Arushi Raval, chief green officer, department of environmental sustainability at Starwood Hotels, talks about how green solutions can bring a pay back
Will the credit crunch push the green agenda into the background?
When we developed our initiatives it was with this economic situation in mind. Many of the initiatives that are being presented this year and will be unveiled next year are expected to generate savings for our hotels. Where an initial investment is necessary, we narrowed our focus to those initiatives which offered short-term paybacks. We have chosen to roll out our initiatives as recommended practices in 2009 with the objective of converting them into standard operating practices in 2010. What we have sensed in talking to the general managers and owners of our hotels is that there is no decrease in their interest in responding to the call for greener practices. Many hotel operators equate instituting green practices to meeting customer expectations and providing for greater operational efficiencies or greater savings, which is normally where you would focus efforts during a difficult economic time.
One of the early and most significant commitments we have made to the pursuit of environmental sustainability is with the Element hotel brand. All Element hotels are required to pursue USGBC's LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certification. Prior to deciding on a mandate, we did a considerable amount of work in defining a cost-effective green building strategy for Element hotels. We have developed a roadmap for developers along side a team of seasoned LEED accredited professionals. We had the advantage of working with a new-build product, the majority of Element hotels being new construction - so it was easier to come up with a standard approach towards cost-effective green building, and that approach, we believe, will allow the brand to continue to appeal to owner/developers during a tough economic time.
That works for measures that save money, but what about green measures that cost money?
It's the same argument, it's about how long it takes to pay back, and we've decided that the payback needs to be within the short-term. There may be an investment, yes, but paybacks are available in the short-term and the goodwill associated with being a responsible company strengthens brand value.
How else did you decide on what should be in your environmental programme?
Some of our ideas came from our corporate customers, who were requesting that certain practices be in place in our hotels. If the requests were consistent enough across customer questionnaires, presented environmental benefit and met our economic criteria, then they were incorporated into our programme. We also received input from our shareholders and further scoured environmental certifications for foundational practices that we felt should be at base of every environmental programme.
Corporates complain that you all take a different approach.
Well that's true on both sides, corporate clients ask different questions. Environmental Sustainability is very important to corporate clients but sometimes questions can be too narrow making it difficult for us to share all the good work that is going on at our hotels. Keeping questions broad, such as "What are you doing in the area of energy conservation?" gives us the ability to answer far more effectively than simply giving yes or no answers across a huge portfolio of properties. At some point, when there is an industry standard around reporting on key performance indicators, corporate clients will have an easier time assessing how green a hotel/hotel company is. It's very hard to understand progress/determine success without being able to measure the outcome.
Why can't hotel chains agree certain standards or practices?
In the end, we think many of the programmes developed by hotel chains will be similar, in particular, if we use performance as a way assessing the value of initiatives and modifying our approach based on results. Certifications have been popping up everywhere, many of which are being required of our hotels based on locally adopted standards. This presents a problem for the hotel industry when it comes to putting forward its own standards. What do these hotel standards mean in light of certification programmes? The larger question, primarily for prescriptive certification programmes, is, are we certain that what is being required translates to a meaningful reduction in environmental impact?
What we did at Starwood was take all the certifications targeting our hotel portfolio and lay them in front of us and say, "Which initiatives do we feel confident will have a positive environmental effect?" and what could we feel certain about. Ultimately those were the practices that went into our current program.. We worked with sustainability experts and looked to case study data to determine this. This is the approach we felt most responsible about taking. As we gain more information from the certifying bodies, in terms of proven performance, and as we find out more ourselves, we may make different decisions around the endorsement of more certifications. But we need more information to feel comfortable about saying to owners, "These are your guidelines" - that's the responsibility hotel companies have. We can't change the fact that a state is going to highly encourage the pursuit of a particular certification, but we can be sure that our hotels will have a solid foundation of initiatives that have a high probability of reducing environmental impact.
There seems to be little consistency with green goals.
We are at the beginning and you can gain even from all the inconsistency. We did a survey of our hotels in regards to implemented green initiatives and what we learned was that there are a lot of things going on in the field, and, yes, there's a lot of inconsistency but that doesn't mean there's no value - it's the opposite, there's a lot of value, and as we learned of initiatives, we often said, "That should be a standard." For now we are trying to level the playing field and build uniformly on that.
Will hotels ever compete on green performance?
We naturally compete on everything, and competition would be good because it would push sustainability further. But teaming up, I believe, makes more sense in the end. Our goal at Starwood is to share. We want to feel confident about what we are rolling out first but, in the end, we are facing a global crisis and there is no question that we will need to work together as an industry and across industries to overcome it.