Eco-friendly Hotels: Does your hotel or eco-lodge make the grade?
It's hard to determine what eco-friendly hotels even are, in a world where the buzzwords of the tourism industry are green, sustainable or eco-friendly.
But these terms can be used loosely and it's hard to know what they really (truthfully) mean.
You might have seen the discreetly placed signs indicating that linen will not be washed unless requested or to please hang up your towel unless you want it washed every day.
This is an easy way for travellers to get that satisfied feeling you get when you feel like you've really done something good for the environment. However, laundry is only one part of being green, and who knows what's going on behind the scenes.
Does your hotel or eco-lodge throw away uneaten food and plastic utensils? Do they import their kitchen supplies from exotic, farflung destinations? Do you see multiple leaflets and other junk cluttering up your desk?
This kind of behaviour is known as greenwashing, which simply means taking on the appearance, but not the substance of environmentalism in order to gain more profits. After all, most travellers simply don't notice.
From hotels using eco-friendly bulbs or organic vegetables in their kitchen to an eco-lodge built completely out of scrap materials, it's best to find out what exactly you're signing up for before boasting that your holiday is 'green'.
Eco-friendly Hotels: What classifies a hotel or eco-lodge as 'green'. Is there any certification?
The answer to this is a resounding YES. But there's more than 100 certification programmes wordwide vying for attention. To confound the issue, you've got many countries creating their own certification systems, including Thailand's highly-regarded Green Leaf prgramme.
Meanwhile Canada's certification programme holds the same name, with many US hotels signing up for its prestigious Green Leaf status.
On top of this there are industry group and government agencies' certifications such as EPA's Energy Star, which measures a building's energy efficiency.
Other highly-regarded Green Certification programmes include EU Eco-Label (with 55 hotels participating) and Green Globe (primarily for Australia, New Zealand and Asia). Travelocity alone, accepts hotels certified by any of ten different programmes.
What's more, there's no guarantee that a hotel with a certification is better than one without. Some programmes don't even inspect their groups individual hotel's for compliance, instead relying on a code of honour, which in today's world doesn't seem to mean all that much.
Eco-friendly hotels might even comply with enough eco-friendly practices to get awarded the certification and then gradually let standards slip. In addition, many truly green hotels and eco-lodges never bother to get accredited at all.
This means that you might have to do your homework. Dropping an email to a prospective hotel beforehand is a guaranteed way of finding out exactly how sustainable your accommodation choice is. Be willing to ask the questions nobody else will, and help make green accommodation the norm.
Eco-friendly Hotels: More than carbon footprint alone
In an increasingly commercial world where the colour of the day is green, it's often difficult to determine what green even means. A hotel that composts its food waste is green, so is one that offsets its carbon footprint, or even one that uses solar power. A hotel that merely uses energy-efficient bulbs can call itself green.
Another hotel might help provide education and training to the local community, or hire only local staff. Is one more green than another?
Ecotourism in practice
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people".
Ideally, eco-friendly hotels and providers of green accommodation practice ecotourism by reducing energy (or using renewable energy sources), conserving the environment and giving back to the community.
Measuring carbon footprint
To meet these criteria, the total environmental impact of a building, known as its ecological footprint, needs to be measured. Eco-friendly hotels or green accommodation providors need to have the lowest footprint possible.
Eco-lodges have a smaller footprint because they are not only small but are mostly built out of natural (and local) materials. Large hotels, even if operating at half capacity, still have a considerably higher ecological footprint than an eco-lodge, due to higher running costs by size alone.
A zero carbon footprint is in fact very difficult to achieve, thus most hotels aim for carbon-neutral. Some hotels reduce their footprint through carbon offsetting, a process where carbon emissions are 'offset' by donating to a project that reduces carbon by an equivalent amount.
However, carbon offsetting is pretty controversial with environmentalists contending that it discourages businesses and individuals from putting measures in place that reduce carbon emissions in the first place, including carbon offsetting projects such as wind farms or tree plantations.
A hotel might also cut down on its energy usage, install solar panels, use only eco-friendly products or switching to energy-efficient bulbs or fluorescent lights. However, replacing existing technology consumes further energy (think of the energy used in producing and transporting those items).
Strictly speaking, a hotel's carbon footprint includes all the energy used in construction of the building itself (producing the materials, shipping them to the destination and of course the energy used when building).
Eco-friendly hotels or green accommodation providors that were built sustainably from the beginning can thus be a more sustainable accommodation choice.
Eco-friendly Hotels Checklist
Ultimately, the best bet for eco-conscious travellers is to educate themselves about the various eco-friendly technologies and practices out there, and to measure their chosen hotel's compliance accordingly.
To conclude, I've put together a quick checklist for you to use to find out whether a hotel is truly green before making your booking.
- Is your preferred hotel in a certification programme that is regularly audited? Check the hotel's rating as well as the rules for admission and ranking.
- What is your hotel doing to reduce its carbon footprint?
- How does your hotel manage it's water consumption?
- Are there any measures in place to harvest rainwater or use greywater (harmless waste water from washing machines, kitchen sinks etc).
- How does your hotel reduce the effects of waste on the environment?
- Does your hotel support the local community in any way?
Want to know more? Discover in detail what truly eco-friendly hotels do to ensure their green status.
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