Center for Hospitality Research roundtable promotes hospitality sustainability

As the hospitality industry moves ahead in finding ways to document its many sustainability initiatives, participants in the 2012 Cornell Sustainability Roundtable addressed current issues in reporting, benchmarking, the supply chain, and customer sustainability perceptions, as well as innovations in green operations. This year’s roundtable also included a student sustainability competition.

Reporting their carbon footprint or other measures of sustainability is one of the critical issues for roundtable participants. Due to the industry’s complexity, hospitality firms will probably never be able to develop “one number” to benchmark or report all of their sustainability initiatives. More importantly, though, the industry has to determine what counts for their stakeholders—that is, the items that are most material to business impact. Even that question is complicated by the fact that the industry has diverse stakeholders. While most businesses just have to report to their owners or shareholders, the hospitality industry also reports to its customers. On top of that, the industry also needs sustainability reports from its vendors, since the hospitality industry has its own supply chain in addition to being a supplier to other industries. One channel for sustainability reporting is the Global Reporting Initiative, which continues to expand its efforts to assist businesses in various sectors to report sustainability results. Through all of this, most hospitality operators and their suppliers are trying to do the right thing with regard to sustainability, but so much of the activity occurs in the back of the house that guests simply do not see it.

In addition to carbon footprints, sustainability reporting includes use of water, which is critical in many areas. In many locations, the cost of water and sewer now exceed energy costs. Water impacts include both “upstream” issues, or the use of water, and “downstream” issues, which involve what happens to the dirty water. Moreover, some places equate water use with human rights, which occurs when local residents see the lodging industry using scarce water resources that might otherwise be used by local residents.

Cornell researchers are working to develop benchmarks for energy and water use. Howard Chong, assistant professor at the School of Hotel Administration, has analyzed several benchmarks that could be used for energy, for instance. He suggests using monthly data comparisons to provide an understanding of energy-use drivers, with a particular goal of managing what can be controlled. Professor Rohit Verma presented innovations and best practices contributed by 97 companies in a sustainability innovation competition, including many practices that involved managing water, whether using recycled water on plants, cutting down on storm water runoff, or reusing wash water in the laundry. One surprise was the consumer enthusiasm over a bed made of recycled materials. In a blind comparison, guests preferred the recycled bed, which is now marketed for sale. Reporting on trash creates another set of issues, especially since it’s hard to get waste-related numbers. If nothing else, guests want to know whether an F&B operation is recycling.

A great frustration for hoteliers is that customers indicate a great desire for green operation, but they display a big gap in behavior. Few travelers choose a hotel primarily for its green operation, but instead a green label is more of a tiebreaker when other factors are equal. Of greater concern, consumers are exposed to so much marketing spin that they have become skeptical about sustainability claims. About half of U.S. travelers arn’t sure whether to believe any hotel’s statement about green operation. Roundtable participants discussed the observation that guests expect certain green programs, but they neither will pay for the programs nor will return if they are missing.

In conclusion, one problem for customers is trying to make sense of all the purported green information put out by the hospitality industry. Practitioners need to find a way to assist in creating coherence in sustainability reporting. Beyond that, it’s important to realize that the hospitality industry’s sustainability impact is far from all negative. The industry makes a large contribution to tourism destinations of all kinds. The hospitality industry creates substantial wealth while meeting people’s needs for food and shelter, and a lengthy list of organizations and destinations depend on the industry to create jobs and wealth. No other industry catalyzes other businesses in the way that the hospitality industry does.

Sustainability roundtable participants also decided the winners of the annual Student Sustainability Competition, sponsored by Schneider Electric. Teams were given the assignment of developing a sustainable product or service concept that would work in a full-service hotel, and three finalist teams presented their concepts at the roundtable. First prize of $2,000 went to the student group NOVA, which included Nancy Chan MMH '13, Pranav Gupta (grad), Divya Natarajan (grad), Brian Matuszewski (grad) and Enlin Zhou MMH ’13. The NOVA concept involved providing guest incentives for sustainability. Second prize, $1,000, went to Timothy Chen ’13 and Amy Tsuei ’14 for their “Sustainalytics” product, which proposed integrated property environmental management, and third prize, $500, was awarded to Daniel Metcalf (CALS '13) and Colby Heiman '13 for their “Green Roof Innovations,” which involved growing plants on a hotel’s roof.