Companies in every industry are identifying ways to reduce the costs, energy use, and carbon footprint of their operations. However, an elite few are broadening their scope by quantifying the downstream environmental impact of their products to more holistically address their actual environmental footprint. For instance, Apple recently published their carbon footprint using a “comprehensive lifecycle analysis,” which estimated the lifetime energy use by all of their products, above and beyond the emissions from their manufacturing facilities. Apple calculated 22 billion pounds per year of carbon dioxide equivalents. This begs the question: Is it possible that other industries could make a similar effort to address the downstream environmental impacts of using their goods or services?
Saunders Hotel Group (SHG), a Boston-based hospitality management company, has focused on greening the travel and tourism industry since 1989. Their portfolio of properties has set aggressive goals for energy and water efficiency, waste diversion, and sustainable purchasing, and since 2001 has been offsetting energy used on site to get closer to a carbon neutral night’s sleep. Beginning in 2012, 100 percent of the energy used at their hotel properties was offset using green energy and verified emissions reductions. But it is not surprising that the travel to get to and from the hotel far outweighs one or two room nights in a hotel. Where many see this as a challenge to greening the travel and tourism industry, SHG has identified an opportunity.
Before looking into what SHG is doing differently, it is important to understand how exactly carbon offsetting works. While not necessarily intuitive, it is in fact simple. SHG uses a combination of two types: Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) and Voluntary Emission Reductions (VERs). One REC represents the environmental benefits of one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity from a renewable source (such as solar panels or a wind turbine) to “offset” one MWh of “dirty” electricity. The generator of the clean electricity can sell two commodities: the energy itself and the positive environmental benefits associated with its generation (to parallel the two commodities from a standard power generator: the energy itself and the negative environmental impacts caused by burning fossil fuels). Purchasing a REC can therefore directly fund new clean energy development. Slightly different than a REC, purchasing one VER results in the direct removal or sequestration of one metric ton of carbon dioxide. Renewable Choice Energy, SHG’s partner for a third consecutive year, has an excellent blog detailing this process and how it helps clean the energy industry.
Two-Pronged Approach to Lessening Impact
SHG has a two-pronged approach to improving their internal operations—consistently driving down total energy use and greening the energy they do use with carbon reducing projects through RECs and VERs. Nevertheless, like Apple, they did not stop there. SHG’s business is about people so the question was asked: How to engage guests? In comparison to a one night stay at The Lenox Hotel (one of SHG’s downtown Boston hotels), which would result in 40 pounds of carbon dioxide (before accounting for their existing offsetting efforts), a quick roundtrip flight from Washington, D.C. to Boston releases 10 times as much—419 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Even more staggering is a roundtrip flight between China and Boston resulting in the emission of almost 6,000 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—equivalent to staying at The Lenox for 150 nights!
Because of the huge gap between air travel and hotel energy use, the prospect of greening the travel industry as a hotelier seems daunting—but again, where others see challenges SHG sees opportunity. Starting in 2012, Saunders Hotel Group became the first hospitality company in the United States to offer guests the opportunity to green their travel in addition to their stay. By adding the “Travel Lightly” package when you book online, not only will your stay in The Lenox Hotel or The Comfort Inn and Suites Boston Logan Airport be carbon neutral, your flight or ground transportation to and from the hotel will be zeroed out as well—essentially eliminating the carbon footprint of your vacation or business trip.
Carbon offsetting for travel is still far from being mainstream. That said, many major U.S. airlines such as United, JetBlue, and Delta are gauging public interest by partnering with third parties like Renewable Choice Energy and others to offer carbon offsets to their travelers. The offsets are used to fund different environmental projects around the globe, giving travelers the ability to act locally and have beneficial impacts globally.
Affordable Way to Make a Difference
To put SHG’s internal offsetting commitment in perspective, they were able to avoid close to 11 million pounds of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere in 2012 alone; the equivalent of taking more than 1,000 cars off the road for a year. While all of this may seem a bit daunting, the Travel Lightly package which is currently offered at both The Lenox Hotel and the Comfort Inn and Suites at Boston Logan Airport can be as low as $6, less than a late night snack from room service. This $6 directly funds green energy projects that will completely negate the carbon footprint of your travel. If every guest at the Lenox Hotel were to purchase the Travel Lightly package, they could offset an additional 400 million pounds of carbon dioxide in a year. That is equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions from burning nine miles of railroad cars end-to-end filled with coal! This is a prime example of how individual actions, while they may seem insignificant by themselves, can actually make a huge difference when everyone gets involved.
The goal of these programs is to help connect travelers and hotel guests to the emissions directly caused by their actions, and inform them of the magnitude of their impact. Although SHG is still a bit ahead of their time—these packages have received minimal adoption so far—they have never shied away from an opportunity to be a leader when they know that it is right. Furthermore, it is exciting to see SHG engage guests, challenge the industry to evolve, and push the impacts outside the walls of the hotel—truly providing a path for the future.
Ali Rotatori is a sustainability intern with EcoLogical Solutions.