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Sustainability in the hotel industry: Commitment or just another Marketing Strategy?

It’s common sense that smaller, independent hotels might not be able to afford the fees that come with applying for green certification. Still, if they are certified, they are unable to spend money promoting it. Paradoxically, the very thing that makes some people suspicious of mega-hotel chains is also these chains’ biggest asset when it comes to sustainability.

A decade ago, sustainability in the hospitality sector was a bonus; today it is a business vital element as more and more people not only make sustainable travel choices but also many are willing to pay more for them as well. Loads of hotels around the globe are engaging in sustainability; NH hotel group SA, Edition Hotels, Marriot, etc. At first glance, this is excellent news. Climate crisis is the biggest threat to our existence, so if businesses pledge to reduce their carbon footprints, should we celebrate?

Hence, the eco-friendly hotel you visit might not be so green after all. Competition in the hotel industry is immense so businesses go through waves by changing attitudes and taking advantage. Concerning the hotel industry and eco-friendly tactics, it can be hard to know which moves are setting up true and long-term sustainability and which ones are just trends that will vanish as soon as the next trend emerges. I am sure all are aware of hotels “winning” awards for great sustainability practices and green hotels, etc. The dilemma is, have you ever heard of those awards? And are they legitimate recognitions or just paid pride prizes given out within the industry? Justin Francisthe co-founder and CEO of Responsibletravel.com, points out that "[y]ou are awarded if you make a small improvement in several criteria, not that you've achieved any level of sustainability," he clarifies. In other words, “[g]et rid of one or two of those energy-hogging bulbs and you're doing better than you were last year.”

So, are these “fashion sustainability claims” real, or do they contain an incorrect or else deceptive representation which is most likely to influence the demand for or supply of services? Is this good or not? In my humble opinion I would say; yes and no. We do want to see meaningful engagement from businesses when it comes to the environment, but how can we tell the difference between a real promise to change and green-washing?

To begin with what is green-washing? Green-washing means two main things. It can be when companies – usually mega corporations and sometimes politicians – try to hide or cover up their less-than-stellar environmental records with a grand, public gesture towards green causes.” In an era of social media, these huge PR campaigns are often criticized and intensely inspected pretty quickly. As a result, hotels have a financial motivation to appear socially conscious; because it gives them extraordinary power to shape the success or failure of their businesses. They are aware that they can drive this business change. For example “Generation Z” is willing to spend big for a hotel that promotes causes with social impacts, such as climate. Being sustainable is more than using the words recycles and up cycle in the description of your operations in the service industry. Indeed it’s a cultural shift that becomes a subconscious part of what the company represents. It is not a secret that throughout the years' hotels have been accused of damaging the environment. Indeed the rise of mass tourism in the 1970s highlighted quantity over quality. Ultimately, many authentic places were transformed into polluted concrete jungles almost overnight. Yet while guests think they are supporting the environment by reusing towels or turning off the a/c, they may be victims of "greenwashing," a company's devious practice of encouraging eco-friendly programs while hiding real motives.

However, is it possible to distinguish between a greenwashing award and a legitimate green award? Perchance a sustainable committed hotel will have a thorough environmental report made public, so you could see actual results on any waste control. That is good! Wistfully businesses are misguided because their sustainability strategies do not align with customer expectations. Therefore, customers met with skepticism all their initiatives, for example, advertising a towel reuse program but not having recycling bins available – might easily make consumers disbelieve, particularly if the consumer’s comfort is forfeited in some way. As Pracejus and Olsen point out “[d] despite the prevalence of research on sustainability, research examining consumer perceptions of fit toward the sustainable marketing strategies of firms is lacking.”

Furthermore, the “sustainability” advantage can be practiced mostly by large hotels (branded hotels) that can financially afford it. It's common sense that smaller, independent hotels might not be able to afford the fees that come with applying for green certification. Still, if they are certified, they are unable to spend money promoting it. Paradoxically, the very thing that makes some people suspicious of mega-hotel chains is also these chains' biggest asset when it comes to sustainability. Consider this: if you go on vacation in a more remote or politically unstable part of the world, odds are you're way more likely to try a chain-branded hotel than a small independent hotel.

That's the same operating standard for large hotels, which can diminish for example plastic use and other green principles by applying them brand-wide. See the Marriot hotel case: in 2019 they stopped using plastic straws instead they used surpassingly eco-friendly straws from PLA material when ultimately they realized that even though it was plant-based, it had additives in it, that treat it that make it act exactly like plastics. As a result, Marriot stopped using straws and automatically saved a billion straws from the brand's overall portfolio, which as well means the company saved money. That practice was not welcomed by some customers, and for this reason, Marriott still offers some straws around for guests. In reality, the single biggest factor motivating a hotel to make changes is money. In other words without customers, there's no profit, and without profit, there's no incentive. So, let’s pose a question here: If at the end of the day customers do not care about hotels going green or they do not perceive the sustainability actions to be noteworthy then neither will hotels make any efforts! Why? Because in the end, the customers have the financial power! So when it comes to guests listen, learn, and act on what matters to them. On the other hand, yes, sustainability can be a strategy. The dilemma is, however: Is using sustainable practices a type of intentional differentiation that can result in advanced financial performance? Or, is it a strategic requisite that can guarantee business survival but not business superiority?

Sustainability is good “business”. With the appearance of hundreds of green marketing campaigns, many hotels have been known to over-illustrate the “greenness” of their businesses. But sustainability means so much more than just being green. Spending more time and money claiming to be ‘green’ or “eco-friendly” through advertising and marketing; hotels end up losing focus on actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.

Furthermore, in my humble opinion, I strongly believe that sustainability in the hotel industry should be considered at the stage when business persons think about where to build, and what the design will be. In other words, real sustainable hotels are usually designed respecting the environment and the area where they’re located at the birth of the business idea. Hoteliers shouldn’t consider sustainability as a freight train they need to jump on. Therefore they can use an alternative panacea-like “green marketing” to achieve genuine sustainability development. Green marketing can be successful for marketers, hoteliers, and tourism stakeholders. Nevertheless, they need to have determination and patience, because green marketing is a new attempt and it requires long-term strategic planning to be successful. Moreover, their sustainability practices should be aligned with their vision, purpose, and strategy. Consequently, ecological results should be taken into consideration in the first steps of the process of tourist development. Sadly most of the time, people’s interests are sacrificed for the protection of the environment. However, as it seems, hotel sustainability is transformed into this dark umbrella term that is being used liberally these days to mean everything – and nothing.

Look what happened recently in Ischia, Italy. Heavy rains caused terrifying landslides that resulted in deaths and loss of properties. The director of the Institute for Hydrogeological Research and Conservation Tommaso Moramarco, notes that "in Ischia, urbanization destroyed the whole area." Mario Toci, a geologist, points out that “[w]hen the island entered the period of mass tourism, the expansion of the infrastructure was done with geometric progress, and drowning all its natural elements and covering everything with cement (La Stampa Newspaper)." Bear, also in mind that tens of thousands of arbitrary buildings have been erected in Ischia. Do you believe that the hotels build in Ischia in places that were not supposed to be any buildings; if they practiced sustainability, would it matter anyhow at the moment?

To carry on, in the Netherlands, hotels and residential buildings are springing up around protected, nitrogen-sensitive areas. Construction of such buildings has nearly doubled in the past five years (NLtimes). Such construction projects hinder the survival of protected plant and animal species, and this is not an eco-friendly approach. Furthermore, in the Caribbean insular, the majority of vacation accommodation is built within the coastal zone where biodiversity is rich. The current development model doesn’t take into consideration sustainability due to the conflicted interests of developers, stakeholders, and hotel managers.

Concerning Greece, many hotels are built in protected areas all around the country, especially on the islands. The majority of hotel units as well have not yet implemented any sustainability systems. The reluctance of hoteliers and managers to apply environmental management programs is due rather to the fact that they are not yet convinced by the significance of such interferences. Alas in Greece, the hotel sector is a main consumer of energy, with negative effects on the natural environment.

Additionally, the inexistence of environmental awareness among executives in the tourism industry worsens the situation. For instance, Santorini islands' natural features are destroyed. The reason is the island’s dreadful infrastructure. Similar problems face Thailand, Bali, Cinque Terre in Italy, and more.

We have reached the Critical Mass that requires a vital “tourism start over” embracing sustainability at its core. Sustainability is hugely inspirational – it invokes images of a better world. So how can we have a better world when nature is destroyed and sacrificed on the altar of money; by building hotels in places that are supposed to be protected? In such a competitive industry as the hotel industry, businesses will always seek to compete by focusing on sustainable marketing strategies. However, we shouldn’t underestimate customers who are not always buying the green claims made by hotels. Hotels must go the extra mile in integrating environmentally friendly practices to develop credibility in consumers’ minds.” Growth-at-all-costs and especially at the expense of the environment is no longer a viable approach. Based on scientific evidence, climate change is increasingly apparent in natural disasters. There is a changed focus on the environment. That proposes an extraordinary opportunity to transform the relationship between the hotel sector and nature, to fully add to the Sustainable Development Goals.

To sum up, current tourism practices are unsustainable. For the development of eco-tourism, it is essential to work out the regional strategy, identify criteria for eco-tourism and its indicator, their winning mechanism, and makeup such a system that will prevent any harm to protected areas. Hence, it is required for the development of eco-tourism and its functioning to prepare a list of
1. Regional natural and historical-cultural resources;
2. Basic planning of eco-tourism activities and its integration in the plan of the development of a region and
3. Creation of minimal infrastructure, and so on.

If we do not look after it, in some years our world will not be the same as we know it today. Sadly our future world is collapsing in dreadful infrastructure At all time, we need to have in mind that whatever good things we build ends up building us.

General Manager - Apokoros Villas | + Posts

Philia Tounta MBA, Ba, Di, is General Manager at Apokoros Club Hotel Craft Deco & Activities - Apokoros Villas. Also, Customer Service Manager Thamiris Hotel-Studios-Villa, Travel & Hospitality Consultant-Hotelice, Tourism Ambassador HTS and a freelance writer (ehotelier.com, flashnews.gr, hotelexecutive.com, etravelnews.gr, etc) - Rapporteur.

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