There is a growing consensus within the hotel sector that ‘green is lean’. As well as it being the right thing to do, operators are stressing the business case for promoting eco-conscious behaviour, encouraging partners and staff to consider the savings and synergies that addressing the carbon footprint can bring.

But how well does this argument work within the context of five-star luxury? When no guest demand is too big or small, and escape from the world’s problems is often presented as a core selling point, talk of bottom lines and economies of scale becomes a less powerful tool, and risks undermining the guest experience. For these operators, however, reducing energy consumption is a priority: on average, full-service hotels spend 4-6% of revenue on energy costs; with historic and luxury properties, that figure is closer to 10%.

Right from the start

For some operators, the answer lies in making environmental stewardship glamorous, aspirational and a core element of one’s brand proposition. Sonu Shivdasani, chairman, CEO and founder of the luxury spa and resort group Six Senses, was one hospitality leader who recognised the benefits of such an approach early on.

"Sustainability is at the very core of our business and has been since we opened Soneva Fushi 16 years ago," he says, referring to the company’s original resort in the Maldives. "All of our resorts have been designed and built using only natural materials, locally sourced where possible. The resorts are operated with a passionate adherence to ecologically sound principles – we recycle, reuse and manage waste. Food is sourced or grown locally, always from sustainable sources, and each resort has its own organic garden of herbs, vegetables and fruit."

"The senior people in this industry will be seen as slow-moving elephants if they don’t address things that are becoming common sense for an increasing number of people."

Resort hotels, so often synonymous with waste and excess, are introducing some of the most innovative responses to sustainable operations, driven, at least in part, by a growing guest demand to be closer to nature and their surroundings; for example, at InterContinental’s Bora Bora in French Polynesia, a 7,874ft-long pipe has been lowered into the ocean, providing a renewable supply of deepsea water that chills the property’s air-conditioning system and saves 2.5 million litres of fuel oil a year. Likewise, guests at Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize can rest safe in the knowledge that their electricity has been generated via the hotel’s hydroelectric scheme.

Many hotels are also supporting initiatives that benefit nearby communities and habitats, such as the Tivoli Ecoresort Praia do Forte in Brazil, where a programme of reforestation is underway to help preserve the local landscape.

"If you don’t address the issue of sustainability now, you will be left out," says Ola Ivarsson, Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts’ chief operating officer. "More customers are asking what hotels are doing in this regard and your team members are clever; they’re learning about these issues. The senior people in this industry will be seen as slow-moving elephants if they don’t address things that are becoming common sense for an increasing number of people."

Claus Sendlinger, CEO and founder of Design Hotels, agrees that being ecologically minded is now a necessity. "It’s the new luxury," he says. "It is one of our criteria for new member properties and should be a scaled part of any hotel operation."

Take the initiative

In addition to an emphasis on architecture and design, many properties within Design Hotels’ portfolio have embraced new technologies in order to become more eco-friendly. At the Alila Villas Uluwatu on the southern coast of Bali, for example, guests can stay at one of 84 green villas designed by award-winning architects WOHA.

The resort was the first in Bali to achieve Green Globe building, planning and design certification, and was constructed using locally sourced building materials, including volcanic rock. Heat generated by the property’s air-conditioning system has been rerouted to warm water throughout the resort and there is a greywater recycling system in place to irrigate the hotel gardens.

In March 2012, Design Hotels announced the launch of its global sustainability programme in partnership with EC3 Global and Finding Infinity, an organisation employing grass-roots initiatives to promote the use of renewable energy. This initiative is underpinned by a belief that sustainable processes must start at the micro level before touching all areas of hospitality operations. To kick-start the association, member properties in Mexico were the first to benefit from EC3 Global’s EarthCheck survey, which is a benchmarking tool that is already credited with helping over 1,300 organisations in more than 70 countries reduce their consumption of natural resources and protect the environment on a neighbourhood level.

Design Hotels is not alone in making investments group-wide in order to create site-specific solutions, maintaining and respecting the individuality and identity of members within their portfolio. Kempinski Renewable Energy (KREEN) offers consulting, planning, project management and quality assurance expertise on the use of renewable energies and energy efficiency to Kempinski Hotels. Experts develop individually tailored solutions for each hotel, and select the most suitable supplier from a pool of highly qualified providers to commission and implement the concept.

"It’s a big step forward and Kempinski is, to my knowledge, the first company with its own energy consultancy that perfectly integrates economic and environmental needs," says Reto Wittwer, president and CEO of Kempinski Hotels.

Slow approach

Other strategies are more culturally driven. Like Kempinski, Six Senses is known for its striking locations and luxe accommodation, and its segments include resorts, boutique villas and residences. The portfolio also has several spas offering a programme of holistic healing, body and beauty care, designed with all five senses in mind.

"Mainstream travellers are also recognising the importance of sustainability, with many favouring hotels that can demonstrate a clear commitment to environmental policies."

Each of the properties is run under Shivdasani’s ‘slow life’ ethos. "’Slow life’ is an acronym that stands for sustainable, local, organic, wholesome, learning, inspiring, fun experiences," he explains. Shivdasani also believes that luxury and sustainability are ideal partners.

"The two principles make a marriage," he says. "It is the only choice. We must be sustainable to support and protect our planet, but this should not mean a loss of luxury to our guests. Six Senses promotes the idea of ‘intelligent luxury’ – that is, offering guests space, privacy and comfort, together with fresh and delicious food and wine, in areas of outstanding natural beauty."

Of course, no matter how green a hotel is, guests will still produce carbon emissions when flying to and from their destination. Shivdasani is only too aware of this contradiction and has taken a number of steps to counteract the effects of guest’s air travel. "It is inescapable that our guests travel to reach our remote yet accessible locations," he says. "We include this as part of our carbon footprint and have developed many projects to mitigate it."

Strength in partnership

Six Senses is currently working with Plant a Tree Today to reforest a large part of northern Thailand. The group is also supporting and funding a windmill that supplies an impoverished area of India.

"One of my favourite initiatives is Six Senses water," adds Shivdasani. "A few years ago, we banned imported water from our resorts and we now bottle our own, using recycled bottles and adding minerals at source. Not only does this save on food miles and plastic usage, but profits from its sale are donated to three water charities. As a result, over 300,000 more people can now access clean water, and more than $250,000 has been raised."

The company also puts 0.5% of its revenue into a fund that is specifically designed to support local communities and projects around its resorts. These schemes take many forms, and include planting mangrove forests, educating locals in waste management, supporting orphanages and helping with marine conservation. Guests are also given the opportunity to teach in local schools, build homes in villages and assist with cleaning coral reefs.

Guest preference

Mainstream travellers are also recognising the importance of sustainability, with many favouring hotels that can demonstrate a clear commitment to environmental policies.

"Polls show that nine out of ten consumers prefer to stay in a sustainable property," says Sendlinger. "The whole tourism industry needs to become more eco-friendly – it is no longer a niche issue. Sustainability is now very aspirational: in the past, the term ‘eco-friendly’ conjured up visions of an unstylish, bare experience, but this is no longer the case."

Shivdasani agrees that environmentally conscious tourism has moved to the fore and is rapidly becoming mainstream. "Eco-technology is moving forward every day, and at Six Senses we’ll continues to invest until we meet our goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2020," he says. "We have a high proportion of repeat guests – higher than the industry standard. Our sustainability is an increasingly important factor for guests to take into account when choosing holiday destinations, given all else is comparable."

The consensus is clear: five-star operators can no longer afford the luxury of disregarding their environmental responsibilities.