on-site business services.

We’re pretty sure the SpringHill Suites will offer shuttle service to the golf course, too.

Marriott introduces first LEED green hotel prototype

South Carolina is now home to the first Marriott LEED green hotel prototype. The Courtyard Charleston/Summerville will be the hotel’s flagship green property, in partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

The new Courtyard hotel will open in early 2010 and will introduce the first phase of The Parks of Berkley, a community consisting of 5,000 acres and one of the largest planned developments in the Southeastern United States.

Marriott has set its sights on 300 LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) hotels by 2015, and all the hotels to come will follow the South Carolina prototype. Last fall, the hotel group announced plans to develop a green hotel prototype for its Courtyard brand that will save roughly $100,000, six months in design time, and up to 25 percent energy and water savings for its owners.

Currently, Marriott has nearly 50 hotels across all brands that are LEED-certified or registered by the USGBC, including:

  • The Inn & Conference Center by Marriott at the University of Maryland, the first LEED-certified hotel in North America
  • The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte in North Carolina, LEED Gold-certified
  • Courtyard Chevy Chase in Maryland, LEED Gold-certified
  • Courtyard Portland City Center in Oregon, LEED Gold-certified
  • Fairfield Inn & Suites Baltimore Downtown/Inner Harbor, LEED Gold-certified
  • Atlanta Marriott Gateway, applying for LEED certification upon opening
  • SpringHill Suites Atlanta Airport Gateway, LEED-registered, applying for certification
  • JW San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa, LEED-registered, applying for certification
  • JW Marriott Hotel Los Angeles LA Live, LEED-registered, applying for certification
  • The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles at LA Live, LEED-registered, applying for certification
  • The Ritz-Carlton Highlands, Lake Tahoe, in Nevada applying for certification
  • TownePlace Suites Baltimore BWI Airport, applying for LEED-Existing Building certification