UP UNTIL A couple of years ago, I’d never heard the term “greenwashing” or given the notion much thought. The term, now ubiquitous in marketing and PR speak, is typically employed to describe companies that misleadingly market themselves and their products as environmentally friendly. Proclaiming a property environmentally friendly often proves to be a corporate game of smoke and mirrors that, on close examination, doesn’t always necessitate ethical business practices or involve anything other than virtue signaling with a minimal amount of follow-through.
As the cultural landscape became increasingly eco-identified — green products, green activities, green-friendly accommodations — the term itself has become vague and impossible to codify. Hotels and resorts might brand themselves green while, in reality, the “eco-friendly” and “eco-conscious” marketing can mean as little as using recycled facial tissues in their rooms or kindly suggesting that guests request fewer fresh towels. It does not mean they are yet mandated to take on more substantive issues like single-use plastics, carbon emissions, or kitchen waste.
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The travel industry is now struggling to get back on its feet, having spent the past two years trying to meet the needs of pandemic-weary consumers. And hotel owners are finding that the desires and expectations of travelers have shifted as well. To many discerning consumers, vague promises of being “green” — clean bath products, elective laundry, etc. — are no longer enough. A deeper commitment to sustainability appeals to travelers who are ever more aware of climate change and who seek adventure and relaxation they can feel good about.
The travel industry has responded in kind, as evidenced by things like the abundance of luxury electric cars, as well as five-star resorts that grow their own food, offer volunteering opportunities for guests, and recycle all of their own wastewater. According to experts, this shift is indicative of an increasingly changed world, one where ethical options are just as valuable as amenities.
Here, I touch base with representatives from three very different types of luxury properties to discuss how the issue of sustainability has altered their business practices and informed the kinds of experiences their guests can expect. Though each property is approaching sustainability from a distinctly different perspective, all agree that it’s a concept that will only become more important, and more distinctly codified, as we move into the year ahead. They illustrate that how you travel is becoming just as important as where you actually go. And they provide insight into the kinds of questions that eco-conscious travelers should ask before they decide to hit the road.
How you travel is becoming just as important as where you actually go.
“First of all, I think it’s a change of behavior and a change of mindset,” says Christoph Mares, COO of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. “I think that’s where it starts.” Since 2018, the Mandarin Oriental — a group that currently operates over 35 hotels and seven residences in 24 different countries and territories — has employed an executive advisory panel for sustainability, which tracks sustainability initiatives throughout the company. The company has approached the topic from a variety of perspectives — energy conservation, ethical hiring practices, or, in the case of the Mandarin’s Munich location, partnering with beekeepers to produce honey, candles, and soap for the hotel. But one of the largest and most far-reaching initiatives yet was to rid all of their properties of single-use plastics by March of 2021. It was a process that was ultimately much more complex than it sounds.
“It was a journey, I can assure you, especially during the COVID pandemic, in a luxury context, to make our guests comfortable but still meet our targeted obligations that we were all committed to.” As he describes it, this was a process of not only securing alternative, sustainably sourced materials like wooden toothbrushes and bathroom amenities, but also finding a proper use for the existing stock within the hotels, which was not being depleted due to fewer guests during the pandemic. Shifting to the use of things like refillable glass water bottles and larger, refillable containers and dispensers for things like shampoos and soaps solves certain problems while simultaneously creating other concerns about hygiene, cleaning, and the constant need for refilling. “The most challenging items were probably in the culinary arena,” he adds. “The areas around protecting food, cling film, and things like that — to find plastic-free alternatives for that is not easy.”
Part of the issue with moving away from single-use plastics, particularly for larger hotel chains, has to do with sourcing viable alternatives. Typically, it’s not that alternatives don’t exist, it’s just that they tend to be prohibitively expensive. Mares recounts that during the early years of Mandarin’s sustainability transition it was much more difficult to get people on board. But as it has become more and more of an industry norm, things have gotten easier. Still, it involves asking a lot of questions. Not only do hotels need to be mindful of renewable energy, embracing wastewater initiatives, and making sure things like high-end seafood are being ethically sourced, but more commonplace items can be tricky as well. “Even with things you buy in bulk — tea, coffee, cocoa, sugar, the basics — once you dive in and dissect things a little bit, you come across some very interesting findings. When you sit down with a supplier and say, ‘By the way, we’re going to remove this from our hotels unless we know where it actually comes from,’ then things start to change.”
Having cleared the hurdle of single-use plastics, Mares hopes to turn his energy toward the goal that all Mandarin Oriental–affiliated vehicles are fully electric by the end of 2024, while also staying ahead of the safety precautions, hygiene measures, and COVID-19 testing availability requirements to keep guests feeling both comfortable and safe. The travel landscape that most consumers are now entering into is, as he explains it, a whole new world, one that is currently changing on an almost daily basis. “We get a lot of questions from peers in the industry as to whether all of this sustainability work is really compatible with luxury,” he says. “I think a change of behavior is possible and we must do it. It’s never going to be perfect, and we are a small luxury hotel group, but my hope is that we can help set the tone. I think eventually this will all become common practice and standard. I think there are no other choices, quite frankly.”
Though it’s not always top of mind for most travelers to consider how their accommodations were built (as opposed to simply where they are located), sustainability continues to be a dominant factor for the future of luxury travel as it continues to evolve the way hotels and resorts are built, staffed, and powered. This is particularly true for resorts that exist in what might be considered ecologically sensitive locations, where the continued austerity and pristine quality of the landscape are integral to drawing new visitors. In the case of Patina Maldives — a luxury 5-star resort located in the Fari Islands aimed at “socially and environmentally conscious travelers” — sustainable building practices and long-lead planning were key. Reduce, reuse, recycle remained their mission as well. This involved using prefabricated materials that were prepared off-site, building only on sand and away from reefs, sourcing PEFC-certified lumber, and relocating trees to various places on the islands rather than cutting them down.
“The whole journey with Patina, since the very beginning when the brand was conceptualized, was really build consciously and be aware of the impact it would have on the environment,” says Cristiano Rinaldi, president of the Capella Hotel Group, the organization that owns Patina Maldives and the soon-to-open Capella Maldives. “We knew that sustainability was important to every aspect of the operation, not just from how it was built, but for its continued success. It’s an aspect of our mission that actually makes people want to come here.”
For the increasingly eco-savvy traveler, it’s important for luxury resorts to easily point out the ways in which they not only source their materials, but also how they maintain them. In the case of Patina, this means relying on solar power and low-energy LED lighting, as well as putting systems in place that allow the resort to recover about 50% of the energy they expend. As Rinaldi explains it, this involves things like recovering heat from pumps and air conditioning systems, which can then be used to adapt water for the shower and bathrooms in the villas. Additionally, only water bottled on the island is used in the rooms and restaurants, and collected rainwater and reclaimed sewage water are used for landscaping.
The luxury space is a natural place for innovation in the realm of sustainability, due in no small part to the discerning nature of the luxury consumer.
In addition to the community enrichment programs and educational opportunities provided to their staff, and a Fari Foundation Fund that supports local communities impacted by climate change, Rinaldi also points to the various professional organizations Capella partners with. As the term “sustainability” itself remains overused, often ambiguous, and highly unregulated, it’s important that consumers ask questions. “We work with an organization called EarthCheck, which is a benchmark advisory group that really allows us to monitor all our consumption, whether it’s landfill waste or energy consumption. This allows us to create this path of reducing emission that is in line with the Paris Agreement. We knew we needed to measure everything and understand exactly what we were doing, both right and wrong. Otherwise you are just another place saying, ‘We are a sustainable brand,’ with no clear explanation as to what sustainability means. Also, lots of new suppliers have stepped up to meet these particular needs. We work with a company called ecoSPIRITS, which allows us to work with the distribution of alcohol in a closed-loop distribution system that reduces bottles and waste. There is also a bathroom amenity supplier that can basically send us shampoo, conditioner, and bath wash in the shape of pills and tablets, that then gets reconverted to a liquid on-site, so there is no packaging. Also, for interested travelers, Michelin has recently launched the Green Star, which is really about sustainable planting and sustainable cooking practices.”
As Rinaldi sees it, the luxury space is a natural place for innovation in the realm of sustainability, due in no small part to the discerning nature of the luxury consumer. “We see this becoming much more of a movement,” he says. “We see this with travelers to all of our hotels. They want to be part of the journey. They want to be further educated. I would say that sooner rather than later, sustainability will be a big part of what is communicated about every property as guests want to make a conscious, sustainable choice.”
There is a reason why Costa Rica has, in recent years, become synonymous with eco-tourism. It is one of the greenest countries in the world — literally, figuratively, and ecologically. Nearly a quarter of the country’s land is protected from development, making it incredibly biodiverse and abundant with rare wildlife. The country’s commitment to eco-tourism and sustainable tourism is exemplified in luxury resort Nayara, made up of three interconnected properties that are minutes away from the town of La Fortuna de San Carlos, in the northern highlands of Costa Rica near Arenal Volcano National Park. With a series of beautifully appointed rooms tucked among the trees, each complemented by hot spring–fed plunge pools and open views of the rainforest canopy, Nayara is the perfect marriage of high-end service, thoughtful guest experiences, and an approach toward sustainability that is ingrained into literally every aspect of the resort.
According to Nayara founder Leo Ghitis, addressing sustainability is only the beginning. “We prefer to call this ‘regenerative’ travel,” he explains. “The environment is very important, and that’s what everybody’s focused on, but it’s more than that. It’s also about the responsibility that we as business people have toward the people that work with us and the communities where we operate, and that only starts with the environment. We felt that sustainability was not — and it is not — enough. Because when you talk about sustainability, what that really means is that you make sure that you are not hurting the environment, that you don’t have a negative impact. That’s why our philosophy is regenerative travel, which means we’re not slowing the environmental impact, but we are actively restoring nature to its previous glory through things like reforestation projects and investments in the local community. It’s about simply not impacting the environment, but actively leaving it in a better state than you found it.”
After establishing Nayara, Ghitis turned his attention to the surrounding landscape, eventually planting over 20,000 trees and plants, with the help of an Australian landscape architect specializing in rainforest restoration. In an effort to rehabilitate the surrounding mountains, the project took over seven years to bring to fruition. At the same time, Ghitis and his staff created a sanctuary within the hotel for the baby sloths they sometimes found abandoned in the surrounding jungle, a project that took off in an unexpected way. “The sloths basically rebelled against our human design,” he says. “They basically abandoned the sanctuary, because we had built these biological corridors, connecting all three of our hotels. The sloths just left their sanctuary, and they are everywhere now. So wherever you go, in any of our hotels, you see sloths on the branches. And something else that was also an incredible experience for us had to do with monkeys. Originally there were no monkeys here. One day, and we don’t know how, a monkey actually showed up. And then another one. So now we have families of monkeys, and our three hotels have become like sanctuaries for all kinds of animals. So we are full of all kinds of birds, families of monkeys, families of sloth. That is regenerative travel. We were not content with simply not hurting the environment. We wanted to try to bring back the environment. We wanted nature to be the way it used to be before we humans started creating travel for everybody.”
While many in the travel industry look at sustainability issues like a problem that needs to be solved — hopefully without upsetting the needs and wants of their clientele — hotel owners like Ghitis have come to view it differently. “I discovered that it’s also very good business,” he says. “The kind of guests that we want to attract actually care about this. I’m amazed when talking to a reservations team by how often guests first want to ask them about our environmental practices. Wellness, sustainability, farm-to-table foods — these are the things that we care about, and that are important to our guests. And when they come to the hotel, they want to do a tour and see our sustainable practices in action. They want to see on the ground what we’re doing. They want to make sure that we are good stewards of the community. So everything that I’m telling you, people want to see. And it’s happening more and more and more. And yes, it’s important how big the room is and how luxurious it is — people are looking for luxury, for amazing experiences — but it cannot be at the expense of hurting the planet.”
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T. Cole Rachel Writer
T. Cole Rachel is the deputy editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.
Mark Hartman Photographer
Mark Hartman is a photographer and director based in New York City.