How To Choose A Sustainable Hotel For Your Next Holiday

Eco-friendly travel is now easier—with a little help from search engines and hotel aggregators.

Prachi Joshi

As a new year dawns, the hospitality industry cautiously looks at a return to ‘normal’. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we live and, of course, travel. Demand for sustainable travel was steadily rising over the past few years, but the pandemic has proven to be a tipping point for travellers to switch from intent to action. In June 2021, leading hotels’ aggregator Booking.com released their 2021 Sustainable Travel Report, which revealed that 83% of global travellers think sustainable travel is vital—with 61% saying the pandemic has made them want to travel more sustainably in the future. While 81%of travellers said they want to stay in a sustainable accommodation in the upcoming year, almost half (49%) believe there simply aren’t enough sustainable travel options available. From the hotels’ perspective, the survey found that while three out of four accommodation providers said they have implemented at least some kind of sustainability practices at their property, only one-third actively communicate about their efforts proactively to potential guests.

Good intentions are present on both sides, but there is still a lot of work to be done to make sustainable travel an easy choice for travellers. An important step in closing this gap is providing more sustainability information in a transparent way. This is where credible, third-party accreditation can be helpful.

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In September 2021, Google unveiled a new feature to find sustainable hotels—an eco-certified badge with a green leaf-shaped icon next to the hotel name. This indicates the hotel has met high standards of sustainability as certified by independent organisations like Green Key or EarthCheck. Eco-certification is self-reported by hotels but must be backed up by third-party audits. Green Key is a voluntary eco-label awarded to more than 3,200 hotels in 65 countries, while EarthCheck is a scientific benchmarking certification for travel and tourism, which has certified hotels in more than 70 countries. Other notable certifications Google will recognise include LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a globally recognised green building rating system), Green Seal, Green Globe, and Green Growth 2050 Standard. The last is a seal of approval from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) that has been measuring hotels and resorts according to 200 sustainability-related metrics since 2015. Certification by these organisations includes an assessment of environmental impact from at least four categories: energy efficiency, water conservation, waste reduction, and sustainable sourcing.

If you want to dive into a hotel’s specific sustainability practices, simply click the ‘About’ tab to see a list of what they’re doing. For example, the listing for ITC Maratha, Mumbai shows that it has a green building design, a recycling and food waste reduction programme, and water-efficient showers. It is also LEED and ISO certified. The listing for DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Bengaluru shows that it has a responsible purchasing policy and an energy conservation programme; the hotel also donates and composts excess food.

Similarly, Booking.com is currently displaying over 30 certifications officially approved by the GSTC, Green Tourism, and the EU Ecolabel, as well as multiple hotel chain sustainability programs. This information is sourced directly from the certification bodies and displayed on the property pages. These measures by Google and Booking.com offer more transparency particularly against greenwashing, which runs rampant in the hospitality industry.

Sustainability in practice

The term greenwashing was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 to call out hotels that ask guests to use fewer towels while making no significant efforts to become more sustainable overall. Hotels often spend more time and money on marketing themselves as being sustainable rather than on actually minimising their environmental impact. The easiest way to spot greenwashing is to watch out for buzzwords and feel-good fuzzy language, especially when claims are not backed up by any data or proof.

Want to travel more sustainably? Here are some things to look out for when you book your next hotel:

  • Energy and water efficiency: Does the hotel give clear information on how much electricity, lighting, or air-conditioning is powered by renewables? Does it use water-efficient taps, toilets, and showers?
  • Waste reduction: What do they do with their glass, paper, card, plastic, metal, or food leftovers? Do they have a recycling programme?
  • Food and drink: Is produce sourced locally, or even better, grown on site? Is the seafood responsibly sourced? Do they offer vegetarian and vegan options?
  • Employment policies: Do they hire from the local community? Is the staff diverse and inclusive?

Does this sound like a lot of work, especially when you’re on a holiday? Perhaps! But any change in sustainable travel practices will be driven by consumers like us changing the way we travel and demanding better from hotels. Asking a couple of questions is a small price to pay for a sustainable future for travel. 

Photo: ITC Maratha, Mumbai
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