From the way people talk, climate change can sometimes feel like a kind of medieval pox: unavoidable, unstoppable, a mysterious affliction to avoid or endure. This attitude is not only wrong – we understand more about carbon emissions every day – but risks underplaying the ability of everyday people to shape the planet around them.

The wider war against carbon emissions must, inevitably, be left to governments and multinationals. From recycling to travel habits, individuals can fight their own battles too. As research by Crowdsourcing Sustainability discovered, the average American could prevent hundreds of tonnes of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere simply by cutting their own emissions by a quarter. That is echoed by similar studies too. As the UK’s Committee on Climate Change uncovered, roughly 40% of the nation’s carbon footprint comes not from oil refineries or factories, but from households.

Yet if swapping planes for trains and plastic for paper are certainly two lines of attack here, arguably the most obvious area for reform is around food waste. Clearly, the urgency here is partly climactic, with 26% of the world’s greenhouse emissions emanating from food production. There are other, more explicitly ethical, pressures too. To put it bluntly, is it really necessary to leave so much food when the World Food Programme warns that 345 million of our fellow humans do not know when they are going to eat again? And if every industry, every consumer, naturally struggles here, things are particularly bad when it comes to hospitality.

In a sense, that is inevitable: the whole point of hospitality is to be hospitable and offer guests an experience they’ll never forget. But with hotels dumping roughly 79,000t of leftover food each year, something clearly has to change.

Fortunately, prodded along perhaps by the green demands of customers, things are changing fast. From recycling unwanted dishes, to feeding it to the local wildlife, there is plenty to be done – and that is before you consider the innovative ways managers are trying to cut down the amount of food that ends up on the plate to start with. It goes without saying, meanwhile, that all these innovations have financial as well as environmental benefits, even as the challenge of balancing service and sustainability never fully disappears.

Food for thought

Imagine an average day at a luxury hotel. You wake up and make a coffee through your in-room machine – but only take a couple of sips. Then you head down to the breakfast buffet, piling up your plate as you go – but start to flag after the pastries and toast. Now, lunchtime, a sandwich served by the pool and an unwanted (and uneaten) side salad. By the time you get to dinner, you can begin to see how vital eating is to global hospitality, and ultimately how easily produce is wasted. “Good food and unique culinary experiences are the hallmark of any memorable holiday,” is how Jeffery Smith, vicepresident of sustainability at Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas, vividly puts it. “Unfortunately, food is also at the forefront of many of the environmental challenges we face today.”

He is not wrong. For if eating is clearly a central part of the guest experience – 41% of customers expect their hotel to offer multiple options for sitdown meals – that same enthusiasm can also cause major problems. That is clear enough if you only focus on specific corners of the culinary supply chain. As Smith notes, the global livestock industry results in 7.1Gt worth of CO2 entering the atmosphere each year, a figure representing almost 14% of all humanmade greenhouse gas emissions. “Arguably,” Smith summarises, “one-third of those emissions result from food waste.” Nor, of course, can the financial impact of all this waste be ignored either. According to one recent study, the hotel F&B sector spends over $35bn annually on banquets and catering, a bewildering figure in itself, and especially given so much of that initial investment is squandered.

Operators are also under pressure from their guests. They may be greedy for meals at all hours, but one recent survey found that 80% of travellers feel the green agenda is important. No wonder, in short, that so many hotels are scrambling to cut their waste, no easy feat when larger properties can get through 66,000lb of food each month. Smith and Six Senses are under particular strain, given their long-honed reputation for sustainable living.

“Each Six Senses resort,” he says, “is reinforcing its relationships with local farmers, producers and suppliers, who are committed to responsible sourcing, packaging and seasonality.”

More mainstream brands are moving in the same direction too. As Adam Crocini, senior vicepresident and global head, food and beverage brands at Hilton puts it: “We at Hilton understand this is a problem for the industry that we’re actively engaging in solutions for – both at the individual property and enterprise levels.”

Laying waste

If you are lucky enough to visit a Six Senses property – the Laamu in Maldives, say, or the Ninh Van Bay in Vietnam – you might spot a chicken. Not on a plate, mind, but pottering about by the swimming pool. They are not just there for decoration either: rather, they represent a fundamental part of the chain’s F&B sustainability push. The premise is simple. When food comes back to the restaurant kitchen uneaten, any waste is segregated. In the first place, usable leftovers are given to hungry humans. Now, those chickens come into play, competing with goats and cows for stale bread and fruit cuttings. Anything left over is used for compost.

All told, it is hard not to be impressed by the Six Senses approach – doubly so when you consider the numbers. In 2022, after all, the operator successfully produced over 210,000lb of compost, alongside 93,505 eggs and 77L of essential oils. Crocini, for his part, paints a related picture at Hilton as well. “For example,” he says, “the Hilton Seychelles Labriz Hotel has implemented a compost heap, the output of which helps to grow its on-site organic garden, adopted a stringent food-waste-monitoring effort, and engaged with a water-bottling plant to replace plastic water bottles. Other environmental efforts include using only recycled glass, tins and PET bottles.” That is echoed by similar projects elsewhere.

At a Hilton property in San Diego, managers have partnered with local beekeepers to “provide a haven” for more than 100,000 of the buzzing creatures. The resulting honey is used by the hotel’s restaurant, as the bees also help pollinate the local gardens.

Beyond these clever waste-cutting measures, hotels are equally working on ways to cut the amount of food that gets wasted to start with. At some Hilton locations, that begins with advertising. At various properties in the Gulf, the region’s famously extravagant buffets are now marked by carbon emission labels, encouraging diners to eat fewer dishes that impact the planet. “Smaller portions, live cooking stations, and artfully reduced food displays” have all helped too, Crocini continues, noting that altogether the campaign has seen a 61% reduction in food waste – representing the equivalent of 8,600 meals saved. Not, of course, that operators are expecting guests to go hungry. Especially when 86% of travellers put a high premium on eating local cuisine, Crocini says that Hilton is “laser-focused” on giving punters what they need. Smith agrees. Quality, he says, is always more important than quantity. But that hardly means guests should not “get all that they desire”.

Glass half empty

This tension may well grow over the years ahead. Especially as the battle to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C becomes more urgent – and the impact of climate change continues to ravage developing countries – Smith suggests that “environmental and social responsibility” will remain at the heart of everything Six Senses does. In practice, meanwhile, the chain is rushing ahead with a range of foodfocused sustainability efforts, including lobbying the sector to become greener, and introducing more plant-based dishes to restaurant menus.

Over at Hilton, the efforts are equally wideranging. “While food waste reduction leads to a big impact,” he emphasises, “we at Hilton also understand that waste reduction across the board creates an even bigger one, and in the food and beverage space we have a handful of other initiatives to ensure we’re tackling the issue holistically.”

There are plenty of exciting schemes here, from crafting cocktails from vegetables to removing glass bottles from the company supply chain. Given just how vital this work is to the future of the planet, such ambition is surely just as well.