Sustainable tourism is not just a rising travel trend. It’s also quickly becoming a priority — if not a moral imperative — for hospitality leaders and hotel businesses around the world. And not a moment too soon.

According to the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, tourism contributes about 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions — a figure they expect to grow by 130% by 2035. Meanwhile, the International Tourism Partnership found that for the hotel industry to align with the Paris Climate Agreement, it will need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions per room per year by 90% by 2050 (compared to a baseline from 2010).

Sobering statistics they are indeed, especially considering the current and forecasted rates of growth of the industry.

In the past five years, the global hotel industry has grown by 2.3% to reach revenues of over €1.28 trillion in 2018 (IBISWorld, 2018). At the current pace, more than 80,000 hotels will join the existing supply by 2050.

So, the challenge we face is not an insignificant one. As sustainable hospitality expert Dr. Willy Legrandexplains it, we need to find a way to grow the industry, accommodating more and more guests and building more and more properties, and at the same time reduce the sector’s carbon footprint to achieve complete decarbonization by 2050.

Here’s a look at how some organizations and properties are tackling that challenge.

Current trends in sustainable hospitality

According to Dr. Legrand, whose expertise about sustainable hospitality was instrumental in creating this article, “A large section of the hospitality industry is joining the unprecedented mobilization across the globe in mitigating negative environmental impacts and facing the many societal challenges ahead.”

The guest editor-in-chief of the Hotel Yearbook 2018 – Sustainable Hospitality and the Hotel Yearbook Special Edition – Sustainable Hospitality 2020, Dr. Legrand pointed out several key eco-friendly hotel industry trends, such as:

  • Cutting down on food waste. For example, by growing food onsite, sourcing food locally, and shifting social norms to ensure that “plate waste” is no longer considered acceptable (Benjamin Lephilibert, HYB2018).
  • Minimizing water usage beyond the hotel room. In addition to encouraging guests to be mindful of their water and towel usage, some properties are turning to innovations such as showers that filter their own water (Inge Huijbrechts, HYB2018).
  • Eliminating plastic. A step beyond recycling, doing away with single-use plastic products can help limit the huge amount of waste stemming from creating and discarding these items. Getting rid of plastic water bottles and plastic bags is a good place to start (Jeanne Varney, HYB2020).
  • Conserving energy. This “economically sustainable method” is effective and easy to apply, for example by redesigning the guest experience to encourage guests to apply adaptive behaviors. One way is to replace the mini-fridge and coffee machine in each room with a communal amenities area in an open guest space (Christopher Warren, HYB2020).
  • Creating a paperless hotel.A task made easy by a modern property management system, which will simplify operations and streamline the guest experience while reducing carbon emissions (Terence Ronson, HYB2018).
  • Integrating sustainability into the hotel architecture. In building new properties, there is a “three-zero-concept” approach: using local construction materials and skills (zero kilometers), prioritizing energy management and lower emissions (zero carbon dioxide), and introducing life-cycle management into the building process (zero waste) (Matteo Thun, HYB2020).

Going green: good for the world, good for bringing in the hotel guests of today (and tomorrow)

Beyond the noble goal of decarbonization, there are economic factors driving the industry trend toward sustainability as well.

The U.N. World Tourism Organization predicts that by the year 2020, there will be some 1.6 billion eco-inspired tripstaken.

Eco-friendliness is evolving from a nice-to-have, on-trend hotel commodity to a must-have priority for a growing number of environmentally and socially conscious travelers.

We see this especially among the rising generation of travelers and hotel bookers. A study on millennialconsumer behavior, conducted by The Nielsen Company, found that sustainability is a shopping priorityamong this influential and travel-prone generation. In fact, 66% of global respondents (up 11% from the previous year) would “pay more for products and services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact” (Nielsen, 2015).

In the same vein, a TUI global survey found that two-thirds of holidaymakers are willing “to make lifestyle trade-offs to benefit the environment” (TUI, 2017).

By going green, then, a property can not only appeal to and attract today’s eco-aware travelers, but also help its guests benefit the environment without compromising the quality of their trip.

What does it take to be recognized as an eco-friendly property?

As of now, there is no single, universal set of criteria for officially recognizing properties as eco-friendly.

However, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), the body that manages the global standards for sustainable travel and tourism, created The GSTC Industry Criteria and Suggested Indicators for Hotels in an effort to “come to a common understanding of sustainable tourism.” The idea is to harmonize all the criteria found in the many green hotel certification schemes available, such as Green Key, Green Star Hotel Certificate, etc.

The organization describes the GSTC Criteria as “the minimum that a hotel (or any type of built accommodations) business should aspire to reach.”

Hotels looking to be officially recognized as eco-friendly properties can consider one of the many GSTC-accredited certification bodies around the world.

Find the full list of GSTC-recognized standards and green-certifying bodies for hotels here.

A final thought on sustainable hospitality

As we’ve seen from the numbers, there’s significant work to be done to make the hospitality industry an economically sustainable sector. It can be daunting, to say the least. But the truth is that every measure, every step taken to reduce the carbon footprint at every level of the industry counts and is, in fact, crucial.

“Sustainable hospitality does not translate into ‘one company trying to do its very best in a given market,’” explains Dr. Legrand, “but rather, it is an entire industry that stands up to face the environmental and societal challenges by exploring ideas, solutions and strategies of how to develop future hotels and how to manage operations in a sustainable way.”