Sustainable hotels are like breakfast cereals: selecting them is more than just a gut feeling

Kelloggs cereals

Shoppers will see health stars on Kelloggs cereal boxes from June. Photo: Kelloggs

Recently breakfast cereal giants Kelloggs announced that from June 2015, they will voluntarily be adding the federal government’s Health Star Ratings to their cereal packages in Australia and New Zealand.

This is a positive development for the average consumer as many people are justifiably suspicious that some cereals are heavy in sugar and low on nutrition. However, previously there was no easy way to compare cereal products.

What do breakfast cereals have in common with hotels with a sustainability focus?
Many hotels around the world are linked up to different sustainability schemes. Like comparing cereals, some of these schemes are rated by stars and others with colour coded certificates to help potential hotel guests more easily choose where to bunk down with clear consciences.

Are hotel sustainability schemes actually understandable or even comparable?
Unlike having to choose between a bowl of the highest rating All Bran (5 stars) or sugar laden Coco Pops (2 stars), deciding between hotels that best fit our needs is a completely different and complex beast.

There are over 150 different hotel sustainability schemes out there. As well, each consumer may want to match their unique values to what a hotel’s sustainability credentials means to them.

Agreeing with a contact of mine from the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute (BMWHI), we wondered how many potential guests out there are scratching their heads when it comes to comparing and then having to choose a hotel that claims to be sustainability focused.

The marketing power of the terms ‘green/sustainable’ are immense but may do little to assist prospective customers to make informed choices. For a start, there is no globally agreed definition or standards for these terms when applied to hotels. Therefore, how does one decide if the eco credentials of a hotel are genuine or just a money grabbing ‘greenwashing’ exercise?

The following three prominent sustainability schemes used in the hotel business provide a useful cross sectional impression of programs in the market place. Their websites provide more detailed information.

3 key sustainable schemes explored:

Nabers pic

National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) is a government run Australian sustainability ratings system that measures the actual operational energy and water efficiency of buildings including urban business hotels on a scale from 1 to 6 stars. A 6 star rating represents market leading performance.

The assessments are also verified by independent accredited assessors. Together with a reverse calculator to understand how each star rating is obtained, the system appears to have a high level of transparency.

However, there are question marks regarding whether the information presented is easily understandable to the lay person.

green_leaders_hero pic

2. TripAdvisor GreenLeaders
The TripAdvisor GreenLeaders program is an industry derived independently operated scheme that aims to assist potential hotel guests to identify hotels that are committed to various green practices. Hotels that qualify as GreenLeaders are divided into 4 tier levels (Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze).

GreenLeaders prides itself on being a transparent scheme because viewers are able to access a publicly available list of the hotel’s sustainability practices. For example, potential guests interested in how a hotel handles waste should be able to check its recycling practices before deciding whether or not to make a booking.

Hotel guests can also provide feedback to GreenLeaders if hotel claims are inaccurate triggering an independent third party audit.

earthcheck gold cert 2015

3. EarthCheck
EarthCheck is an Australian headquartered global tourism, environmental management and advisory group operating an environmental benchmarking and certification program.

They claim to focus on utilising a science based approach to measure and reduce water waste, energy usage from non-renewable energy resources and carbon emissions output.

EarthCheck’s benchmarking and certification ranges from platinum, gold, silver and bronze. However, the factors that determine the type of certification earned by a hotel is challenging to decipher for a prospective hotel guest.

Why decision making is not simple
General information about NABERS, GreenLeaders and EarthCheck certification can be readily found on their websites. All these three programs refer frequently to their transparency. However, how much use is this selling point when the typical end user will struggle to understand what the star ratings and certificates really represent?

What differences are there between a hotel that has Platinum EarthCheck certification compared to one with a Silver certificate? Is a hotel with a NABERS 6 Stars – “Market leading performance” rating that much better than a 4 Stars – “Strong performance” competitor?

As an environmentally conscious traveller, how do I decide whether to stay at a NABERS 6 Star property or a GreenLeaders Platinum ranked hotel or an EarthCheck Platinum certified institution? They are all top tier rankings for each sustainability scheme but with ratings generated differently from their own distinct assessment criteria, weightings and calculation methods.

Deciphering hotel sustainability schemes is already difficult to do within each system. It is even more challenging when trying to understand the differences across schemes as can be seen by the above examples.

The importance of having schemes that the end user can easily understand and make comparisons about is increasingly important as people seek evidence of a hotel’s sustainability actions.

One unhappy guest disputed the eco commitment of a GreenLeaders rated hotel because it did not have a compost bin on the breakfast buffet. However, I suspect most guests would actually prefer to have the bio-waste sorted back of house.

In this respect the hotel industry has some work to do. Merely showing a ‘green’ logo of some description attached to advertising for a hotel does little to really help guests to make enlightened decisions.


Green hotel communications.

The way forward
Market research (e.g. surveys and focus groups) can uncover what hotel guests understand about a sustainability scheme and reveal what is important and how important it is.

The hotel having a low carbon footprint might be more important to some than just re-hanging bath towels to use another day. Others want to know if the hotel is using renewable energy or what happens to the waste products.

Sustainable hotel certification needs to be understandable and relevant to the end user. The challenge now is how best to match these two factors and to then present this information.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. candicej says:

    Hey Nic, great article, really enjoyed it 🙂 I had no idea cereal was going to have a health star rating! If you want to shorten how your article looks on the main page there’s a “read more” tag that you can insert after the first few paragraphs. It’s the icon on your dashboard that looks like a road (2 horizontal lines separated by a dotted horizontal line). Looking forward to reading your next article!

  2. husky6actual says:

    Hi Candice, thanks for your comments and pleased that you enjoyed my article.
    The processes involved in standardising information into a more digestable form for consumers of goods or services is challenging. Consumers are also becoming increasingly demanding about what they are getting for their money.
    Therefore, organisations that can convey their credentials in a transparent user friendly way that appeals to the values of the consumer stand to attract more customers.
    The case for hotels to promote their ‘green’ badges is not just about winning over the hearts and wallets of customers. Hotels by adopting sustainable practices which result in energy cost savings or more efficient waste management practices can also improve their balance sheets. It can be a triple bottom line “people, planet and profit” positive outcome.

  3. Alex Baumber says:

    Great post Nicholas. I think the comparison between cereals and hotels is a good one. The question of how you weigh up different food/health factors (e.g. fat, sugar, salt) into a single star rating for cereals is similar to how you weigh up different sustainability factors for hotels (e.g. GHG emissions, water consumption, air pollution, impact on biodiversity). The UK food rating system uses traffic light colours to convey multiple factors at once but I’m not sure how welcome this would be in the hotel industry – a bronze rating sounds a lot better than a red light!

  4. Alex Auhl says:

    Hi Nic,

    I thought your cereal-hotel analogy was great!! I really enjoyed reading your blog.

    Another key problem here is that many consumers do not know of the existence of these three rating systems.

    Additionally, I would like to tell you about my hotel experience, which further highlights the problems for sustainable tourism. As you know, I stayed in a hotel recently which claimed to be eco-friendly. On the third day in the hotel, I forgot to put the “do not disturb” sign on my door, which I actually used as a device to stop people unnecessarily changing the towels, sheets etc.

    I came back to my hotel (which had a kitchenette) to find that the cleaners had used a whole dishwasher cycle to wash a single coffee pot!!! It was so completely wasteful, and shows the hotel’s inability to train its staff properly. The coffee pot could have been easily washed by hand using a fraction of the water. I was very sorry that I had washed all the dishes and neglected to notice that the coffee pot was dirty.

    As a result of my experience, I think the Greenleaders system is the most attractive, as it offers the independent auditing system which would help keep hotels accountable.

    Hope all is well in Munchen. Keep up the awesome posts!


    1. husky6actual says:

      Thanks Alex A and Alex B for your comments. Both your comments reinforce the potential complexities involved with not only the communication issues associated with hotel sustainability schemes but also the importance of monitoring, evaluation and feedback processes.

      The popularity, scale, network and reach of schemes like TripAdvisor GreenLeaders places it in a unique opportunity to connect with a huge global audience. It is not a perfect scheme by any means but nonetheless serves a useful and important role in elevating the idea of ‘sustainability’ into the consciousness of the traveling public.

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