Opinion: Environmental Sustainability Efforts in the Hotel Industry

The hotel industry has a massive environmental footprint. This shouldn't be surprising, considering that they house as many people as the population of a mid-sized city every day. In light of the amount of energy and water resources they consume, and well as the volume of waste they produce, hotels are irrefutably gargantuan consumers of the world's resources. This is why it is important that hotels take active steps towards improved environmental sustainability.

Energy, water and waste are three key aspects of sustainability in the hotel industry
Pictured: Fairfield by Marriott Surabaya, Indonesia


The major hotel chains in the world all have sustainability plans in place, and this is for three good reasons. Firstly, with great power comes great responsibility, and hotels are acknowledging that it is their responsibility - as massive corporations with sufficient resources - to take steps to preserve the environment. Secondly, they have come to realise that it is not just their business that impacts the environment; the way they approach sustainability issues also has a strong impact on their business. This is because consumers are increasingly becoming environmentally conscious themselves, and favour hotels that perform relatively better in sustainability aspects. Thirdly, promoting reductions in energy and water consumption actually drives down their utility costs (energy bills are 6% of operating costs for a hotel), which provides a compelling incentive for profit-driven executives to support sustainability efforts. These three reasons are driving forces behind sustainability efforts in the hotel industry.

Arguably, the sustainability performances of hotels have improved over the years; this is true if the metrics were adjusted against the industry growth rate. More hotels are opening their doors to cater to the rising demand from globalisation, tourism and business travels, and thus the total environmental footprint of the hotel industry as a whole has increased. However, if measured on a per unit basis (e.g. per occupied room, per unit area of conditioned space, etc.), the environmental indicators have improved across the industry. This may be due to advances in technology, improvements in sustainability efforts, or both. Still, a lot more can be done to enhance sustainability, and the industry is taking progressive steps towards this goal, in terms of carbon and energy, water and waste.


The hotel industry causes approximately 1% of global carbon emissions, which is not a small number by any measure. Accordingly, a carbon emissions target is often included in the sustainability goals of hotel chains; this can be measured using emissions intensity, defined as the amount of emissions per area of conditioned space (in kilograms per square metres). For example, Marriott International, the industry's market leader by total number of rooms with 1.3 million rooms worldwide, aims to achieve a 30% reduction in carbon intensity (scopes 1 and 2 only) by 2025, relative to the 2016 baseline. The GHG Protocol Corporate Standard prescribes that emissions produced be classified into three scopes, namely:

          Scope 1: Direct emissions, e.g. from direct combustion
          Scope 2: Energy indirect emissions, e.g. purchased electricity
          Scope 3: Other indirect emissions, e.g. transport of amenities

Carbon intensity is closely related to energy intensity, which is the energy consumption equivalent. It comprises of direct energy, including the hotel's own fuel consumption for heat, steam and cooling, as well as indirect energy, including purchased electricity, heat, steam and cooling. Still, carbon intensity may disagree with energy intensity because the sources of energy consumption may differ. For instance, among the different fossil fuels available, diesel and propane produce more carbon than natural gas because their emission factors are higher, as measured by the number of kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions per million British thermal units. This also explains why the emissions intensities tend to differ across geographical regions, with the Middle East and Africa as well Asia Pacific underperforming in relation to their western counterparts, possibly due to the limited availability of green technologies and lax environmental regulations that persist.

As such, it can be strategic for hotel chains to focus on renewable energy, since it can potentially address both energy and carbon sustainability. To this end, Marriott International launched Egypt’s first photovoltaic rooftop solar-powered station at the JW Marriott Cairo, Egypt, in January 2019. Established with assistance from the UN Development Program, this capitalises on Egypt’s abundant solar energy, and generates electricity with power capacity of up to 150 kilo Watts (kW). This is expected to bring annual electricity savings of 270 mega Watt hours (MWh), while contributing to Egypt’s renewable energy technologies across residential, commercial and public facilities. Favourably, this can potentially help build a sustainable eco-system beyond the hotel's internal operations; one that positively influences external value chains and impacts tomorrow's business.

Another notable mention is Hilton Hotels & Resorts, which is the first major hotel company in the world to institute science-based targets into its sustainability plans back in 2018. Science-based targets are those that are determined to be aligned with scientific studies to limit global warming to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and limit warming to 1.5°C, as consistent with the Paris Agreement. Hilton also plans to reduce its carbon emissions by 61% portfolio-wide, by year 2030.


About 70% of the Earth's surface is water, but far fewer that amount is actually usable by humans. As a precious resource, hotel chains are using water intensity as a metric to track the average water withdrawn per occupied room. Typical water conservation efforts such as low-flow showerheads are already the norm now, and bathtubs are generally limited to 5-star and resort properties for cost reasons too. In addition, many hotel chains have a "green choice" program to reduce water usage by limiting towel and linen replenishment, although execution standards may differ across hotels and countries. From a facilities management standpoint, many major hotels also capitalise on rainwater for landscaping and use recycled water for cooling tower makeup, as well as deploy high-efficiency irrigation spray nozzles.

An opportunity that technology has provided lies in the area of anomaly management, in which water usage patterns are tracked by computer, and the hotel management is alerted to outliers - such as water leaks - which can be quickly troubleshooted rather than left unidentified.


In recent years, the hotel industry has taken considerable steps forward in waste reduction. One such initiative is soap-recycling, which has been adopted by several hotel chains. Under this innovative idea, used soap from hotel rooms are processed, formed into soap bars and distributed to communities that suffer from pneumonia and cholera. This not only diverts waste from landfill, but also promotes social good at the same time, allowing hotel chains to fulfill their environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility goals simultaneously.

But perhaps a larger source of waste for hotels is single-use plastic, which comes in the form of mini-toiletries, plastic straws and disposable water bottles. In May 2018, Hilton was the first major hotel company to commit to a reduction in plastic straws and bottles from its hotels in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), a move that was followed with widespread industry adoption. Hyatt Hotels Corporation announced a worldwide plan to eliminate plastic straws by September 2018, with Marriott and Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG) following suit soon after. This was an apt case of the high degree of benchmarking within the hotel industry, and to some degree, a rapid shift towards the changing expectations that non-governmental organisations and consumers impose upon hotel operators.

A similar story was observed in the phasing out of mini-toiletries in favour of bulk sized variants, with IHG first announcing the switch in July 2019, followed by a full commitment from Marriott just a month later. Even governments are jumping into the anti-waste bandwagon, with California banning the use of single-use plastics in all hotels within the state by 2024. Nonetheless, it is important to note that even with similar practices across hotel chains, the actual executional standards may differ, sometimes drastically. Some relevant questions to ask are: How will the bulk sized containers be refilled (e.g. using single-use plastic pouches)? How often will they be replaced, and are they recyclable? How will the transportation and distribution of these amenities change, compared to existing arrangements? And what about other single-use toiletries (e.g. combs, toothbrushes, razors)? Truly, only with a high standard of executional excellence can hotels bring lasting and sustainable results.


The above initiatives are definitely steps forward towards a more environmentally sustainable hotel industry. To continue on this spirit, the following are some recommendations to continue upon this trajectory.

The first recommendation is for all hotel companies to establish science-based targets, providing an external validation to the sometimes profit-driven sustainability efforts that the major chains have in place. The advantage of science-based targets is that they have a scientific basis and measured impact, which allows hotel associates to buy into sustainability goals, which will better enable them to convince guests more persuasively to adopt sustainable practices. It will also help discourage sustainability goals that are intended merely for profit improvement, rather than truly having an interest in environmental conservation.

A second recommendation is to have more hotels pursue the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certification, which encompasses energy, emissions and water sustainability. Not only does this provide an independent source of environmental accreditation, it enables tangible comparisons of sustainability standards across Platinum, Gold, Silver and Certified levels to be made, and also against different properties as each hotel may use its own metric or baseline. Certifications also expire with time, which provides a push for hotels to continuously improve their sustainability performance across multiple dimensions. Besides, there are studies which show that LEED certification is associated with an increase in the Revenue Per Available Room (the product of the Average Daily Rate and Occupancy Rate), which could represent a financial incentive for hotel executives.

Finally, a third recommendation is simply to incentivise sustainable behavior. As with many sustainability initiatives, a reduction in energy, water or amenity usage actually reduces costs for hotels. Thus, hotels are in a good position - including financially - to incentivise their guests to choose sustainably. For example, appropriate rewards such as discounts or late check-out can be offered to guests who decline a change of linen and towels, use air-conditioning less intensively, or simply bring their own toothbrushes instead of relying on the hotel's single-use plastic variants. Indeed, a study by Cornell University has shown that guests who do not participate in hotel’s green programs will take action if rewards are offered. The loyalty programs that hotel chains offer can be a good avenue to channel such rewards. Through this approach, hotels can help drive the habit loop of sustainable behaviour among guests.


As noted from the start, the scale of the hotel industry means that its sustainability efforts - even small ones - can bring huge impact. And this is encapsulated by the following quote: if big hotels can make small changes, then the ripple will be huge. Hopefully, with hotels moving towards improved sustainability, this ripple can extend beyond the hospitality industry, as guests can take home some of these practices, instill them in their daily lives, and hopefully inspire the people around them to do the same.


  • Energy Star, “Hotels: An Overview of Energy Use and Energy Efficiency Opportunities”. https://www.energystar.gov/sites/default/files/buildings/tools/SPP%20Sales%20Flyer%20for%20Hospitality%20and%20Hotels.pdf
  • International Tourism Partnership, “Carbon Emissions”. https://www.tourismpartnership.org/carbon-emissions/
  • UN Development Program, “Installation of solar energy station in JW Marriot Hotel” https://www.eg.undp.org/content/egypt/en/ home/presscenter/pressreleases/installation-of-solar-energy-station-in-jw-marriot-hotel-.html
  • Stuart L. Hart, “Strategies for Sustainable Value”. https://www.stuartlhart.com/sustainablevalue.html
  • Bruns-Smith, A., Choy, V., Chong, H., & Verma, R. (2015). Environmental sustainability in the hospitality industry: Best practices, guest participation, and customer satisfaction. Cornell Hospitality Report, 15(3), 6-16. Available:  https://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/chrpubs/196/
  • Walsman, M., Verma, R., & Muthulingam, S. (2014). The impact of LEED certification on hotel performance. Cornell Hospitality Report, 14(15), 6-13. Available: https://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/chrpubs/162/


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