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.

Restaurant Rooftop Gardens: Five Of America’s Best

beekeepingFrom where I stood on the roof of Bastille Cafe & Bar in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, I could see flocks of seagulls circling nearby fishing boats, as I catch whiffs of brine, gasoline and eau de canal water.

Despite the industrial marine supplies and salmon canneries across the way, up here I was surrounded by buzzing honeybees and dozens of varieties of produce, from heirloom French beans and petit pois to herbs, tomato starts, lettuces and cucumber vines.

Bastille is part of an emerging breed of urban restaurant (many of which are located in hotels) popping up across America. Not content to just source food locally, today’s seasonally- and sustainably-driven chefs and restaurateurs are installing rooftop gardens and beehives to augment the product they purchase from family farms.

Many of these restaurants offer public tours of their rooftop gardens, greenhouses and hives, so even city-dwellers (or line cooks) no longer have an excuse to remain clueless about where their food comes from – and the public can’t get enough. With the urban farming movement – backyard produce, chickens, bees, even dairy goats – at critical mass, savvy chefs, concerned about their carbon footprint and wanting more control over the production and quality of their ingredients, have turned their rooftops into kitchen gardens.

Few restaurants can spare the labor or have staff experienced in cultivating crops, which is where small businesses like Seattle Urban Farm Company and Ballard Bee Company come in. The Urban Farm Company’s services include construction and maintenance of residential backyard farms, rooftop gardens, educational school gardens, and on-site gardens at restaurants and businesses. With regard to the latter, chefs and cooks receive education as well, and become involved in caring for and harvesting crops and collaborating on plantings based on menu ideas.

Corky Luster of Ballard Bee offers hive hosting or rental, where homeowners keep hives on their property, in exchange for maintenance, harvesting, and a share of the honey. Bastille keeps hives, and uses the honey in cocktails and dishes ranging from vinaigrette’s to desserts.

Following is the short list of rooftop garden restaurants that have served as inspiration for imitators, nationwide. Here’s to dirty cooks, everywhere.rooftop gardensBastille Cafe & Bar, Seattle
Seattle Urban Farm Company owner/founder Colin McCrate and his business partner Brad Halm and staff conceptualized Bastille’s garden with the restaurant’s owners three years ago. After substantial roof retrofitting, rectangular garden beds were installed. Over time, beehives were introduced, and this past year, plastic children’s swimming pools were reinforced with landscape fabric and UV-protective cloth, expanding the garden space to 4,500 feet.

In summer and fall, the garden supplies chef Jason Stoneburner and his staff with 25 percent of their produce for Bastille’s French-inspired seasonal cuisine. Housed in a lavishly restored, historic 1920s building, it has the vibe of a traditional Parisian brasserie, but here you’ll find an emphasis on lighter dishes as well as cocktails crafted from boutique spirits and rooftop ingredients.

Every Wednesday, Rooftop Garden Tours are hosted by Seattle Urban Farm Company, and include a complimentary Rum Fizz, made with Jamaican rum, mint, sparkling wine, bitters and (of course) rooftop honey. Cost is $10 per person; limit 10 people. Contact the restaurant for reservations.

honey
flour + water, and Central Kitchen, San Francisco
Thomas McNaughton of popular Mission pizzeria flour + water opened his newest venture on May 9. Both restaurants have rooftop gardens, and Central Kitchen is a lovely, modern rustic sanctuary serving simple, seasonal fare that highlights Northern California ingredients.

In addition to beehives, Central Kitchen is producing peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, berries, figs, citrus and herbs in a 2,000-square-foot space. Lexans (heavy-weight plastic storage containers used in professional kitchens) serve as garden beds, while herbs flourish in a converted Foosball table. Talk about recycling!

Uncommon Ground on Clark, Chicago
This big sister to the new Edgewater location features a 2,500-square-foot garden with solar panels to heat water used in the restaurant. Everything from beets, eggplant, okra and bush beans are cultivated, including rare seed varieties from the Slow Food “Ark of Taste.” The Ark is dedicated to preserving the “economic, social, and cultural heritage of fruits and vegetables,” as well as promoting genetic diversity. Expect refined crunchy granola fare with ethnic flourishes.
tomatoes
Roberta’s, Brooklyn
This insanely popular Bushwick restaurant made national headlines when chef Carlo Mirarchi was named a 2011 Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine for his wood-fired pizzas and way with rooftop produce, including some heirloom varieties.

Mirarchi, who is passionate about urban farming and community involvement, uses two repurposed cargo containers on the restaurant’s roof for cultivating crops, and keeps a blog about the evolution of the garden.

[Photo credits: honeycomb; Laurel Miller; tomatoes, Flickr user Muffet]

In this video, Chef Robert Gerstenecker of Park 75 restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel, Atlanta, talks rooftop gardening and beekeeping. He grew up on a family farm and dairy in Ohio.



‘Food Forward’ PBS Series Debuts With ‘Urban Agriculture Across America’ Episode

cowsIn less than a century, the United States has gone from being a mostly agrarian society to an urbanized one. Most of us live in cities and, despite our growing cultural fascination with food, most Americans have no idea where the ingredients on their plate (or in that wrapper) are actually coming from.

That’s where “Food Forward” comes in. After a three-year effort, the premiere episode of this innovative new PBS series, as first reported by the Huffington Post, is airing nationally throughout April (see schedule after the jump). In “Urban Agriculture Across America,” the “Food Forward” crew travel from the Bay Area to Milwaukee, Detroit and New York City, talking to urban farming innovators such as Abeni Ramsey, a single mother in West Oakland.

Formerly relegated to feeding her family Top Ramen, Ramsey was inspired some years ago by a farm stand she spotted in her neighborhood, operated by West Oakland’s City Slicker Farms. As part of City Slickers’ initiative to nourish under-served communities, their staff and volunteers build garden boxes (designed for small-scale, intensive production) in residents’ yards.

Ramsey got her garden box and soon had a backyard full of produce. Next, she got chickens to provide her family with protein in the form of meat and eggs. Today, she’s the farm manager of the East Bay’s urban Dig Deep Farms. Dig Deep sells and delivers produce to local communities through its CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) program and works in collaboration with Oakland’s acclaimed Flora restaurant.

Says Flora chef Rico Rivera, “We order the produce, she picks it and it’s here the next morning.” Adds Ramsey, “It’s a modern idea that you get all of your food from the store. People have been farming in cities…since there were cities.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user Martin Gommel]rooftop gardenJohn Mooney, chef and rooftop hydroponic farmer at Bell Book & Candle in Manhattan’s West Village, is another interesting subject as is urban beekeeper Andrew Coté, who collects specific blends from hives around Manhattan and Brooklyn.

While the idea of keeping bees in the midst of a metropolis may seem an unnecessary objective, or a somewhat precious craft food enterprise, it’s anything but, as Coté points out. “Bees help pollinate the city’s community and rooftop gardens as well as window boxes.” Localized honey also contains pollen that helps allergy sufferers living in these neighborhoods.

Of Detroit, “Food Forward” co-creator/producer Stett Holbrook says, “It blew my mind. It’s a city that has been devastated by industrial collapse and the exodus of half of its population, but the resilience of the residents still there to remake the city – literally from the ground up – was truly inspiring. Urban agriculture is a big part of the renaissance.”

According to its website, the objective of “Food Forward” is to “create a series that looks beyond the world of celebrity chefs, cooking competitions,” and formulaic recipe shows. From my perspective, it also goes beyond the seemingly endless variations on scintillating (not) reality series on baked good empires, riffs on “Homo sapiens vs. Arteriosclerosis” and “Twenty Crappy Things You Can Cook With Canned Goods.”

Instead, “Food Forward” looks at what it calls the “food rebels” across America – farmers, chefs, ranchers, fishermen, food artisans, scientists and educators – who are dedicated to changingurban farm the way we eat and finding more sustainable alternatives to how food is produced and procured.

“Food Forward” succeeds (if the pilot is any indication) in a way that documentaries of this genre haven’t (despite being excellent on all counts: see, “The Future of Food,” “Food, Inc.,” etc.).

It’s mercifully not about food elitism, either. Rather than leaving you depressed, angry or guilty, the show inspires, entertains and sends a message of hope. Future episodes will focus on school lunch reform, sustainable fishing and meat production and soil science. Some segments are animated, either to better illustrate a point or to engage a wider age demographic.

“Food Forward” is “written, produced and directed by a veteran team of journalists, cinematographers and storytellers that includes: director Greg Roden (PBS, FOX and National Geographic channel’s “Lonely Planet” and the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle); aforementioned creator-producer Holbrook (Food editor for Metro Silicon Valley and The Bohemian in Sonoma County, and contributor to the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Saveur and Chow.com); Brian Greene (Food Network, Discovery Channel, NBC), and director of photography David Lindstrom (PBS, National Geographic and Discovery channels).

On April 22, the pilot will air on WTTW in Chicago at 5:30 p.m. and WLIW in New York at 2:30 p.m. On April 28, it will air on Washington DC’s WETA at 5:30 p.m. For future episodes, check your local PBS listings, visit the “Food Forward” website or www.PBS.org/foodforward.