How to choose a sustainable hotel

You know which destination you want to go to. So how do you choose a sustainable hotel? Or even better, accommodation that makes a difference and has a positive impact? 

When a sustainable or green hotel is thought of, people often (rightly) consider its carbon footprint and possible negative impacts on the environment. But a great sustainable hotel does much more than this. It looks at environmental, economic and social factors within and external to the hotel boundaries and aims to make a difference. 

Type of stay

Accommodation ranges in type and size from large luxury hotels to community-run homestays and everything in between, and so this influences what things to check out before booking. 

In general, camping will have the smallest footprint of all. But small boutique places, run locally also tend to be more sustainable and have less of a detrimental impact on the environment than big chain hotels, plus they benefit the local community too and profits tend to stay local. A huge hotel will have a larger footprint than a family-run homestay, but don’t discount it straight away as it may also be able to invest in a certification scheme, train up and empower disadvantaged people or give funds to local community projects. It’s important to think about context, and how the type of accommodation may be able to be more responsible. 

The impact a hotel has is also not just confined to the building and its operations. It goes much wider than this to the environment around it, the local community and even the suppliers the hotel works with. 

Destination country

Different destinations will have different environmental, cultural, social and economic contexts, and it’s important to recognise what they are. Water conservation in a desert environment is important. Poverty should be considered in lower-income countries. 

Different destinations also feel the effects of tourism differently. Visiting an overdeveloped, well known area in peak season will put more pressure on resources than staying somewhere more low key off season.

Is it a sustainable building?

A sustainably-built hotel will have a smaller footprint. Look out for things like the use of solar design to reduce energy use, locally-sourced and/or eco-friendly materials, building insulation and low impact construction. That said, an adapted older building will always be more sustainable than building a new hotel. 

Sustainability goes further than just the impact of the building’s design on the environment. Think about heritage, culture and community. A hotel’s design should be sensitive to its local heritage and culture and fit into it. For example Feynan Ecolodge’s design was inspired by the caravanserai trading posts of the Middle East. 

Check too if the local community has had any involvement in the accommodation’s design, build or update, and if they have, how were they involved. An ecolodge that has been built or guided in decisions by the local community will have more buy-in and positive impact than a hotel which consults people at the start of a process without any follow through.

What are the hotel’s operations like?

Typically 1% of carbon emissions come from hotels so it’s vital hotels that claim to be green are taking their carbon footprint seriously. Look for how your accommodation is actively reducing consumption in three areas – energy, water and waste. And remember that mantra ‘reduce, reuse, repair, recycle’. Recycling in all areas of operation is great, but are hotels reducing and reusing the amount of resources used first before recycling?

Where does your hotel’s energy come from? Does it run off its own solar panels or renewable energy? How is energy use reduced? Are LED lights (or candles!) used, how is the building insulated? Does it encourage guests to reduce energy use? If a hotel claims to be carbon neutral check this, as paying to offset carbon is not enough anymore. 

What food used in a hotel’s restaurant should also be considered. Out of season fruit being shipped halfway across the world to satisfy guests is not a sustainable practice. Locally-produced, or on site produce will always be best, as will organically grown. 

Transport within and around the hotel will also impact an accommodation’s footprint. Aim for somewhere that provides pedal power for guests, free bus shuttles to town or good public transport options. 

How is freshwater captured, if at all? What do they do with wastewater? How do they conserve water, and encourage guests to do the same?

How are hotels committing to reducing waste, including food and plastic waste? Buffet meals tend to be the biggest culprit for food waste. Where does food waste go? Do they compost, or use the food waste to make biogas energy? Are they reducing or excluding plastic waste? And if plastics are being reduced, is it just front of house or back of house and along the supply chain too?

How does the hotel impact the wider environment?

The impact a hotel has is also not just confined to the building and its operations. It goes much wider than this to the environment around it, the local community and even the suppliers the hotel works with. 

Activities on offer should be low impact and nature-based, such as hiking, biking or kayaking. No jet skis or riding on elephants please! Hotels that actively do good rather than ‘do no harm’ will put policies and practices into place that preserve ecosystems such as introducing pollinator friendly plants to gardens, protecting biodiverse areas or restoring or rewilding degraded areas of land. Wildlife endemic to the area may be actively protected or rescued. 

Cultural heritage is also important for some hotels to consider. Part of Longitude 131’s success in Australia is down to the fact that it celebrates Aboriginal culture, providing guests with an Aboriginal artists-in-residents experience and providing them with stories about Uluru and its cultural heritage. 

Accommodation that employs local people is great, especially if some come from disadvantaged or marginalized groups. A living wage should be provided and policies in place to look after human rights. Even better is if employees have regular and structured training to increase skills and empowerment. 

Some smaller places to stay may be ‘community-led’ or ‘community-owned.’ We love these places as economic returns are much more likely to directly benefit local people, rather than flowing overseas and to big business. Local communities may also see more incentive in preserving their nearby environment too.

Even if hotels are not directly run by local people they can significantly benefit the local economy through the promotion of nearby businesses and purchase from local suppliers. Larger hotels can also have more clout in how their suppliers manage their own operations, encouraging them to be greener or only buying from those that already are. 

An ecolodge that has been built or guided in decisions by the local community will have more buy-in and positive impact than a hotel which consults people at the start of a process without any follow through.

Watch out for greenwashing

Sustainability shouldn’t be an add on. It needs to be embedded into policies and practice. Hotels should be showing how they are sustainable across the company. Some examples of greenwashing include only cutting out plastic straws or asking guests to reuse towels, adding ‘eco’ to a website with no substance, carbon offsetting without trying to reduce the carbon footprint locally, claiming to include local communities in decision making without really taking any needs into account and not enforcing codes of conduct. 

A good first check to dismiss greenwash is to see if the accommodation has a sustainability policy and/or has won any awards, or been in the press for sustainability reasons.

Hotel certification schemes

There are a few different certification schemes in the hospitality industry, but it’s often confusing to work out what they actually mean and which destinations they cover. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) provides criteria for certifications that serve the global travel and tourism sector and can approve or recognise certification schemes. The list of all the schemes approved by GSTC and recognised by GSTC is kept up to date on their website. 

You may also see building certification schemes such as LEED, BREEAM and EDGE, used to rate how green and sustainable a building is.

Usually only bigger hotel chains will be able to afford the resources and time needed to invest in gaining certification, so certification is good, but not the be all and end all. 

Feedback to hotels

Finally, don’t forget to tell where you stay what you think about their green credentials. Both positive and negative reviews are beneficial. Businesses respond to consumer pressure and the greater the pressure to embed greener practices into the hospitality sector the better.