We must find a balance of sustainability

18 October 2007 by
We must find a balance of sustainability

The first responsibility when running a business is to remain profitable, but an awareness of its environmental and social effects is also essential for the prosperity of the wider hospitality industry, says the BHA's Bob Cotton

In the British Hospitality Association's Trends and Statistics 2007, published this month, there's one quite alarming statistic: hotel energy costs increased between 2004 and 2006 from 2.9% of revenue to 4.2%. That's a 45% increase in two years. What's the forecast for the next two years?

Energy costs are the tip of the iceberg of the sustainability issue. They are the bit you can see, and they get the most publicity. But underneath there are other issues that are just as big and are likely to have just as great an impact on the hospitality industry. The most pressing challenge facing us is to balance the separate needs of environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability.

Energy bills

Energy efficiency must certainly be one of the industry's principal aims. Operators will have to become smarter at cutting their energy bills make greater use of as much local produce as possible to reduce food miles and recycle more effectively. Waste, particularly for restaurants in central urban areas, is already difficult and expensive to manage. It will become more so.

Then there's social sustainability. The hospitality industry currently employs about 1.8 million people, with nearly 400,000 in London alone, which makes it the capital's biggest employer. Yet about 80% of hospitality workers in London - and a plentiful number in the provinces - are from overseas.

That's always been the case. We have a plethora of restaurants of all cuisines and styles that is the envy of the world we have an expanding hotel industry that employs staff of all talents and skills. We need people to work in these sectors. But this gives rise to a growing social issue: why do we need to rely so much on overseas workers?

In the past few years the influx of workers from eastern Europe has helped overcome the hospitality industry's staff shortages. But for how long can we expect other countries to supply the industry with workers? For how much longer will this be politically acceptable? Once they are trained and have gained experience, will they not be attracted back home? What will we do then?

The answer is, we don't know. So the only sensible solution is to nurture our own home-grown labour by attracting British people into British colleges with the enticement of a well-paid, satisfying career ahead of them in an exciting international industry.

It is ironic that the prime minister recently spoke about British jobs for British workers, because we have nearly two million unemployed. What's worse, we have a worrying lack of work ethic among some school leavers that is sharply at variance with that of most migrant workers, who are keen to work, learn and become more skilled. Without basic reading and writing skills - even after 10 or more years of full-time education - many British youngsters appear happy to remain out of work.

Old profile

Unfortunately, the industry is not helped by its age-old profile of long, unsocial hours, hard work and poor pay. If we are to attract more British-born people, we need to eradicate this image with more enlightened employment practices. At the same time schools must promote a stronger work ethic among the young and ensure they can read and write and have a positive attitude to work. It's not the employer's job to teach them the three Rs, as the Government is suggesting.

Finally, we need to ensure that the industry remains economically sustainable. The other memorable figure in the BHA report is that hotel investment is running at £3b a year. This certainly needs to continue in order to meet growing customer demand and international competition. But the chancellor's misguided withdrawal of the Hotel Buildings Allowance may well deter new development in provincial towns and rural areas.

The hospitality industry needs to bring these three aspects of sustainability together. Remaining profitable is the key but our social, environmental and economic responsibilities have become the 21st-century challenges.

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