Hotels are responsible for around 1% of global emissions, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). As the industry expands at a remarkable rate – with more than 80,000 hotels predicted to open by 2050 – this is only expected to increase. But, in order to meet climate targets set out by the Paris Climate Agreement, these new hotels will need to be designed with sustainability as an integral factor, rather than simply replacing plastic bottles with glass or giving travellers the option to have their towels refreshed less frequently. A few pioneering properties have set a blueprint for what hotels can achieve, incorporating recycled materials into their structures and interiors that are made to last.

Post Ranch Inn, set in California’s Pfieffer Big Sur State Park, was designed by the local architect Mickey Muennig using natural materials of glass, wood and stone. Some of the buildings were even given roofs covered in sod, grass and wildflowers to blend into the landscape, while also reducing heat loss. “The innovative, organic environmental design was intended for people to feel a part of nature,” explains Mike Freed, the owner of Post Ranch Inn. “Post Ranch, at its core, in all about organic architecture and being immersed in nature.”

Guestrooms are furnished using reclaimed wood, including redwood sourced from old wine casks, which adds a rich, deep red colour to them; the wooden headboards, bedside tables and worktables are made from Bubinga, a sustainably grown hard wood. Meanwhile, the large metal doors on most of the Post Ranch rooms are refurbished old schoolhouse doors that were stripped and finished. “All of our guestrooms have upcycled lamps made by [the designer] Jim Misner,” adds Freed. “We have his work in the Sierra Mar restaurant and in the spa, too.” Furthermore, the bar top in Sierra Mar is made from quilted mahogany that was retrieved from the bed of a creek in Honduras. The hotel also made use of timber from an old bridge to craft the pathway connecting the restaurant to the reception, as well as other paths around the estate – and any trees that fall on the property are retrieved from the forest and made into benches.

When it comes to refreshing the interiors, the team behind Post Ranch Inn looks to new eco-friendly materials, such as mushroom-based leather and biodegradable seaweed-based fabrics, to replace pieces that have worn out. “We are focused on materials that are based on a regenerative economy,” says Freed. “We have the good fortune of having an eco-reputation and innovative companies come to us with their concepts.” However, the challenges Post Ranch faces are always around lead times and availability of quality items. “Products must stand up to repetitive use,” he says, “so we source and test them to ensure they are made to last.”

Make do and mend the planet

Emma Stratton, the director at Scarlet Hotel in Cornwall, which she co-founded with her sisters Debbie Wakefield and Rebecca Whittington, did so with the intention of creating a business that was “deeply sustainable”. “My interest has always been to campaign for the environment,” she explains, revealing that this began with the location of Scarlet. “It’s a real thing for hotels to rush to build on completely unspoiled bits of coastline. We made a specific choice to say, ‘We can’t keep doing that, because there will be no beautiful places left.’ Therefore, what we needed to do was build a hotel that replaced an unattractive disused building, to preserve the places of beauty where you can go and leave no footprint.”

Scarlet was designed to have half the carbon footprint of a similar luxury hotel, built using sustainably-forested woods; but Stratton notes that it was a challenge to find a builder in the UK who could meet the specification. “It had to be airtight,” she says, explaining that the only firm that could implement her and her sisters’ vision was from Germany. “We approached the design of Scarlet painstakingly – there was a year and a half of planning before we started to build. It was really complicated, down to small things like the screws we used to try and minimise the carbon footprint of the building materials.”

Soft furnishings brought different challenges – curtains, for example, are easily damaged by the sun if they are made from cotton or linen, so their lifespan at a hotel is typically less than a year, says Stratton. “We’ve got curtains made out of Provera, which is a manmade material, but it’s a lot better than some of the natural fabrics. They can still look good after 20 years, but then at the end of their life, they can be melted down and remade.” Throughout the hotel, easily recycled materials such as plastic and metal are repurposed – as is natural cork. “It’s recyclable, it’s ecological, it’s really good at capturing carbon, much more so than wood,’ says Stratton. “It’s a renewable resource and it lasts a long time.” The longevity of a material is key for her. “A lot of hotels buy furniture that is not designed to last after three years, so it gets thrown out and they get new furniture. Then it all goes to be burnt in an incinerator. We don’t throw away furniture, we choose things that we can have recovered time and again before finally recycling them.”

For Freed and the Post Ranch Inn, having products that stand the test of time is conducive to the luxury experience. “At Post Ranch, luxury equates to quality,” he explains. “We purchase products that were designed with intention, purpose and longevity.” This is also true for Stratton and her sisters, who had many conversations when founding Scarlet about what luxury meant for them. “We all agreed that it was about being nurtured and having time for connection with people who cared. It really isn’t about oversized fluffy towels, too many toiletries and a chocolate on your pillow. We decided that what we should do is try and redefine what luxury could mean: simplicity, being in harmony with nature and having time with each other without the distractions.”

Beyond rest and relaxation

Currently, eco-tourism is booming, with many travellers now seeking out hotels with environmentally friendly credentials. “More and more, our guests are looking for options rooted in the local ecosystem,” says Valerie de Robillard, the senior vice-president of environment at the hotel group Accor, whose 5,400 hotels across the world welcome 600,000 guests every day. “According to a 2021 WTTC report, 83% of travellers think sustainable travel is vital and 69% of them expect the tourism industry to offer more sustainable travel options.” Indeed, Stratton has found that guests have been drawn to Scarlet because of its thoughtful approach to the environment. “We have a group of customers who come to us because they know we’re striving to do our best for the planet. But, we also have a very large group who are perhaps not as motivated by that as just wanting to come to a really good hotel.” Indeed, while it may not be a primary factor when deciding where to holiday at the moment, de Robillard explains that Accor is preparing for it to become one. “Today, it is impossible to say whether a guest will give up on a hotel because it does not have an ecolabel; but it is certain that not having it will be a problem in the future,” she states. Accordingly, Accor has made Green Key and Green Globe certification – which are both recognised by the UN World Tourism Organisation – mandatory for all of its properties across the world.

A decade ago, de Robillard says eco-design was only considered at the end of the development process, but today it is integrated into Accor’s design guidelines from the beginning. “We want to make sure that the concepts we create have a positive impact on the environment and society, and our ambition is to put sustainable development at the heart of our hotels,” she says. “It’s important to work with suppliers who are selected beforehand to design furniture with extendable lives and reusability in mind.”

One of its brands, Greet, was launched in 2019 with a focus on sustainable materials and vintage furniture. “Through Greet, we position eco-design not as a constraint but as a real element of creative inspiration for our designers,” says de Robillard, explaining that, similarly to Post Ranch Inn and Scarlet, reusing materials in innovative ways is a crucial element to their design process. Certainly, if more hotels follow their lead, the future of ecofriendly travel looks bright.