Imagine the scene: On a recent weekend, I saw the inevitable sign in the bathroom. “Save our planet,” he begged. “Every day, millions of gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once.”
No washing machine was involved, but I could still see the spin here. Especially when I had to dispense my shower gel from a tiny plastic bottle. And at the bar, when my passion fruit martini arrived served with a plastic straw, well…
This is a common situation, acknowledges Maurice Bergin, environmental consultant to the hospitality industry and managing director of greenhospitality.ie, the industry’s largest certification scheme. “The napkin message is the most abused environmental commentary in the world – it’s a good example of how to get incredibly wrong while trying to do good,” he says.
“The customer is not stupid. They know that if they hang up the towel, hotels don’t wash it and save money. The message shouldn’t be “save the planet”, because you won’t. It should be “help us do our part”. And smart hotels say “if you hang up your towel, we’ll donate money to a local environmental program.”
“Greenwashing” – that is, the exaggeration of often tokenistic initiatives to give a misleading impression of a brand’s green credentials – is rampant in the hospitality industry, as more and more consumers take this into account when making decisions about their travels, whether at home or abroad.
Another example is when an Irish hotel brags about only using renewable energy – a valid but easy change – or sending zero waste to landfill. “It’s interesting because very specifically in Ireland, no commercial waste is legally allowed to go to landfill anyway – we incinerate it,” says Bergin. “That sounds good, but it could still mean that 100% of the waste they produce is burned instead of being separated, recycled and reused.”
Which begs the question: how do we, as responsible travelers, really know if a hotel is significant in its eco-commitment?
The easiest way to check a hotel’s green credentials is to check their website, which should detail the steps they take. If they have made or planned major changes to their heating systems to make them energy efficient, that is a clear indication of their commitment, as this type of investment often only has long-term gains.
“At the end of the day, if I check the website and there’s no quantification in there, then I know it’s just talk,” Bergin says. “Even though they say ‘we are committed to reducing our carbon footprint by 50% by 2030’, my question is what actions are you actually going to take to achieve this? In all of this, the devil [is] in details.
Inevitably, such communication favors big business – a family-run B&B may not have the means to regularly update its website, let alone quantify its engagement. But it does at least help highlight those who are eco-conscious.
Checking a hotel’s green certifications and awards is another way to make sure there’s a meaningful change. That said, companies across industries can use them as yet another greenwashing ploy – the accusations against the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue tick program exposed in the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy are still fresh in our minds. But Bergin insists that greenhospitality.ie is robust. For example, if a company wants to become carbon neutral, part of their program is to plant native Irish forest trees in Ireland. “I’m a firm believer that you can’t just walk away from your carbon liability,” he says. “If you’re broadcasting in Ireland, then plant the trees in Ireland, while providing carbon support to a developing economy.”
Overall, we’re doing reasonably well. In the latest Euromonitor International Sustainable Travel Index rankings, Ireland ranks 15th out of 99 countries, outperforming Germany, Denmark, Spain and the UK, between others. “And I think the Irish hospitality sector has one of the best penetrations of environmental certification and engagement, with around 15-20% of hotels actively engaged,” says Bergin.
One such hotel is Ashford Castle in County Mayo, which is often seen as an example of good environmental responsibility, helped by its five-star status and investment from its parent company since 2013, Red Carnation Hotels. Ailish Keane, Ashford Castle’s Purchasing Manager, says: “You can see straight away when you walk into the hotel that we care about the locality and the estate we look after. When you arrive you can see that we have restored an 800 year old castle, then you walk through [a] geo-certified golf course. You can see that we kept the roughage with native plants and we keep trees there for biodiversity.
Initiatives include going single-use plastic free by the end of this year, regenerating a fifth of the 350-acre estate, and capturing rainwater across the estate for reuse. They also monitor energy consumption, waste generation and water usage to make sure everything is running smoothly.
Helen Gibbons, another member of the team, says, “We never feel like we’re greenwashing. We track all of our progress through diligent programming, which is externally audited, and we have the awards and certification to back it all up.
Of course, there are plenty of other hotels that are doing great things beyond reusing towels. The Wren Urban Nest puts its message front and center on its website, declaring itself ‘the most sustainable place in Dublin’, thanks to calls such as using an advanced heating and cooling system to stay frugal in energy, by placing filtered water taps on each floor, managing a zero-waste kitchen and planting a roof garden to promote biodiversity.
In Killarney, the Black Sheep Hostel aims to source 70% local produce, including recycled furniture. They offer a free hot drink to guests arriving by bike, grow their own vegetables and herbs, and keep the chickens fed mostly on food waste from the hostel. Fundamental actions like these are at the heart of the changes we need to see if we want to significantly reduce our impact.
“We tend to cling to plastic and plastic is important, but climate change is more important,” says Bergin. “It’s just that the complexity of breaking it down into every impact we have – as consumers, as business owners, as people, as travelers – is incredibly difficult. We all know we we have to do better, but it is a huge task.