Going green: Is hospitality doing enough?

04 October 2007
Going green: Is hospitality doing enough?

It's a given. We should all be taking responsibility for our environment at home and at work. Most hospitality businesses seem to think that they are already looking after the planet, but are they doing as much as they think? As our Green Month issue kicks off, Nic Paton investigates

Not so long ago Nick Parker, managing director of London contract caterer Bite, agreed with a client to switch from disposable to china cups. "It was one of those decisions that seems very sensible but when you sit down and look at it has wider ramifications," he says.

What on the surface appeared a win-win decision - environmentally sound as well as potentially cost-saving - quickly became less so once the capital cost of buying the cups was factored in, along with extra detergent, labour and storage costs.

"Our client did not wish to acknowledge the additional workload that china cups created for our catering team. As a result, the client has shifted the financial cost to a human cost, a cost that we, the caterers, have to bear. This does not create an environment conducive to promoting environmental concern," Parker says.

Such are the inherent contradictions and tensions facing many a caterer, publican, hotelier and restaurateur when it comes to going green. Even for someone as well versed in these arguments as Parker, being green and turning in a profit can sometimes seem a hard circle to square.

And that's before you even get into the maze of jargon and technicalities that can surround the issue. How do you calculate your carbon footprint (and is it even necessary to do so)? Is a wind turbine a waste of money? What grants can you get and where can you get them? Is it more environmentally sound to throw out your old boiler or to try and repair it? Should you be supporting Third World producers or reducing your food miles?

Nevertheless, it is an issue the industry is taking increasingly seriously, as Caterer and Hotelkeeper‘s Green Month survey shows. The poll of 148 hospitality organisations found a good proportion - 34% of those who answered - felt they were doing as much as they could more than half thought they could be doing more and just 12% dismissed being environmentally responsible as "not a priority".

Asked whether customers were now showing more interest in their commitment to environmental sustainability, more than seven out of 10 agreed. However, there does also appear to be a gap between guests' aspirations and what they actually do when they visit a hotel or restaurant.

When asked what proportion of guests they thought wasted energy, the highest response - 16% - said it was 71-80%, with 15% putting it only slightly lower at 51-60%.

There was also a gap between aspiration and practical action on the part of operators. When asked when they last had an energy audit, nearly four out of 10 said they had never had one, although nearly a third did intend to do so in the next year.

But progress is being made. Paper, glass and plastic bottles top the list of items being recycled. Slightly more than a fifth of those who answered this question even went as far as recycling their uniforms, while just 12% did not recycle at all.

Just under half answered "yes" to whether they had a formal sustainability policy, with nearly six out of 10 saying the same when asked if they had an environmental champion within their business. And nearly eight out 10 agreed their staff were aware of the different ways in which they could reduce energy costs. More than half said they promoted responsible fishing practices.

Yet it was also clear that significant barriers remain. One-tenth complained they had no budget available, with 7% simply saying it was "too expensive" to do. Nearly 15% said they did not have enough time, 8% confessed to not knowing where to start, 7% were doubtful they would get a return on their investment, while nearly 18% said "other areas take priority".

"The biggest problem is that a lot of people have a huge amount of information on the subject but have to do their own interpretation of what people are telling them," concedes Professor John Forte, principal consultant with green advisory body Hospitable Climates.

The scale of the challenge, and the jargon, are often intimidating. "How, for instance, should a poor restaurant or hotel manager set about working out his carbon footprint? He doesn't have a hope in hell. You need to concentrate on things you can do," Forte says.

Another problem is the breath-taking speed with which ownership of hotels, pubs and restaurants changes nowadays, particularly as a result of the sector's ongoing love affair with private-equity owners.

"You can find yourself working with a manager who is really pro-environmental issues and then six months later there is a new manager who has completely different priorities," Forte says.

One big change over the past 18 months to two years, as the survey illustrates, is that chains and operators are putting in place environmental charters and appointing environmental managers or "green champions" and even green teams.

What's important about such positions is that they have real backing from the top and the clout to make a difference when it comes to procurement, points out Jo Harbisher, environmental director at Apex Hotels.

"Our green team works with suppliers directly," Harbisher says. "We discuss with them and explain at the tender stage what we are doing and why we are doing it. They are simply not going to get the business if they cannot tick the boxes."

"One of the biggest mistakes people tend to make is taking on too much at one go," says Michelle White, who holds a similar position at US chain Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, which teamed up with Hospitable Climates in May to launch guidance for hospitality companies on becoming more environmentally friendly.

"They then get overwhelmed by the scale of the task and lose their passion for it. So if you can identify even just three things to do a quarter - and actually do them - that will make a real difference over time," she adds.

"Every member of staff is a de facto environmental manager. It is about getting down to the nitty gritty: how can we change things and improve things," echoes Nicola Stopps, Travelodge's first director of environment and sustainability.

It doesn't matter if you start small, the main thing is just to start, stresses Suzanne James, owner of the eponymous caterer.

"One of our big USPs is that we are a green catering company. It does not necessarily mean we win the contract, but on some occasions it has perhaps made it more likely," she says.

"We started slowly, just going down to the recycling bin at the supermarket and recycling our glass. It took only half-an-hour or so out of the day. Then we moved to the plastic, then tin and so on.

"We used to have four bins emptied three times a week. Now it's two bins twice a week. We have wheelie bins where we recycle glass, plastic, paper and tin, all done through the council," she adds.

Gordon Campbell Gray, managing director of iconic boutique hotel One Aldwych, in London, is a passionate environmentalist whose green team takes the issue hugely seriously - so much so that he recently launched, as just the latest in a vast range of initiatives, a "green partner" handbook.

"We reject any supplier that does not come up to the standards that we require," he says.

"All you can do is make your own intelligent decision and stick by it. Just be intelligent rather than trying to get it ‘right'," he advises.

Changing your supply chain can be a struggle, recognises Caroline Bennett, managing director of sushi restaurant chain Moshi Moshi, which now serves predominantly sustainably caught fish. But if you are serious about green issues it is something you need to address.

"You can spend years deliberating over something and never do it. We are a long way from being 100% green and there are some things still on my menu that I am embarrassed by. You cannot be perfect overnight, but it has to be an ongoing commitment to change," she points out.

Customers and staff are very good at seeing through "green" initiatives that are done for the wrong motives, adds Emma Stratton, co-owner of the eco-friendly Bedruthan Steps Hotel in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall.

"If guests go into a hotel and see that all they have done is make sure they don't have to wash the towels as often then they will probably be cynical about it. But lots of hotels are already doing things that they may not even realise are sound practice, such as having sugar lumps instead of wrapped sugar," she points out.

Up to now, much of the debate over sustainability and environmentalism has been in the context of it being an "add-on", something worthwhile but still voluntary. However, at least on emissions, that is all about to change.

The Kyoto Protocol set a target for the European Union of an 8% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2012 (see below). An EU Emissions Trading Scheme is set to kick off from January next year, followed in 2010 by a UK Carbon Reduction Commitment scheme that will make emissions trading mandatory among large commercial and public-sector organisations.

Intense discussions are under way between civil servants, ministers and the British Hospitality Association about how all this will work in practice for the industry. The BHA has even created a Sustainability Committee, with Compass, Sodexho, Mitchells & Butlers, Welcome Break, Hilton, Jarvis, Inter­Continental, Travelodge, Premier Travel Inn and Best Western among its members.

Issues under debate include how you measure and benchmark the industry, says BHA chief executive Bob Cotton. You cannot, for instance, compare Whitbread, with its multiple business units, to a single-unit business.

"The Government is going to be laying down targets and a regulatory approach, with carbon trading as the first one," Cotton says, somewhat ominously.

"But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recognised that we are different, and that even the sectors within this industry are very different," he adds.

Where hotels and restaurants slip up…The Green Month survey asked respondents for the worst examples of energy waste they had seen. This is a sample of what they said:

  • Our operations office has four people working in a large space with plenty of natural light but every day all the lights are switched on.
  • The cooking team leaves the gas on even when they don't use it.
  • Air conditioning gets left on when guests are not in the bedroom or when windows are open.
  • The sauna gets turned on early and is then left on for 12 hours with no other users.
  • Suppliers use polystyrene boxes for produce - especially fish - that then have to go to landfill, or send large lorries to deliver small quantities.
  • Chefs leave water running over prepared vegetables.
  • Kitchen sinks are filled with water just to cool down some vegetables.

Some practical steps you can take…

  • Undertake a review of how and where water is used. Consider installing water-efficient dishwashers, sensor taps, urinal controls, waterless urinals, low flush and dual-flush toilets and air-intake showers.
  • Introduce a towel and linen re-use policy.
  • Ask suppliers to deliver in reusable packaging.
  • Introduce recycling facilities for guest waste, either through housekeeping or by providing separate bins for recyclables.
  • Print and copy documents double-sided and send by e-mail to reduce paper waste.
  • Use refillable dispensers for shower gels, shampoos, soaps and moisturisers.
  • Monitor your food waste.
  • Check all external lights are switched off during daylight hours.
  • Check boilers are inspected regularly, are burning efficiently and that heat and hot water are being delivered at the right temperature.
  • Look for open windows in winter, a good indication that room thermostats are set too high.

Source: Envirowise

What is carbon trading?

There are in fact two issues here: carbon offsetting and emissions or carbon trading.

Carbon offsetting is the voluntary act of mitigating emissions by buying "offsets" to compensate. These will be things such as tree-planting initiatives and are sometimes criticised by environmentalists for encouraging firms or individuals simply to duck the issue.

Emissions trading links back to the Kyoto targets for greenhouse gas reductions. Both European and British politicians see emissions trading as the most palatable way of achieving these cuts.

It works like this: a limit is set on the amount of pollutant that can be emitted by an industry. Companies are then allowed to hold an equivalent number of credits, giving them a right to emit to that amount. Companies that want to increase their emissions above this can buy credits from those who pollute less.

Who's who

Here is a selection of agencies and organisations that can help you in your green quest…

Business in the Community
A movement formed of more than 700 members of the UK's top companies committed to improving their positive impact on society.

The Carbon Trust Government organisation working with business and the public sector to help them reduce their carbon emissions and develop commercial low-carbon technologies.
0800 085 2005, www.carbontrust.co.uk

CESHI (Centre for Environmental Studies in the Hospitality Industry) Consultancy and research organisation that lies within the Department of Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism Management at Oxford Brookes University. It's the only UK organisation that specifically helps the hospitality industry address green issues in practical terms.
01865 483894

Considerate Hoteliers Association This network is run by hoteliers for hoteliers and is advised by CESHI. Each year the Considerate Hotel of the Year Awards are run, supported by the British Hospitality Association and the HCIMA.
01308 482313

Defra The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs integrates environmental, social and economic objectives - by putting sustainable development into practice every day, and by championing sustainable development as the way forward for Government.

Energy Cost Advisors Group (ECA) Provides independent, energy cost consultancy services to large and small businesses, from all sectors.

Envirowise Envirowise is a government-funded programme of free advice to UK businesses to increase profitability and reduce environmental impact. It is managed on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
Helpline 0800 585794, www.envirowise.gov.uk

Hospitable Climates An energy advisory programme supported by the Carbon Trust and managed by the HCIMA on behalf of the Hospitable Climates network. This comprises the British Institute of Innkeeping, the British Hospitality Association, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers and the British Beer & Pub Association.
020 8661 4916, www.hospitableclimates.org.uk

London Food Link Runs projects to increase the availability of sustainable food in London, to tackle the barriers preventing access to healthy and sustainable food for all Londoners, and to protect London's diverse food culture.

Sustain The alliance for better food and farming advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, and enrich society and culture.

Tourism Partnership The International Business Leaders Forum Tourism Partnership is a membership organisation of leading companies from the travel and tourism industry. It incorporates the International Hotels Environment Initiative.
020 7467 3600/3622, www.tourismpartnership.org

WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) Its mission is to create new markets for recycled waste, to work on waste minimisation, provide advisory services on best recycling practice for local authorities.
01295 819900, www.wrap.org.uk

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