How to avoid ‘greenwashing’ in South Africa’s hotel industry

With a burgeoning sustainable travel market that’s too big to ignore, eco credentials are excellent for marketing to conscientious consumers. But, if you are going public with this message, you have to make sure it is valid, or face the wrath of the market. 

At a time when sustainability practices such as grey-water recycling and straw bans are quickly being adopted across the industry, and terms like “green”; “sustainable”; “environmentally friendly” are everywhere, travellers are becoming sceptical, especially when this type of eco-messaging is used with the intent to lure in bookings. 

Meaningful green intent

In a recent report by nonprofit CDP, a global disclosure organisation, there is substantial evidence of a link between business leadership on climate change and a company’s profitability. It’s a great incentive for us in the industry to start adopting sustainability programmes however, these can, and should, be designed to improve guest experiences, too, just as much as they are focused on reducing operating costs.

Another recent study at Washington State University set out to measure the effects of greenwashing on customers’ behaviour. Around 3,000 hotel customers who were surveyed confirmed that when they suspected an ulterior motive, they would be less likely to participate in on-site programmes and were unlikely to return to the hotel. The results were clear when it came to reusing towels: if a notice on the bathroom wall exhorting guests to ‘save the planet’ was the only sign of environmental policy, guests assumed the hotel is just trying to save on laundry bills.

Sharmila 218 - How to avoid 'greenwashing' in South Africa’s hotel industry
Sharmila Ragunanan, Group Marketing Manager for Dream Hotels & Resorts. Picture: Supplied.

A remarkable case study of a local ‘green’ hotel, Hotel Verde Cape Town still manages to top Google’s search rankings. By the end of 2018, the property will exceed its waste-to-landfill targets of 85 percent set in 2013, achieving a staggering 97.06 percent. 

What is most interesting about this particular hotel, is not that it has a repeat guest rate of up to 35 percent, but the educational value that it offers, and its consistency at all levels of operation. In reviews, hotel guests frequently mention the take-home value of what they have learnt through staying there. 

Green assistance

In many cases, greenwashing by hotels is due to a simple lack of knowledge and expertise, along with the mounting pressure to become more ‘green’.

Executing sustainable practices in this sector is not straightforward and requires a thorough understanding of each hotel’s operation. Industry players can, and should still take advantage of the highest value opportunities by implementing custom sustainability programmes that address the needs of their specific brand, portfolio and customer. 

For Dream Hotels and Resorts, that process started towards the end of 2013, when we appointed environmental expert consultants, Energy Resource Optimisers (ERO), to develop our Sustainable Environmental Management Programme (SEMP). It was first only initially implemented at six of our 22 properties but was quickly extended to the rest once the benefits became apparent. 

By assessing the volume and type of waste our properties produce, we are aiming to reduce water to landfill waste by 30 percent by 2020. 

Our group did not adopt an efficiency-at-all-cost approach but, instead, sought to introduce change as and when the opportunity arose. The SEMP developed by ERO appealed to us because improvements would be made to our overall property management strategy. 

In an industry growing as fast as ours, where the pressure is on to be a leader driving change, it is imperative that we integrate environmentally-friendly practices but also that we develop credibility in the mind of the guest, to remain transparent, and consider timeframes that will make change sustainable. 

  • Sharmila Ragunanan is the Group Marketing Manager for Dream Hotels & Resorts. The column is the views of Ragunanan.

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