The green-washing of the American hospitality industry has hit such a saturation point that it’s become almost obligatory for hotels to distribute placards in every room, asking customers to think twice about sending linens and towels to the laundry. Kitchen gardens, electric vehicle charging stations and soap-recycling programs are just a few of the “sustainability” hooks that hotels use as visible proof of their eco-friendliness. But the hotels that adhere to the most stringent and closely monitored sustainability practices typically prefer not to be lumped in with “eco-hotels.”
“There's still that misnomer that sustainable means less,” says Mark Slymen, Director of Sustainability at luxury lodging/real estate brand Montage Resorts. “If we can show people that it means better quality, than we've accomplished our goal.”
The Montage Deer Valley is the only hotel in Utah that presently has achieved LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED, like EPA Energy Star and Audubon Green Leaf , is a third-party verification system that operates nationally and encompasses many types of construction — hotels being a small fraction. It uses a 100-point system split between a number of categories including Water Efficiency, Energy Systems and Indoor Environmental Quality. Within these categories, some of the requirements — such as “minimum indoor air quality” — are actually intangible. Others are simply hard to spot.
“When you get into LEED certification, you get into what the carpet is made of, and the adhesives inside the walls,” says Andrew Morrison, executive chef at the LEED Gold-certified Fairmont Pittsburgh. Although his bar tops are made from recycled metal shavings and his kitchen has a bio-enzyme machine to break down digestible food waste, Morrison says “the naked eye wouldn’t necessarily notice the difference” in aesthetics, when comparing his restaurant or any part of the hotel with a non-LEED facility.
This is not just true of LEED. Audubon International Green Leaf was selected by New York State to roll out a state-wide Green Hotel Pilot Program in 2009 — with pilot participants including the Beekman Tower Hotel and the Grand Hyatt New York City. Both are luxurious midtown hotels — not noticeably “greener” than their neighbors, except for the plaque on the lobby wall.
The only hotel in the nation to earn Audubon’s highest ranking — “5 Green Leaf” — is the Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort in Lake Placid. Green elements in this hotel are visible sometimes — in fact, its innovative Green Roof stops traffic in the spring and summer. But the subtler elements are impossible to see. One example: Recycled-content carpeting is slowly replacing the old-school single-use carpeting as sections wear out. Seen side-by-side and up close, the two carpets are identical.
Because third-party verification is so difficult to attain and so difficult to market, many so-called “green” authorities encourage hotels to skip it. The membership-based “Green” Hotels Association states on its site “GHA does not certify, nor do we recommend certification,” citing as the reason, “Certification is very expensive and very time consuming.”
However, proponents of third-party certification say it’s the only way to really tell whether a property is really “walking the talk” when it comes to reducing environmental impact.
“There are a number of self-verification hotel rating systems out there which can be used by hotels to easily label themselves as being ‘green’,” says Kal Wellman, a LEED Associate at the U.S. Green Building Council. “LEED … considers all aspects of a facility’s design and construction as well as its ongoing operations.”
When asked what LEED should not be confused with, Wellman has a firm answer: “LEED should not be confused with just another hotel marketing ploy.”
As far as what eco-friendly points guests can rack up by staying at a LEED-certified hotel, Wellman says “a healthier stay,” (presumably due to things like the indoor air quality prerequisite) less waste generated, and less energy and water usage.
And just in case anyone wants supporting details to back up these claims, USGBC.org posts exhaustive information on the LEED program — including technical information on the Green Building Rating System, and a section of certification resources for those who might want a LEED plaque on their own wall some day.
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