Practical Values: Inn Excess

Why are hotels' environmental values on permanent vacation?

There's a mini-shampoo-bottle graveyard under my bathroom sink. It's where I bury the souvenirs of stays in posh hotels—the kind with high-pressure showerheads, heated towel racks, and other extravagances I'd never indulge in at home. For years I've stuffed the unused shampoos in my suitcase, quieting my inner environmentalist by promising to recycle the tiny bottles after some houseguest enjoys their fancy contents. But few do, and my pile of plastic continues to grow.

Here's a stat to make toiletry hoarders like me feel appropriately guilty: American hotels log more than a billion room stays each year. That's a whole lot of mini shampoo bottles, few of which will ever be recycled. Add to that the daily sheet laundering, around-the-clock AC, and other amenities we've come to expect from our stays away from home (not to mention the carbon cost of getting there), and you end up with a seriously consumptive vacation. A typical hotel guest uses 218 gallons of water a day—more than three times the national average per capita. And the energy cost of a single hotel room—$2,196 per year—is what it typically costs to power the average American home.

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Compact fluorescent bulbs, nontoxic cleaning supplies, and even recycling bins are scarce in most hotel rooms. "Only a fraction of hoteliers are actively engaging in sustainability, which is a little scary considering the fact that there is a strong business case to support their getting involved," says Brian Mullis, president of the nonprofit Sustainable Travel International. Conservation policies can bring operation costs down considerably. Towel- and sheet-reuse programs cut water and detergent use by nearly a third. One study found that equipping rooms with water- and energy-saving devices lowered hotels' utility bills by more than half. And recent surveys have found that consumers will pay up to 10 percent more for anything labeled "green," Mullis says.

If that's the case, then why are hotels so slow to go eco? "I think that most leisure travelers go into 'vacation mode' when they travel," Mullis says. "Many expect to be taken care of and are less likely to conserve resources." Those expectations are reinforced by an industry that associates luxury with an excess of amenities. Case in point: aaa, which evaluates more than 32,000 accommodations throughout North America each year, recommends that its inspectors look for at least two "bottled items" in a hotel's bathroom before awarding it a Three Diamond rating. In a room worthy of its Five Diamond rating (the highest), they look for a "ten-piece personal care package of designer/spa toiletries."

Another reason most hotels haven't gone green is that their business structure discourages it, says Glenn Hasek, publisher of Green Lodging News. "Often franchisors establish standards that prohibit or make it harder for hotel owners to implement green initiatives," he says (example: banning refillable shampoo dispensers because of their "locker-room aesthetic"). At a Best Western meeting last year, 80 percent of franchise owners said they were interested in implementing green practices, but the chain still doesn't have any sustainability mandates. In the face of such sluggishness, a few hotel owners are taking matters into their own hands. Michelle Duffy has started recycling and linen-reuse programs and installed low-flow toilets and motion-activated lights at the Best Western she manages in Novato, California. She has also teamed up with a San Francisco State University hospitality student who is helping Novato's Best Western meet the requirements to join a local program for green businesses.

If the nation's hospitality-management schools are any indication, the next generation of hoteliers may be the greenest yet. Cornell University and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, which have two of the nation's top programs, have faculty members with strong backgrounds in sustainable lodging. The ecotourism class at Johnson State College in Vermont is currently overenrolled. And there's some evidence that travelers are beginning to consider greenness a perk in itself. "Yes, there are challenges with luxury- and design-sensitive hotels," says Jeff Slye, a consultant who helped San Francisco's Triton Hotel, part of the Kimpton chain, switch to organic cotton sheets, bamboo floors, and other green amenities in some of its guest rooms. "But you also are catering to a generally astute clientele, and many are spending money on companies that align with their values. The environment is certainly one of them." There is not yet any universally accepted green-certification program for hotels, but travelers can look for chains that belong to groups like the International Ecotourism Society and the Green Hotels Association—though neither group certifies its members, membership can indicate an interest in sustainability, at least. The travel website Orbitz allows users to search for ecofriendly hotels; Kayak and Travelocity will soon follow suit, and Hotels.com is "carefully considering" doing the same.

The Green Hotels Association recommends that, beyond demanding green services, we well-intentioned travelers call ahead to request nontoxic cleaning products; pack our own soap and shampoo; turn off the AC, heat, lights, and other appliances when not in use; avoid maid and room service—do we really need the individual jars of ketchup?—and (ahem) leave the unused mini shampoos behind.