Are green hotels as sustainable as they claim?

In the case of Toronto’s 1 Hotel, its sustainability claim can be seen as an elegant elision of eco-spin, savvy business strategy and the truth

green tourism industry

The frenzy of travel in the past several months has been marked by all manner of vacation chaos, thanks mainly to airport and airline staff shortages and the falling-dominos effect of delayed flights.

From a sustainability perspective, all that flying likely undid the climate benefits that accrued during the plane-free skies in COVID’s first year – evidence that pent-up demand for travel still exerts a greater emotional tug than global warming.

Indeed, tourism carbon is mostly about the journey. A round-trip flight for two between Toronto and a Caribbean sun destination for a week of rest and relaxation generates almost two tonnes of greenhouse gases, whereas a typical passenger vehicle produces about four to five tonnes in a whole year.

Yet the footprint of flying hasn’t slowed global demand for ecotourism, which was estimated to generate about US$180 billion in 2019, with revenue expected to almost double by the end of the decade. Much of that market is about nature and wilderness travel and off-grid experiences featuring basic accommodations. According to a survey this year by Booking.com, 71% of respondents wanted to green their travel plans, a 10% increase from 2021.

The urban hospitality sector, at pains to make itself relevant again in the Airbnb era, has sought to secure a slice of this pie with hotels promising sustainability features that go beyond the standard-issue reminders to patrons about used towels.

A U.K.-based energy retailer, Uswitch, earlier this year compiled a ranking of cities with the greatest number of green hotels, based on various public data sources and a so-called sustainability badge introduced late last year by Booking.com. “To achieve the approved sustainable travel badge,” the survey notes, “each hotel has to share their carbon emissions, water consumption, food consumption and waste, animal welfare, and many other environmental factors.”

In the green building industry, net-zero is a building that produces as much energy as it uses. For those of us focused on the climate crisis, there’s a higher bar, to have a building that doesn’t use any fossil fuels.

-Bruce Becker, architect at Becker & Becker

Canadian cities, as it turns out, fare quite well, and especially Vancouver, which isn’t all that surprising, given that the city’s electricity is almost entirely derived from hydro power. According to Uswitch, more than 40% of Vancouver’s hotels qualify for Booking’s sustainability badge, with Stockholm and Toronto ranking second and third globally.

One of the Toronto properties cited is 1 Hotel, a new luxury venue that’s part of the Starwood Capital Group’s vast real estate empire, via a subsidiary called SH Hotels and Resorts. There are eight other 1 Hotels, in places like New York, Tennessee and South Beach, Florida. According to SH’s corporate director of sustainability and impact, Corinne Hanson, “[Starwood founder] Barry Sternlicht, with the inception of the 1 Hotels brand, wanted to create something that was sustainability driven, mission driven, both in its core design and its operations.”

Hanson, who also sits on Starwood’s ESG board, rhymes off some of the features, and they do include variations on the theme of garden-variety green building elements. The company sought to use “found objects” to create some of its decor and sourced its furniture through a partnership with Just Be Woodsy, a Toronto company that salvages wood from felled city trees to makes its products. There’s an onsite composter, with the results used for the facility’s garden and plantings. Hanson says 85% of the hotel’s waste is diverted from landfill, and the goal is to achieve zero waste.

Another feature: that 1 Hotels aims to reduce embodied carbon by using existing buildings where possible. “We always try to look for buildings to repurpose, so we can try to address embodied carbon, even though we might not always be able to offset the total of our embodied carbon,” Hanson says. “We try to be quite transparent about that.”

In the case of 1 Hotel Toronto, this particular claim can be seen as an elegant elision of eco-spin, savvy business strategy and, well, the truth. The building itself, in the rapidly intensifying King West area, was home for several years to another swishy boutique hotel, the Thompson, a Toronto International Film Festival party favourite. It was shut down in 2019 for a “facelift,” per The Hollywood Reporter, so it could be rebranded as a 1 Hotel. The new luxury version was to open in 2020, but that timetable got scotched for all the obvious reasons.

A more compelling example of recycling buildings can be found in New Haven, Connecticut, where the former corporate headquarters of the Armstrong Rubber Co., a fortress-like Brutalist office building that opened in 1970, has been transformed into the Hotel Marcel, part of Hilton’s Tapestry Collection, whatever that means. (The hotel is named for Marcel Breuer, the original architect.) Hilton claims it will be the first net-zero hotel in the United States.

[Starwood founder] Barry Sternlicht, with the inception of the 1 Hotels brand, wanted to create something that was sustainability driven, mission driven, both in its core design and its operations.

-Corinne Hanson, SH Hotels and Resorts’s corporate director of sustainability and impact

“In the green building industry, net-zero is a building that produces as much energy as it uses,” Bruce Becker, an architect who acquired the long-vacant landmark structure, told The New York Times. “For those of us focused on the climate crisis, there’s a higher bar, to have a building that doesn’t use any fossil fuels.”

It’s not easy to determine whether these projects represent corporate greenwashing, a new twist on luxury accommodation or some kind of genuine improvement. Certainly, salvaging a giant concrete edifice from the wrecking ball would seem like a progressive gesture that fully embraces one of the core tenets of the circular economy. With 1 Hotel, however, the storyline seems to include a lot of branding alongside the eco-feature shopping list, although Hanson insists SH is “a cause rather than a brand.”

She acknowledges that Starwood, as a large real estate asset manager, has yet to make public a detailed accounting of its carbon performance, despite the company’s home page proudly announcing that it is both a carbon-neutral company and a signatory of the Principles for Responsible Investment. The first quantified ESG report is expected next year.

Still, one could certainly argue that urban tourism, which makes use of well-trafficked places with transit and infrastructure, is more sustainable than travel to stunning and remote locales found at the far end of complicated and carbon-intensive transportation network. Those journeys may leave a lot more footprints, carbon and otherwise, in places that once had few of them. Who is to say whether it is morally superior to travel to the Far North to take in the tragic majesty of a warming ecosystem as opposed to booking a room in a swanky hotel with all the eco-fixings that also happens to be in the middle of a big city.

Is the trend toward hyper-sustainable hotels merely going to generate more air travel? Given the seeming paradox, what is SH communicating to potential customers looking for sustainable experiences? As Hanson readily responds, “I think that’s the right question.”

 

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