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.

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.

Boston Logan airport going green – runways included

Usually, when people think about “green initiatives”, they think recycled toilet paper and dimmed lighting. At Boston Logan, they are taking an entirely new approach – starting with their newest runway repaving.

Instead of repaving the runway with the common asphalt mix, Logan is using a European developed warm-mix covering. The mix is heated at much lower temperatures, and the environmental impact is reduced by 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide, and a whopping 400,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

As with most new airport technologies, this one had to pass an FAA testing procedure before getting the green light.

In addition to its newest asphalt, the airport operator is also investing heavily in replacing diesel powered baggage vehicles with electric versions. The airport granted Delta Airlines a $3 million loan to invest in the carts and baggage belt trucks. The new electric vehicles will be used at Terminal A – the world’s first LEED certified airport terminal.

Denver’s Queen Anne Bed and Breakfast is eco-chic

At Denver’s Queen Anne Bed and Breakfast, the mission statement is clear. Comfort, style and luxury can co-exist with sustainable, eco-friendly practices. And when it comes to green initiatives, Milan Doshi, the b&b’s owner, seems to have thought of everything. The bedding, the paint, the food, the labor – every aspect of the b&b was specifically chosen to be as green as possible.

According to the Denver Post, Doshi bought the hotel in summer of 2008 and immediately began a massive renovation. New floors, from Sustainable Floors in Boulder, were made of compressed leftover wood fibers and installed. Eco-friendly Keesta mattresses, made of recycled metal coils and memory foam infused with green tea extracts, were put in the bedrooms. The walls were covered in eco-friendly low VOC paints. And a heavy wooden table, made of a material called Italian ebony (also made of leftover wood fibers) was selected as the dining room centerpiece. It’s the place where Colorado Allegro coffee is served with a locally-sourced organic breakfast each day (many of the herbs and veggies are pulled from the b&b garden), and where Colorado wines and cheeses are served each evening at happy hour.

Doshi used local products whenever possible and even went so far as to make sure the labor he used was local too. All of the contractors and some of the suppliers he worked with were found within a 10-mile radius. Local craftsmen carved the oak platform beds, and small plastic bottles of toiletries have been replaced with bulk dispensers (which eliminate waste and reduce trash) from Colorado-based Jason Organics.

The green bonanza doesn’t stop there. The linens on the beds are organic cotton; all cleaning products used are 100% natural, biodegradable, and dye-free; paper products are recycled, biodegradable, unbleached and dye-free; only glass drinking cups are used; and the shower heads and toilets have had low-flow adapters installed. The b&b even requires the dry cleaners they work with to recycle their hangers and plastic, and provides free bikes for guest transportation.

Doshi hopes that in the near future, the Queen Anne Bed and Breakfast will be the nation’s first LEED certified bed and breakfast. He’d also like to see the b&b certified as “cradle-to-cradle”, meaning that it creates no pollution and nothing is wasted in its operation. To that end, he has big plans for additional green features, such as a system that could convert used sink water into toilet water.

So, all these green features are great, but if the property doesn’t stack up to it’s less-green counterparts, who would want to stay there? Well luckily, the Queen Anne does measure up. Of the 15 TripAdvisor reviews written since Doshi took over (there are an additional 45 written about the previous incarnation of the b&b), 14 rate it 5-stars. The other one knocked it down to 4-stars. Guests all agree that the staff are helpful and friendly, the rooms are beautiful and comfortable, and the food is fresh and delicious. The location, about a 10-minute walk from downtown, is ideal as well. It seems to me that you really can’t ask for more in a bed and breakfast.

Of course, for a frugal traveler, price is an important consideration too. Some of the more ornate or larger of the 14 rooms, which feature king beds, whirlpool tubs, log fireplaces or cathedral ceilings, go for $175 to $215 per night. But four rooms also cost $145 or $165, and the Oak Room, with it’s deep pedestal tub and original pull-chain commode, is just $135 a night. It’s good to know that you can go green, and still save a little green at the same time.

Gadling hotel review – Hotel Arista, Naperville, IL

The Hotel Arista describes itself as “eco-chic”, and after my first stay here, I’ve got to agree with that description. The hotel is located in the western Chicago suburb of Naperville. About 45 minutes from downtown Chicago, the hotel is easy to reach as it is right off the expressway.

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How the Hotel Arista does “green”

The Hotel Arista is the first LEED certified hotel in Illinois. Being LEED certified means the hotel underwent a extensive “green audit” by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Thankfully, staying in a “green hotel” does not mean you need to sleep on hay and brush your teeth with ash and salt. In fact, the majority of green efforts at the Hotel Arista were very well implemented, and some of them actually made my stay even more enjoyable.

The green initiatives are twofold – the majority of them are behind the scenes, while others are out in the open.

In the public spaces, almost all lighting is LED, greatly reducing energy usage. Room climate control is only activated when a guest checks in, which means the system no longer needs to heat empty rooms. The hotel restaurant recycles all its cooking oil, and the chef grows his own herbs in a garden in front of the hotel.

In the rooms, wall control panels instantly control all the lights – these panels are next to the door, in the bedroom and next to the bed. With one push of a button, all the lights are dimmed. All rooms feature large floor to ceiling windows, greatly reducing the need for additional lighting. In addition to this, some of these windows can be opened, allowing fresh air into the room.

The toilet is a dual flush model, all bathroom paper products are partly recycled and the sinks feature low flow faucets.

To me, one of the most impressive methods of recycling is that the hotel supplies all its left over newspapers and magazines to a local shelter as bedding for the animals and their unused in-room amenities to a local homeless shelter, along with sheets, table linens and other items. Newspapers are delivered in a cloth bag, hung from the door each morning, instead of plastic liners.

All these initiatives mean the Hotel Arista uses 31% less water, and 21% less energy than a comparable property, and as I mentioned earlier – you never get the feeling you are being forced to be “green”.



Geek heaven

The Hotel Arista takes in-room technology to a whole new level – and was one of the best equipped hotels I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in. My room was equipped with 2 42″ flat panel HD TV’s, one of which offered an easy access connection panel.

The TV channel lineup was equally impressive – offering a huge lineup of HD channels, including multiple premium movie channels. Additional features on the TV included a full hotel amenity guide, bill preview and room service menu.

A third TV is in the bathroom – behind the mirror. A splashproof remote control means you can fill the tub and watch the news.

The desk is equipped with a Cisco 7875 color IP touch screen telephone. The phone was updated with software offering instant access to maps, news, weather, voicemail-to-email interface and a full interactive hotel guide. The bedroom has a cordless IP phone.

Hidden behind the desk was an Ethernet cable offering access to the hotel broadband service. Speeds during my test were excellent – almost 30 mbps down and 25 mbps up. Wireless access is also offered, with a good solid signal and great speeds. The Ethernet cable could do with a label or some other way to let guests know where to find it.

There were no outlets above the desk, so I had to use the only spare outlet under the desk and use my own splitter to charge my phone and power my laptop.

The hotel offers a great lineup of extras for in your room – during your stay (or even before you arrive), you can request a Wii, Wii Fit, a DVD player and a variety of chargers and cables. This is the first time I’ve actually seen Blackberry chargers available for guests.

The Wii in your room is fantastic if you don’t plan to venture outside (and during my stay, the weather kept me indoors). My Wii was delivered in a Nintendo carrying bag, and came with Wii Sports and the Wii fit platform.

Thanks to the front panel hookup, I was up and running in about 5 minutes. There is something oddly cool about playing Wii Sports in a large room with floor to ceiling windows on the 12th floor.


Hotel amenities

The hotel has several on-property amenities, including an in-room spa and an award winning restaurant. A fitness center offers most of the equipment you’d expect from a good hotel health club, including showers and lockers. In addition to this, the staff can deliver fitness equipment to your room.

The hotel lobby is well designed, and features a discrete check-in desk and spacious “living room” with complimentary coffee and newspapers. Hotel staff were always around willing to help with doors and luggage.



In-room comfort

To be comfortable in my room, I only need a couple of things – a good bed, decent climate control and an easy to set alarm clock. The room provided two out of three. Like many hotels, the Arista installed the iHome iPod alarm clock, but since these are probably one of the most complicated to program, I opted to set an alarm on the Cisco IP phone (which was much easier to program).

Climate control in the room was very good – each room had its own thermostat. Guests who hate dry air can request a humidifier.

The bed was great, and the modern look and feel of the hotel meant I got a nice comforter instead of the horrible hospital style sheets found in other hotels.

Next to the bed is a control panel for turning off all the lights, and switching to nightlight mode, and on each side of the bed is a flexible nightlight. With one push of a button, all the lights dim and your nightlights can be turned on.

The minibar had a limited selection of beverages, and several snacks. Prices were surprisingly decent at just $4 for soda and $6 for most alcoholic beverages. Next to the fridge is a small snack tray and coffee maker. The hotel refers to its minibar as the “Nosh Box”, and items are located in the minibar, in the bathroom (bath salts) and next to the bed (face mask, sleep aid, intimacy kit).

Unlike most hotels, the minibar at the Hotel Arista can be designed to fit your personal needs. You can request more (or less) of products, add your own personal favorites, or request your own cocktail kit.

The bathroom in my room featured a stand-alone tub and a walk-in shower. Bathroom amenities are from the Gilchrist & Soames brand, and offered everything from a shaving kit to mouthwash. In other “green hotels”, I’ve noticed a trend towards wall mounted dispensers, but I still prefer good old tubes and bottles, so I was happy to see the Arista stick to these.

One of the more convenient features in the bathroom is floor lighting – dim light shows your way to the toilet for those middle of the night trips to relive yourself.


The Naperville area

Opening a luxury hotel in Naperville may have some people scratching their heads – the location is not exactly conveniently located anywhere exciting. That said – there is something to be said for staying away from the city.

At just 45 minutes from downtown Chicago, it is perfect for a romantic getaway.

For just $289, you get a 2 room king suite, Champagne, chocolate covered strawberries, a couples in-room massage and breakfast for two plus early arrival/late departure. That is at least $300 cheaper than a similar package in a downtown luxury hotel.

Within 10 minutes from the hotel are the Aurora premium outlets, where you can treat your significant other to something from the Coach (or Sony) store. Just down the road from the hotel is the Fox Valley mall, with over 180 stores.

And finally, starting at just $309, you can combine your stay with a round of golf at a local course.



Final thoughts

I’ll be going back to this hotel – even though it is within driving distance of where I live, it offers the kind of peace and quiet in a luxury surrounding we all need every now and then.

Their romance package is extremely well priced, and any couples in the area should seriously consider saying “I love you” in the luxury of their own two room suite.

The green features are perfectly balanced – you know they are there, but you don’t feel they get in the way. There is ample free parking around the hotel (including plenty of street parking).

You’ll find the Hotel Arista at 2139 CityGate Lane in Naperville. Their web site is at www.hotelarista.com.