Writing about environmental sustainability issues is not the most gratifying task. You are invited, dear reader, to please continue reading, though. This article does not attempt to stimulate guilt or parent-ego induced finger wagging. What follows are insights, learnings, thoughts and musings from a hotelier viewing the impact—particularly the hospitality industry’s impact on the environment. These thoughts are based on insights stemming from eight years of hospitality related environmental sustainability consulting work. It is stating subjective observations about possible changes in value perception of a person, a profession and an industry.
A hotel is an organization or economic system where goods and services are exchanged for one another or for money. The 18th century (1724 to 1780) free-market economist Adam Smith fathered the idea about the division of labor and the societal benefits of individuals’ pursuit of their own self-interest. He famously said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
The contemporaries of Smith predominantly travelled by horse-drawn carriages. The reach of a horse influenced the nascent hospitality industry. That distance, travelled during daytime, inclined where inns could endure. Through prevailing seasons the environment directly dictated what food was served. Population levels were very low and personal consumption levels equally low.
Arriving in the early 21st Century underlying factors of business have exponentially shifted. The population reached 7.4 billion humans sporting an individual annual consumption level of 1 to 11 tonnes CO2, depending on where you live. One’s own interest is still a major driver in almost everything.
Growing = Bigger = Better?
To grow implies that something gains. In mass, value or size. It has generally a positive feeling to it. But is it necessarily better? What statement would Smith articulate had he lived in today’s world? Hindsight is always 20/20.
Enter Thomas R. Malthus (1766 to 1834) who stated with his Principle of Population perhaps a viewpoint, a tad less optimistic, hence less commonly disseminated. When have you last heard anyone mentioning the challenges of overpopulation? By now you might inquire as to what relevance that has to hospitality?
Enter here, the recently newly elected major (she is a woman) of Barcelona, Spain who, earlier this year, ceased issuing new hotel operation licenses. The island of Mallorca, Spain levied an environmental tax for visiting tourists. Both examples from Spain are based on complaints by local residents that there are too many tourist arrivals. Bali, Indonesia saw protests by local residents against a planned new tourist project.
Thailand on one hand seeks to raise the average daily-spent amount of each tourist. On the other hand, while obtaining 32 million annual arrivals this year, has announced that all tourists are required to be traceable via a special SIM card.
The relevance can be paraphrased by quoting Paracelsus (1493 to 1541): “All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dosage makes a thing not poison.”
The story goes that Mr. Wachtveitl, the long-time General Manager of the exquisite Oriental Bangkok, created an index card system of the likes and dislikes of his guests. Mr. Wachtveitl created said system long before computers were used in hotels. For our younger readers, an index card is the hardware, handwritten equivalent to an electronic file. Then as now, one needs to be very conscious or very aware to note all those likes and dislikes of one’s guests. Especially the non-communicated ones are the ones which lead to those wow-effects fashioning raving fans.
The genius behind such insight perhaps (I did not ask him) was based on being conscious about performing as a good host. The results of paying so much attention to one’s guests are, in the case of the Oriental Bangkok, legendary. The problem of how to provide the necessary recognition-levels in a luxurious hotel was addressed by Mr. Wachtveitl within his professional field of influence. Is it beneficial then, if a host of a hotel extend his or her influence or consciousness a bit further?
Why Reflect on Environmental Sustainability?
Hotel professionals manage human beings to provide services to other human beings. The environment is not necessarily one of their main priorities. It still can be cause for much debate as to how the environment directly impacts the business of a hotel.
Indirect environmental impacts are more evident. During the flooding of Bangkok in 2011 for example, the price of bottled water, sandbags and herbs, to mention but a few, surged dramatically, if they could be found at all. The waters receded and all that is left is the political bickering about how much money is going to be spent to prevent such an event again.
The floods are now replaced by annual droughts and subsequent selected surges in the cost of public water supplies. We therefore have too much water (bad), too little water (bad) or water available (good). That is a 66 percent chance of something going wrong. A simplified approach, agreed, but when was it that you have last read your property’s risk assessment and risk-procedures?
Too much reflection about aforementioned aspects carries danger. Expressions such as “Let sleeping dogs lie” or “Ignorance is bliss” come to mind. Reflecting on environmental sustainability in particular should be given a wide berth. By all means, if you wish to find out how one feels after reflecting about the topic you are invited to visit www.isthishowyoufeel.com. It is a website that publishes a multitude of handwritten statements by scientists engaged in cutting edge climate change science.
You have been warned.
The hotel industry is often described as conservative. Reflection can result in insight, which in turn can lead to improvement or change. Therefore reflection on environmental sustainability within the hospitality industry can be described as pre-emptive conservatism.
Pre-emptive or early because once we realize the quality of the environment decreased; humans tend to recognize that the environment does not endure (e.g. returning to one’s Heimat and ruminate about the good old days of which the environment was certainly a big part). Better to maintain then to fix. Mr. R. Scruton in Green Philosophy, (Heimat and Habitat, p. 209 to 252) elaborates on this much more poignantly.
Conversations about the environment are emotional endeavours. The discussions are ongoing in the media as well as in political debates, and are all circling around “responsibility”. Increase individual responsibility or demand more responsibility by the state or businesses?
It is almost certain that one will face adversity when talking about this topic. A fact which is enforced if one drives his or her arguments by “me” or ‘you” versus “us”. The complexities and interconnections of environmental challenges most often come down to a simple more inclusive and less individualistic viewpoint.
Easily said, hard to do.
About the Author
Daniel Koeppel’s background combines various hotel operation positions since 1985 with a Swiss Master’s degree in environmental sustainability management and is boosted by expat experience in Asia dating back to 1992. Since 2012 his company’s mission is to help hoteliers include environmental sustainability in their business paradigm. His company provides audit services and training workshops. Daniel describes himself as a green-blooded, triple bottom-line enthusiast. You are welcome to reach him via this e-mail.