Sustainability and environmental performance have become active marketing tools for hotels looking to entice and consolidate various market demographics, particularly corporate clients. The hospitality market, often accused of typifying unsustainable practises, providing luxury experiences with little concern for waste or resources, has actually taken a lead on these issues in recent years.

But tracking and measuring one’s environmental impact has become a great differentiator, and certification bodies have come to the fore as operators seek to consolidate, legitimise and publicise their efforts. But the question remains, which body to choose?

LEED certification was for many years considered the gold standard. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a green building certification programme orchestrated by the US Green Building Council that recognises best-in-class building strategies and practices. To receive LEED certification, projects must satisfy prerequisites and earn points to achieve different levels of certification. Last year, it reached three billion square feet of accredited space globally, and it is considered by its supporters as the only international standard for measuring environmental performance.

But recent developments within the hotel sector are beginning to tell a quite different story. LEED continues to play a role – for example, in early June, Wyndham Hotel Group unveiled LEED-certifiable construction prototypes for its two largest brands – but it’s far from an industry standard. In fact, one could argue that, within the hotel sector at least, Green Globe accreditation is far closer to seizing that crown.

"A few years ago, just saying ‘well, our hotels are very green’ might have been enough, but now it’s a very different dialogue." 

Specifically targeting the tourism industry, the Green Globe Standard includes 44 mandatory core criteria supported by more than 380 compliance indicators. The applicable indicators vary by type of certification, geographical area and local factors. International operators, including Jumeirah, Accor, IHG and Mövenpick, have all been recognised under the accreditation for their sustainable programmes.

Mövenpick’s commitment extends to already having all of its Middle Eastern and European hotels accredited, and the company has pledged to extend that policy worldwide.

"We can choose which indicators we want to focus on for each hotel, which gives the possibility for local adoption," explains Ola Ivarsson, the group COO. "We also wanted something that demanded an external audit so we could be sure that what we’d been doing had really been done.

"It’s very difficult for customers to judge your sustainability performance; you need a label that helps you to summarise your activities and gives you some sort of rating. I wouldn’t say it was a scientific rating; rather, it’s an indication of where you are with your hotel. We’re not claiming to be a sustainable company, but we are claiming we’ve understood the agenda. We have set ourselves some strategic objectives, and we are working consistently towards achieving those objectives – a journey that could take decades."

Ivarsson’s observation that there is no quick fix rings true with a number of his peers. While accreditation is a powerful means of measuring and rewarding efforts, those efforts must be founded in a robust and powerful internal platform.

"We’ve certainly seen a significant increase in the specificity of requests in terms of the carbon footprint of our hotels and what we’re doing to manage and reduce that," says Kate Gibson, VP of corporate responsibility at IHG. "A few years ago, just saying ‘well, our hotels are very green’ might have been enough, but now it’s a very different dialogue. Corporate clients in particular want a very data-driven response and authentic, robust action."

To reply to these requests in a more evidence-based way, IHG introduced an online environmental-responsibility tool called IHG Green Engage, which calculates at the press of a button the carbon footprint of a night’s stay. The concept came about when the company wanted to respond to questions from external stakeholders about what the group was doing to manage its environmental footprint. The system provides comprehensive reports that allow guests and corporate clients to review an individual hotel’s sustainability progress. IHG hopes the majority of hotel owners within the group will enrol in the programme.

"Green Engage helps hotels around the world to measure their energy, waste and water usage by gathering information to understand how those inputs and costs are trending," explains Gibson. "It also allows them to benchmark their hotel’s performance in those areas against similar hotels in similar climate zones, so you get a good sense of how you’re doing on a relative basis and how much reduction potential you have."

Measure your emissions

While IHG and its competitors generally execute their own branded sustainability schemes, there’s also scope for industry-wide collaboration for accurate accountability in emission measurement. In June 2013, along with 22 other leading hotel brands, the company launched a global carbon standard to calculate and communicate the carbon footprint of hotel stays. Prior to this criterion, known as the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative (HCMI), each and every company calculated its emissions in a different way, leading to confusion from corporate customers looking to understand their own potential carbon footprint.

"Before, it was an apples and pears comparison," says Gibson. "But as a result of multiple years of working, there’s now a consistent definition, and we are able to use that standard so that guests can calculate the carbon footprint of a single stay in a hotel room."

A call for consistent standards can be found at all levels. In 1990, long before the group became such a serious international player, Fairmont’s Canadian hotels introduced what was known as the Green Partnership Program. It focused on operational improvements – streamlining waste management, and conserving energy and water. Since then, it has also put in place strict design and construction guidelines, and encouraged owners to seek LEED certification. CEO Jennifer Fox sees a good sustainability strategy as central to Fairmont’s growth. She is also pleased that the issue has become embedded in the overall strategies of most organisations.

"Perhaps the greatest obstacle has been the lack of consistent and comparable standards for defining and measuring sustainability," Fox says. "Although these issues have yet to be fully resolved, many well-coordinated initiatives have pointed the way forward for companies. The long-term success of our organisation requires a balance of the environmental, social and economic. Sustainability encompasses all of these areas."

Compare and collaborate

One of the schemes to which she refers is the Global Reporting Initiative, a non-profit organisation that provides a framework within which organisations can rate their own performance and judge it against that of their peers. There is also increased collaboration across the hospitality industry and beyond, with groups such as the Sustainable Travel Leadership Network bringing together members from the hotel, airline and cruise segments.

"You need to create a frame of awareness and a frame of knowledge so that all managers and individuals can use their own common sense and guide themselves."

"One great example of positive collaboration is the greenhouse gas (GHG) measurement," Fox says. "A consensus was reached regarding the methodology for calculating carbon footprints for hotels – a first for the hospitality industry. Past surveys have shown that our colleagues place value on working for a company that has a sustainable focus in its daily operations, which is something we find positions us as a leader when entering new markets."

Mövenpick has been using the framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, created by Swedish international NGO The Natural Step, to better understand and integrate sustainability into its strategy and operations. Based on systems thinking, the framework recognises that what happens in one part of a system affects every other part, and advocates the use of a common language and understanding to facilitate cooperation within a company and move towards a common goal.

"The framework has been instrumental in helping us to move in the right direction," says Ivarsson. "The issue of sustainability is so complex and you cannot dictate the details from the head office. You need to create a frame of awareness and a frame of knowledge so that all managers and individuals can use their own common sense and guide themselves. Although The Natural Step’s sustainability principles are science-based, they are worded in a way that is easy to understand for non-scientists."

Not only has the framework helped to integrate Mövenpick’s sustainability strategies within the company, it has also been invaluable for explaining the group’s expectations to suppliers. "We aren’t experts on how to mix the best detergent," Ivarsson acknowledges. "But we can tell our suppliers what we need in order to be more sustainable and ask them to support that development by giving us the right chemical formulations."

Whether LEED or Green Globe becomes the overarching standard remains to be seen, but the message from all parties is that accountability and consistency are vital components of any successful sustainability programme. Global certification programmes are set to play a fundamental role in driving standards industry wide.