Keeping Green: Sustainability and Covid-19

Until a few weeks ago, the world was focused on sustainability in a pervasive way that it may have never been before. While some governments may have dropped the ball, more people than ever have been making changes to their lives in order to create a greener planet.

Most importantly, businesses have followed suit. Moving away from single use plastics or focusing on hitting carbon emissions targets have become a way for companies, large and small, to communicate their values to customers.

However, it is not a few weeks ago.

Since then world has tunnel focused on the Coronavirus, with the hospitality sector arguably the most affected by the disease. With near global stay-at-home orders and many hotels and hospitality businesses instructed to close, the industry is at the moment more focused on tomorrow than the next five years.

To some, this is the world sending a message. Aaron Bernstein, Harvard School of Public Health representative, said to The Guardian: “Our health entirely depends on the climate and the other organisms we share the planet with.”

To others, it is a sign to bunker down and to take a look at what costs are truly essential to a business. As companies announce furloughs and firings, high cost development may not look as attractive.

It is important in a moment like this to ask the question- will sustainability stay as important to hospitality?

Sustainable travel encompasses a variety of different initiatives from combatting overtourism to eco-tourism, but in general, the movement focuses on ensuring that tourism is kind to the planet and local area. While eco-tourism, which focuses on conservation and environmental interest, took shape in the 1970s, the institutions of sustainable tourism grew in the 1990s with creation of the International Hotels Environment Initiative

Hotels have since begun to ensure sustainable practices across their various properties. This includes paying attention to carbon-heavy supply chains, sourcing renewable energy, and using environmentally beneficial materials in construction.

This implementation of sustainability in hospitality grew as a practice primarily due to changing traveller priorities. While many see a change in demographics as the key shift, the increased visibility of global warming and the impact of unsustainable practice has made individuals across generations consider green programmes more. Sharmista Mitra Kelly, Senior Associate at JCJ Architecture noted: “They all have different expectations, but a very similar mindset when it comes to wellness and preservation (both self and natural), and that means a focus on sustainability.”

The personal demand has made sustainability a more important part of business. Giles Fuchs, entrepreneur and owner of the Burgh Island Hotel said: “For business hotels, such as Premier Inn, they have found that individuals are far more likely to stay in hotels who are making an effort to provide a more sustainable environment.”

Because sustainable practice was in demand, it began penetrating into various hotel designs and operation procedures, both small and large alike. The difference is usually in regard to scale.

This movement is not limited to hotels alone; The idea of green business is prominent in short-term rentals and serviced apartments as well. Brands like Nestor in serviced apartments and CityRelay in the short-term rental sector have integrated eco-friendly products and practices into their behaviour.

At the highest scale, Airbnb created a sustainability hub in order to help its own hosts stay green. Furthermore, Yonder, a platform dedicated exclusively to holistically sustainable vacation rentals and eco-tourism has launched bringing that sustainability to the forefront of a growing industry.

Boutique hotels, such as Fuchs’ Burgh Island Hotel, often have a holistic view as to how sustainability can be achieved including local supply chains, employee travel, and eco-friendly power sourcing. Chains will focus instead on cutting out plastics and changing staff practices to be more sustainable while maintaining cost efficacy.

Fuchs adds: “There’s that obvious tension between price and quality.”

This tension is at the heart of all business and tends to become unbalanced during times of hardship. When businesses are existentially threatened, as some say hospitality is with the Coronavirus outbreak, logic would dictate that price takes over afterwards.

For some hospitality businesses, sustainability may actually be a solution to cut costs with a more difficult market. Basic measures, such as opting out of turndown services and using energy efficient lights and recycling water can realistically be used to shave certain expenses.

More hotels and large-scale businesses have made investments in properties with built in sustain ability. Dwayne MacEwen, founder of DMAC Architecture notes “More sustainable building products are becoming available to designers that offer more choices to enhance the user’s experience, with the added bonus of often lowering operational costs.”

He adds: “Clients are always concerned with maximising efficiencies and performance. In the cost-benefit analysis, sustainability is always part of our design calculation and will continue to be at the forefront of all of our design decisions.”

Many sustainability changes demand upfront costs for shifts- new water and energy facilities require time and money to be installed. These costs may make these options far less desirable for hospitality businesses in the near future.

The primary concern of hotels, both those focusing on sustainability and those that don’t is liquidity. Giles Fuchs noted: “Cash will be the key to see all these hotel groups through.”

In this instance sustainable development can be a double-edged sword. High upfront costs can hamstring businesses with less cash on hand but can create necessary savings for those with just enough.

However, green initiatives have strong public financing incentives helping hotels cut those costs. Madu Rajesh, Director for International Tourism Partnership said to HospitalityNet: “There is a strong business case for sustainable hotels including reducing operational costs through utility savings, benefiting from national and local incentives, and increasing control of energy costs through installing on-site renewables.”

The other query is whether or not demand for eco-friendly experiences will be the same as it was pre-COVID. Hoteliers are concerned that cash strapped travellers will not be focused on sustainability during a possible post-COVID travel boom.

For smaller businesses, this is a real concern- hospitality properties that bill themselves on their destination hospitality may struggle with the possible reduction in international tourism.

The idea of sustainable, and most importantly, ecologically centred tourism may see a rise.  Freyr Thor, co-founder of Yonder notes: “Tactically, which way are people going to go after this- are they going to go on a cruise or are they going to go to a house on a lake and spend quality time together?”

The consensus among many professionals is, however, that sustainability is no longer a choice that can really be made by businesses. The future of hospitality will be inherently sustainable.

Thor adds: “We’re gradually realising that the path that we’re on is, separated from the word Sustainability, unsustainable.” He believes that for his business and others, a focus on connecting people to the outdoors and to the world around them will provide welcome relief from the stress of indoors.

He added: “I think the idea of sustainability is going to be much stronger after all of this. When we look back and understand the root of the virus, we are going to understand that we need to do something different.”

He is far from alone in that assessment. Paolo Trevisan, head of design at Pininfarina of America said: “Over the next six to twelve months, consumers will be giving everything a more critical look, from their homes to their vacations. As such, we believe that sustainability –– especially principles of biophilia (access to natural light, green space, etc.) –– will continue to be a topic on the forefront of people’s minds.

Bob Garner, owner of award winning property Casal dei Fichi said: “When the boat you are in has a leak and is sinking, it is not just those nearest the hole who are at risk, everyone in the boat will be affected.”

The World Tourism Organization has, in their plans for post-coronavirus, noted that sustainability is essential not only for the planet but to help the industry link better with NGOs like the UN. There is an argument to be made that a sustainable tourism industry becomes more essential.

For many businesses as well, the crisis has illuminated the lack of control owners can have during moments of crisis. IHG’s corporate responsibility VP has noted that COVID-19 has demonstrated the way business may end up functioning during a climate emergency. Sharmista Mitra-Kelly added: “More than anything, this pandemic is teaching us that we are so dependent on things that are not locally sourced or sustained.”

Giles Fuchs notes: “In business there are two type of business- the moral, ethical businesses, and the amoral, unethical business, and much depends on the viewpoint of the CEO. It’s about the leadership of that company- how they view it.”

The ethics of sustainability are dependent upon the personal views of those who lead a company, but the business sense is not. And it that the cards which initially flipped in the favour of sustainable development, demographic shifts, cost saving and marketing, are not going away.

For some, sustainability may be the way to recover from a time of genuine business concern. For others it may fall by the wayside. The idea however is still present and, while maybe temporarily deprioritised, is set for a significant comeback.

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