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Three Ways to Connect Hospitality Employees to Sustainability

Kate Gaertner

Sustainability at work, in life, and during play has become the front-and-center topic for so many Americans this last couple of years. With climate change’s extreme weather events—wildfires in the West, floods in the Midwest, and devastating hurricanes in the South and East—jostling us out of our brief summer reverie, and the unsettling prospect of braving a second Fall and Winter with the Delta variant of COVID lurking invisibly among us, individuals are rightly concerned and motivated to embrace safe and sustainable practices in their lives.

A 2020 study by the consulting firm Kearney, proves out these two motivating factors on people’s current decision-making: consumers have become more concerned about the environment since the pandemic arrived and 83 percent of those surveyed (up from 71 percent in 2019) are more likely to consider environmental impacts from the choices they make.

The hotel sector accounts for 1 percent of carbon emissions globally. Hotels have a unique opportunity to set the bar high for their diverse set of stakeholders: to place primacy on sustainable business practices and be an exemplar across sectors; build sustainability ambassadors among staff; and to mirror the eco-conscious values of travelers. Booking.com reported in a recent survey that more than two-thirds of travelers plan to stay in eco-friendly hotels. Safety and sustainability will continue to be the beating mantra for the hospitality industry for the foreseeable future.

What better way to build momentum of a hotel’s commitment to sustainability than to harness the concerns of staff and direct it to action-taking. The individuals who work in hospitality fully appreciate the needs and desires of travelers and understand how small shifts in processes effectively shared among staff and consistently communicated to consumers can catalyze sustainability initiatives and bring about sustained shifts in sustainable behaviors. Hotel staff likely want to embrace sustainability within their workplace, but they may need a framework to house their sustainable knowledge that is accessible, easy to understand and can be practically applied. Help your hotel employees support your sustainability objectives and further value-align your brands’ mission and vision with the eco-conscious consumers you seek to serve.

Here are three ways to connect your hospitality employees to meaningful sustainability initiatives:

1: Socialize the need and value of sustainability in the hospitality industry.

Communicate, educate, and iterate. Without a context around what sustainability means and how it is related to climate change and its mitigation, the concept remains conceptually abstract for most. Build employees’ awareness around what’s driving the need for sustainable practices, processes, and behaviors across the globe, within the hospitality industry, and among travelers through monthly sustainability roundup newsletters and quarterly all-hands meetings between staff and hotel leadership. Provide them a holistic understanding of how the use of energy, water and certain materials are unsustainable and contribute to the climate crisis; why it is important to implement initiatives today and measure their impact; and in what ways sustainability supports the well-functioning of the planet, resource conservation, better human health and well-being, and the continuity and growth of the industry.

2: Build your hotel staff’s “sustainability muscle” through workshops that provide a framework for taking sustainable action, both at home and work.

Employee engagement workshops should offer practical ways to bucket and prioritize sustainability measures to be taken. For the hospitality industry, the most relevant impact categories to address include: energy and water use; and food and material (i.e., plastic and paper) waste. Understanding the value of circular concepts such as durable versus single-use, and refillable versus disposable allows employees to brainstorm and ideate on solutions to current business practices and behavioral challenges to be overcome. Even though the idea of zero waste packaging intra-pandemic may be unrealistic, the journey to hotel waste stream elimination is a valiant goal implementable through iterative measures of substituting hard-to-recycle materials for recyclable ones, eliminating certain materials all together; and embracing digital methods of information sharing, customer ordering, and communicating that has become the norm today and can offer, if done well, an increased customer experience that is intimate and personalized.

Stakeholder workshops can also offer an interplay between an organization’s sustainability initiatives and those practiced at home, allowing employees to ponder questions such as “what are the similarities and differences of both efforts?” and “how do actions at work reinforce my commitments at home?”

3: Build employee affinity groups to compel action.

Use the engagement workshops as a tool to engage and pair (both formally and informally) different organizational departments, functions, and ascending employee levels. Through interactive and cooperative exercises such as “Let’s Plan a Trip”, “So Do I!” and “Who Do?” hotel employees will begin to form natural affinity groups, break down hierarchical barriers and align around passion, purpose, and sustainability.

Formal organization around sustainability can take the form of “Green Teams” or Sustainability Committees. These groups tend to be volunteer based but do best when the organizational structure is formalized with an appointed sustainability leader to drive priority goals for the organization, regional councils to direct sustainability initiatives, and local ambassadors to communicate efforts, rally site teams, and execute green projects. The most successful Green Teams and Sustainability Councils take an integrated approach to their sustainability work: they pursue executive buy-in at the beginning of their efforts, align sustainability initiatives with a hotel’s strategic business goals, and measure progress through formally tracked corporate scorecard metrics.

Kate Gaertner is a leading expert and consultant in corporate sustainability with 25 years of corporate and entrepreneurial experience. She is the author of the forthcoming book Planting a Seed: Three Simple Steps to Sustainable Living.