Environmental performance has become a vital marketing tool for enticing various demographics, particularly corporate clients. The Middle Eastern market, for many years a byword for the pursuit of luxury with little or no concern for waste or resources, is starting to take the lead on sustainability.

Hotels now open in the Middle East in such numbers, and at such a rate, that tracking and measuring environmental impact has become a great differentiator between properties. This makes certification bodies busier here than anywhere else on Earth, but which organisation to choose?

In September 2013, when the Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates became the first hotel in the UAE and wider MENA region to obtain LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) certification, many onlookers interpreted it as the trickle that foretold a tidal wave. LEED is orchestrated by the US Green Building Council, and recognises best-in-class building strategies and practices. Projects seeking approval 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 is considered by its supporters as the only significant international standard for measuring environmental performance.

LEED-ing the way

Fast-forward 18 months from Kempinski’s announcement, however, and developments in the interim tell a quite different story. LEED continues to play a role in the Middle East – this March, Alila Jabal Akhdar became the first accredited development in Oman, for example – 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.

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 as well as local factors. International operators, including Jumeirah, Accor, IHG and Mövenpick have all been recognised under the accreditation for their sustainable programmes within the region. Guido Bauer, chief executive officer and founder of Green Globe Certification, has recently predicted that, by 2020, 30% of accredited hotels worldwide will be in the Middle East.

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. It’s not a scientific measurement, but rather an indication of where a hotel is.

"We’re not claiming to be a sustainable company, but are claiming to have understood the agenda, set ourselves some strategic objectives and to be working consistently towards achieving them, which could take decades."

Ivarsen’s observation that there is no quick fix rings true with a number of his peers. While accreditation is undoubtedly a powerful means of measuring and rewarding efforts, those efforts must be founded upon 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, vice-president 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 very different. Corporate clients, in particular, want data-driven responses and robust action."

Consider the evidence

In order to reply to these requests in a more evidence-based way, IHG introduced Green Engage, an online environmental responsibility tool that calculates the carbon footprint of a night’s stay at the press of a button.

The concept for it came about when the company wanted to respond to questions from external stakeholders about how the group’s environmental footprint was being managed. Green Engage provides comprehensive reports that allow guests and corporate clients to review an individual hotel’s sustainability progress and IHG hopes the majority of hotel owners within the group will enrol in the programme.

"Green Engage helps hotels around the world measure their energy, waste and water usage, by gathering information to understand how those inputs and costs are trending," explains Gibson. "It also enables them to benchmark their hotel’s performance in those areas against similar properties 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."

IHG and its competitors generally use their own branded sustainability schemes, but there is scope for industry-wide collaboration for accurate accountability in emission measurement. In June 2013, the company and 22 other leading brands launched a global carbon standard to calculate and communicate the carbon footprint of hotel stays.

Prior to this yardstick, known as the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative (HCMI), each company calculated its emissions in a different way, leading to a degreen of confusion from corporate customers looking to understand their own potential carbon footprint.

"It had been a sort of ‘apples and pears’ comparison previously," says Gibson, "but multiple years of working has created a consistent definition that guests can use to calculate the carbon footprint of single stays in hotel rooms."

Calls for standards can be found at every level. In 1990, long before the group moved into the Middle East with properties in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Cairo and Makkah, Fairmont’s Canadian hotels introduced what was known as the Green Partnership Program. It focused on operational improvements, such as 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 workable sustainability strategy as central to Fairmont’s growth and is delighted that the issue has become embedded in the strategies of most organisations.

"Perhaps the greatest obstacle has been the lack of consistent and comparable standards for defining and measuring sustainability," she 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 contrast

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.

"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 that 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, this recognises that what happens in one part of a system affects every other area, 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 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 standard for Middle Eastern hotels 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.