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.

Airports go green with new eco-friendly initiatives

Airports are little cities unto themselves. Many are even large enough to have their own zip codes. With so many people coming in and out, cars dropping off and picking up, and planes departing and landing, airports produce a whole lot of air pollution and physical trash. But, many are making an effort to reduce their environmental impact by implementing new green features. Here are some of the coolest green initiatives at airports around the world.

Using Alternative Power
Last July, Boston Logan Airport installed 20 wind turbines that will offset about 3% of the building’s annual energy needs (doesn’t sound like much, but consider the amount an airport uses), and it’s not the only airport investing in alternative sources of energy. The airports of Munich, Zurich, San Francisco and Denver have also installed solar panels to help power their buildings. Dallas/Fort Worth Airport converted its bus and shuttle fleet to run on compressed natural gas and hydrogen-based fuel, as has Mineta San Jose. Heathrow is testing its new Personal Transport Pods, battery-powered, zero-emission vehicles that will whisk passengers from the terminal to the parking lot, and Boston provides preferred parking spots to drivers of hybrid cars.

Refilling Empty Water Bottles
The Portland Airport allows travelers coming through the security line with water bottles to dump the liquid but keep the container to refill once they pass security. That doesn’t sound like a big deal until you realize that other airports, like Chicago O’Hare, require the bottles to be thrown out. Not only does that policy generate tons of unnecessary waste, but all those full or half-full bottles weigh more and therefore the removal produces more emissions. Portland’s rule seems pretty green in comparison. San Francisco Airport goes one step further than Portland by providing water refill stations past the security checkpoint so people can refill their water bottles free of charge.

Recycling and Composting
Many airports have limited recycling programs in place, but some are going above and beyond when it comes to making sure that nothing that can be recycled gets added to a landfill. Seattle-Tacoma Airport, rated by the Clean Airport Partnership as one of the greenest in the country, charges concessionaires by the pound for waste(but doesn’t charge for recycling), encouraging vendors to recycle as much as possible. Portland makes it easy on flyers as well by providing a “single sort” recycle bin. Everything gets tossed in one bin and later sorted by a recycling company, so people don’t have to worry about which receptacle they throw their items into.

Seattle doesn’t end its recycling efforts with paper, plastic, glass and aluminum – it also composts 145 tons of coffee grounds per year and recycles 1,000 gallons of cooking oil each month, which is then used to produced biodiesel fuel. Munich Airport has a similar program: the organic waste from the airport’s restaurants is collected, sent to a farm, and used as pig feed. San Francisco hopes to require its concessionaires to serve all food in containers that can be composted and turned into fertilizer and Denver Airport will begin its own composting program this January.

Other green airport practices include using energy-efficient LCD screens on all computers and monitors, landscaping with native plants, installing low-flow toilets, and replacing paper towel dispensers with electric hand dryers. With the amount of waste and emissions airports produce as a result of their sheer size, the have a long way to go to truly be called “green”, but it’s nice to know that many are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact in whatever small ways they can.

A&K and Fairmont Earth Hour ideas will have tangible results

Earth Hour is on Saturday, March 28 at 8:30 PM. The hospitality and travel industry seems to have embraced this commitment to environmentalism. There are plenty of noteworthy initiatives out there intended to show support for a planet that could probably use our help. Of course, some are more interesting than others. I’m pretty interested in what’s going on at Abercrombie & Kent and Fairmont.

Upscale travel firm A&K is taking action at each of its 62 offices around the world. Outdoor signs will be turned off, and only emergency lighting will be used indoors. This will save 620 light-hours of electricity. And, they’re going to shut off the air conditioning for 90 minutes before the end of the work day, lowering power consumption for this period by 18 percent.

The company is also turning its corporate social responsibility gaze outward. Sanctuary Camps & Lodges are going to host stargazing parties, thanks to the dark skies. They are also planning to turn off generators and cut power consumption by 50 percent for Earth Hour (at 13 properties in Africa).

A&K’s Sun Boat III and Sun Boat IV will turn off their generators, as well, operating only with emergency lighting. Guests will be able to enjoy the bright stars – because of the desert air – in Upper Egypt. Eclipse in the Galapagos will host a presentation on the Sun Deck and reduce the use of power by 30 percent.And, the company hopes that Earth Hour goodwill is contagious. Employees have pledged to save 2,960 light-hours, and A&K’s suppliers, including restaurants and hotels, have been encouraged to support Earth Hour, with hundreds agreeing to do so.

I’m also pretty impressed with what Fairmont is doing for Earth Hour (which you can track via Twitter). This company’s made it a habit to stay out in front of the market when it comes to corporate social responsibility, and it’s ready to play from Dallas to Dubai – at all 56 properties. In addition to its usual environmentally sound initiatives, some Fairmont properties are taking specific, unique action.

At the Fairmont St. Andrews, guests can choose at check-in the power they want to use: nuclear, solar or wind. They’ll also receive compact fluorescent light bulbs. But, this is just the beginning. If you decide to sweat it out in the gym’s spin class, the energy you create will be converted to kilowatt hours to show just how much power you produce. The class is sponsored to provide a cash donation to the World Wildlife Fund. Kids will be able to plant their own saplings. The initiatives at the St. Andrews property are designed to have lasting results.

In Alberta, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise will light up its side of the lake with ice luminaries. Guests will be invited to gather around a fire and enjoy some old-fashioned storytelling under the stars. This hotel is committed to Earth Hour year-round, with 50 percent of its power coming from a mix of wind and run-of-river electricity generation.

Over in Kenya, at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, the lantern-lit Boma will be a place for guests to gather and listen to a local naturalist discuss conservation and the environment – the “Maasai” way. It won’t be just lectures, though, as Maasai dancers will provide entertainment.

The Fairmont Zanzibar, Tanzania will celebrate Earth Hour for the entire day. Guests will be invited to sail on historical dhows on clear Indian Ocean waters. Chef Ric and his team will use charcoal grills to prepare seafood on the beach, delighting palates without disrupting the environment.

Are you doing anything for Earth Hour? Let me know at tom.johansmeyer [at] weblogsinc.com or http://twitter.com/tjohansmeyer.

Tapping into the wind to charge your portable electronics

There seems to be a whole industry dedicated to novel ways of powering up small electronic devices these days. Because God only knows that today’s modern travelers get a little nervous when venturing to places where their juice might peter out.

And so we bring you yet another way to charge up that iPod when your battery dies in Mongolia.

The Hymini is a small, handheld windmill that generates power when, you guessed it, the wind blows. Of course, most users aren’t going to stand around for an hour in a windstorm waiting for the unit to charge, but they will strap it to their bikes and even their cars where a 40 mile per hour journey will generate enough go-juice to operate a cell phone for 40 minutes. Or simply strap the Hymini to any of the blowhard politicians running for the American presidency and you’ll be able to power up a small city for the next decade. Don’t you just love election season?