How to Be as Good an Environmentalist in a Hotel as You Are at Home

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — So you've decided to live your life in an eco-conscious way, an effort that includes recycling religiously, conserving water, driving a hybrid and perhaps even installing solar panels or buying a Tesla home battery.

But what about when you travel? How do you keep that eco-friendly momentum when jetting around the globe in a giant carbon-emitting plane, or when such matters are left in the hands of hotels, restaurants and rental car companies?

The answer, in part, is careful selection of your accommodations. Choosing an eco-conscious hotel can go a long way toward continuing environmentally friendly behavior and minimizing your carbon footprint, particularly as hotels step up their game when it comes to being better stewards of the environment.

The green travel industry is growing by leaps and bounds, with hotels around the world doing such things as growing their own produce, reusing bath water for irrigation, installing solar panels, maintaining onsite beehives and selling oil from their deep fryers to be used as bio-fuel. And that's just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg; some smaller, boutique hotels are operating completely off the grid.

"The landscape has changed a lot ... We've come a long way as travelers, and so has the hotel industry," says Gary Diedrichs, co-founder of Green Traveler Guides, one of many websites that have sprung up to help travelers be environmentally conscious. "The green movement has swept the industry. There is hardly a property that to some degree is not doing something to be more eco-friendly."

The challenge amid the growing green hotel movement is distinguishing hotels that are truly eco-conscious from what some experts call the "greenwashers," or hotels that would like you to believe they're part of this trend simply to capture your business.

"Greenwashing is rampant," says Bret Love, co-founder of the website Green Global Travel. "Even those hotels willing to pay for membership in The International Ecotourism Society aren't always as eco-friendly as they'd like their clientele to believe. "

There are many ways to determine a hotel's level of commitment to the environment. To begin with, at least two websites now have search and sort functions devoted to helping you find truly eco-friendly accommodations.

TripAdvisor has a GreenLeader program that identifies and showcases eco-friendly hotels and bed and breakfasts, from budget to luxury, that are committed to green practices such as recycling, using local and organic food, and installing electric car charging stations.

BookDifferent.com, a Netherlands-based nonprofit foundation, has added a fascinating "carbon footprint" rating for hotels in its sort function that allows hoteliers to have their carbon footprint calculated, verified and uploaded to the site.

"They have actually devised an algorithm that will tell you what the carbon footprint is for an average night's stay," Diedrichs says. "So you can compare one property to the next in terms of how much carbon you will be expending by putting your head on that pillow. It's brand new. I don't know anyone else who is doing it."

Green Global Travel has developed a list of questions that can be asked of a hotel to determine how seriously they are committed to operating an environmentally friendly business. Those questions include:

Where does a hotel's water come from, and is it used sustainably?

  • What type of energy does the hotel use?
  • Does the hotel have a recycling plan?
  • What does the hotel do to help the surrounding community?
  • Searching around on a hotel's website before booking is another way to determine whether the property is involved in conservation or sustainability initiatives. Typically such efforts are well promoted.

"That won't necessarily ensure that they aren't greenwashing, but it shows they at least want to be thought of as caring about the environment," Love says.

Reading reviews of a property is also helpful, as is identifying whether the hotel has earned any environmental certifications. Some of the most reputable and well-known industry certifications include Green Key, Green Globe, EarthCheck and Green Seal.

LEED certification is another very significant indicator of a hotel's environmental footprint, perhaps one of the most important.

"If a property is LEED certified it means they have used environmentally conscious building materials and are engaging in environmentally friendly practices on many levels," says Carolyn Scott-Hamilton, a travel show host and green travel expert at The Healthy Voyager. "If it's LEED certified, you know you're in good hands. A lot of times now properties are advertising that they are LEED certified."

Most experts agree certification — either through LEED or one of the other organizations — is a key detail to ask about.

With all of these ratings and standards to bear in mind, there are some hotels leading the pack, large and small, that are worth noting.

"In terms of chains, Fairmont Hotels have developed a Green Partnership Program that encourages guests to learn more about conservation through eco-friendly activities, while Kimpton Hotels have rooms optimized for energy efficiency and water conservation, restaurants with locally sourced foods, they print everything on recycled paper and even have organic gardens in some locations," says Love, of Green Global Travel.

On the smaller end of the spectrum are properties such as David Leventhal's Playa Viva in Mexico. The eight-room eco-luxury hotel operates 100% off the grid — an effort that involves solar energy, using only water from wells on the property and having a farm-to-table meal program, among other things.

The property's nearly 200 acres includes an estuary, an Aztec archeological site, turtle sanctuary and a coastal forest and mangrove ecosystem that supports an array of stunning wildlife.

The hotel is among those listed as part of TripAdvisor's GreenLeaders program and has won multiple Travelers' Choice awards from the website.

"We are probably trailblazers. But I'm told that what we're doing is where the market is going," says Leventhal, whose tagline for his hotel is "Where your vacation meets your values."

All of this is good for business, according to various studies.

A 2013 TripAdvisor.com survey of 1,300 U.S. travelers showed 

that nearly two-thirds "often" or "always" consider the environment when choosing hotels, transportation and meals.

Even 47% of business travelers prefer staying in green-certified hotels, according to Timetric's Global Business Traveler Survey 2013.

In addition, 95% of business travelers surveyed believe that the hotel industry should be undertaking "green" initiatives and that sustainability will become a defining issue for the industry in 2015 and beyond, says Deloitte's Hospitality: 2015 report.

And finally, in addition to being better for the planet, green travel can be more interesting, Scott-Hamilton says.

"I find you gain more, because you see some really unique things at a hotel that is environmentally conscious, as opposed to the run-of-the-mill hotels," she says. "As the world becomes more environmentally conscious, whether they believe in global warming or not, I think we can all agree on the importance of conserving resources. And I think everyone is shifting to that."

Here are some of the top eco-conscious hotels around the world:

Rancho Gallina, Santa Fe, N.M.
This eco-retreat on a historic ranch has undergone a historic preservation and 21st-century environmental upgrades. The property is 100% solar powered and is set up for both high- and low-tech water and energy conservation — from geothermal heating and cooling to composting and xeriscaping (landscaping that doesn't require watering) to preserve the desert landscape.

Rosalie Bay Resort, Dominica
This eco-boutique property, named by National Geographic as one of the "Unique Lodges of the World," comes highly recommended by Love. It has 28 rooms, organic cuisine, a nature-inspired spa and a Green Globe certification.

"It has an incredible sea turtle conservation program and one of the best farm-to-table restaurants we've been to," he says.

Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge, Costa Rica
Another that tops the list of properties Love favors, this five-leaf certified eco-resort is on the border of Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park. A 170-acre private reserve made up of beach and rainforest, it was established by an American naturalist more than 35 years ago, and work to conserve and protect the area has gone on ever since. The property uses various sources of alternative energy, including solar, a micro-hydroelectric "Pelton Wheel" turbine and a hybrid solar convection and propane gas heater system. Guest linens are washed only every three days, and towels only when guests feel it is necessary.

Hyatt Olive 8, Seattle
A property that is ranked highly by Scott-Hamilton, the Hyatt Olive 8 was the first LEED-certified hotel in Seattle. It uses innovative energy sources, incorporates water-saving features into its operation and offers eco-friendly dining.

"It's a really, really cool property," Scott-Hamilton says. "It was built from the ground up to be green."

Brewery Gulch Inn, Mendocino, Calif.
Luxury has gone green at this Craftsman-style inn. Architect Caroline Lapere used sustainable methods and materials in
renovating the property, and it has been certified by the Green Hotels Association for its eco-mindful work including: doors and windows individually handcrafted and purpose-built to facilitate natural air exchange; baths featuring German low-flow shower heads and low-flow toilets; and gas-burning fireplaces that keep the rooms cozy. In 2013, the inn converted 95% of the incandescent lighting throughout the property to state-of-the art LED. Also in recent years, a 240V/50A recharging station was installed for electric vehicles so guests can relax while they (quite literally) recharge.

— Written by Mia Taylor for MainStreet

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