Green light – Accor staying sustainable12 December 2014
Cutting CO2 emissions, reducing water use and running on renewable energy – Accor has been getting serious about sustainability. Jack Wittels speaks with Arnaud Herrmann, vice-president of sustainable development and head of the group’s PLANET 21 programme, about the project’s key achievements and the growing importance of ecological issues in hoteliers’ commercial strategies.
Forty years ago, Accor's founding managers proclaimed that the environment was "the raw material of tourism". Even at the time, it was hardly a controversial statement. Though comparatively little was known about the future impact of global warming, every hotel shares an obvious bond with, and debt to, its surroundings. Seaside resorts depend on clear white sands and fresh blue waves. Rural getaways need picturesque views and country air. Even city locations require clean, safe streets to make guests feel at home.
The relationship is as old as the industry itself, but most hoteliers have only started to get really serious about sustainability in the past five years. The change has partly been driven byEU legislation - including the 2001 Sustainable Development Strategy - but is also due to a growing realisation that what's good for the environment is also good for business.
"At the end of the 1990s, corporate social responsibility [CSR] was basically something that it was nice for hotel firms to have," says Arnaud Herrmann, Accor's vice-president of sustainable development.
"By the beginning of the 2000s, this had evolved into more of a 'must have', mainly thanks to a few legal requirements. But since around 2010, CSR has become a real business issue, and hospitality firms are increasingly shifting the emphasis onto their hotels' environmental performance."
21 and over
Accor has long been one of the industry's leading lights when it comes to green issues, having established its environmental department two decades ago. More recently, the group has focused on its PLANET 21 programme - 21 commitments to improving its ecological and social sustainability.
Launched in 2012, the project is now rapidly approaching its 2015 completion date. Targeting seven core areas spanning health, energy use and carbon emissions, some of the more notable results have included paying for more than 3.5 million trees to be planted and a 5.2% reduction in water use.
But while the figures are significant, PLANET 21 represents more for Accor than simply a fresh set of sustainability statistics. According to Herrmann, who also heads up the programme, its main achievement has been the "industry recognition that Accor is a leader in sustainability".
For those who would accuse such a statement of eco-hypocrisy, Herrmann is clear that there is no such conflict of interests.
"PLANET 21 is certainly not about 'greenwashing'. In fact, since sustainability became a business issue, that whole line of criticism has become redundant," he says.
In other words, now that sustainability is firmly on the business agenda for hoteliers, bragging about eco-credentials is no longer viewed as just a green PR stunt. Rather, it is a strong commercial message - a signal of financial and operational efficiency, attraction to customers and legal compliance.
PLANET 21's main business credentials lie in two areas: economic savings and client satisfaction. On the monetary side, one of its most significant effects has been a 1.5% reduction in Accor's energy costs. It may not sound like much, but considering the group spends €400 million on powering its operated and owned hotels every year, even this small decrease brings about huge benefits.
"Energy savings are definitely the best way to show the positive connection between sustainability and financial well-being," says Herrmann. "They're particularly welcome because in some countries we operate in, the price of energy is going up by as much as 15.0-20.0% each year.
"The 1.5% use shrinkage we saw in 2013 is actually part of a much larger trend that's been going on for several years. We started with far bigger reductions, mainly because our original energy consumption was so much higher."
Herrmann also mentions that "improvements in waste management" could save Accor a significant amount of money over the years to come, though he does not divulge the details. The 5.2% reduction in water use between 2011 and 2013 in owned and managed hotels will also no doubt have benefitted the group economically.
On improving customer satisfaction, PLANET 21 was founded on a clear client demand for sustainability enhancements. Not only did guests want Accor to be engaged with the issues but one in three also actively wished to be involved in the process.
Expectations were particularly high among the group's major business clients, including airlines and multinational companies, with 80-90% of surveyed respondents saying the industry needed to show commitment to environmental and sustainability issues.
"Our research showed that sustainability was more than just a key criterion for our customers. It revealed a change in attitude - it's no longer a restriction or something to feel guilty about. Sustainability has become a positive choice," says Herrmann.
Food was especially important, with many customers expecting healthy and sustainable options - particularly organic produce. PLANET 21 helped Accor meet these needs, ensuring 95% of its hotels used eco-labelled goods and 96% promoted balanced dishes.
Significantly, customer interest in sustainability is also not limited to just a few wealthy European countries. Recent surveys, Herrmann says, have, shown that clients from China, the Middle East and South-East Asia are just as focused on the issue.
"The expectation is actually even higher in emerging countries than it is in Europe or North America," he says. "So while regions like northern Europe are clearly very committed, this is by no means something that's restricted to them. Also, in demographic terms, sustainability tends to be particularly important for young people."
According to Herrmann, Accor controls almost a third of all Europe's eco-friendly hotels - as measured by travel website TripAdvisor's 'Green Leaders' label. This is despite the group only running 5% of the continent's properties. It is statistics like this, Herrmann believes, that will ultimately differentiate Accor from other hotel groups and bring in new customers.
"People at every level of Accor are committed to sustainability," he says. "I've had meetings with several people from the executive committee, and nobody even thought to ask why we were doing this. The only questions were about what was going to happen and what they needed to do."
Pulling back from the extremes
Beyond PLANET 21, sustainability principles have also filtered into other areas of the group's practices. Whenever a new room for one of Accor's brands is being planned, environmental concerns are now a standard part of the design process: ecological materials are integrated and energy-saving equipment used.
Some of the group's properties have taken the initiative particularly seriously. At the Novotel Lausanne Bussigny in Switzerland, guests can enjoy a natural swimming pool, turf roof and heat-recovery system, as well as eco-friendly lavatories that do not use water. But while evidently proud of the Lausanne, Herrmann does not envisage such bold new strategies being rolled out to every property across any of Accor's brands in the near future.
"Among the traditional hotel chains, there are some initiatives to push new brands that are fully committed to being eco-friendly in an attempt to capture a very niche market," he says. "We don't want to do that; we much prefer having all our chains dedicated to the environment, rather than just pushing one extremely far down that road. That being said, if one of the Accor brands wants to go further than the others, we will make it happen."
Nevertheless, sustainability is developing into a new area in which hotel firms can compete. Within the MICE segment, Accor is currently vying with rival offers for sustainable meeting rooms. Hospitality newcomers, such as Airbnb, are also developing sophisticated ecological strategies that traditional hotel groups must keep up with.
For now, Herrmann's chief concern is to achieve the PLANET 21 commitments by the end of next year, but work has already begun on the next stage of Accor's sustainability journey, taking the group up to the 2020 milestone.
"We've only just started to think about it," he says. "But what I can say is that CSR and business are now more closely connected than ever before; the next generation of PLANET 21 will definitely follow this trend."