Sometimes, there’s no satisfying those sustainable meetings people.
In this case, that would be me. It might be you, too.
Last night, I checked into a hotel in Toronto and learned about a green choice program that answers one of the onsite sustainability issues I’ve found most annoying over the years. I’m pleased. I’m worried about the wider impacts. Will I ever just relax and stop fretting?
For many years, it’s been my standard practice to put a Do Not Disturb sign on my door as soon as I arrive in a guest room. I’m perfectly capable of making my own bed every morning. And at the risk of embarrassing myself in print, I’ll confess the closely-held secret that we don’t bother with fresh sheets and towels every morning at home. (Sorry, Mum.)
No Data, No Incentive
What I’m much more concerned about is the clean water that is wasted, and the energy required to heat that water, in the vast majority of hotels that treat their towel programs as a PR gesture rather than an environmentally friendly cost-saving measure. The blanket judgement (no pun originally intended, but let’s go with it) may sound unfair, but I’ve found the exceptions on this one are rare. Very few hotels actually measure the water, energy, and dollars they save when they avoid daily linen changes—which means they have no in-house driver to make the programs work, and no data to back up the gauzy claims on the guest room cards.
And without a consistent in-house push, most housekeepers ignore the no-fresh-linen signage in the rooms. Sometimes, that’s because training hasn’t kept up with staff attrition. Elsewhere, I’ve heard the claim that changing the linen—making the room as nice as possible—is one of the few things housekeepers can control if they want to do a visibly good job in hopes of a better tip at the end of the guest’s stay. (There may be another, entirely legitimate motivation that we’ll get to in a minute.)
All of which is background to last evening’s small but conditional victory. Westin Hotels & Resorts offers guests the opportunity to save an average 49.2 gallons of water, 0.19 kilowatt-hours of electricity, 25,000 BTUs of natural gas, and 7.0 ounces of chemicals per night by declining housekeeping when they check in. You even get a $5 voucher for participating. I’m thrilled, except for the nagging worry at the back of my mind.
A Hidden Work Force
Whenever I put out that DND sign and informally decline housekeeping, I know I’m taking a chunk out of somebody’s livelihood. I tell myself it’s really a very small chunk, that no housekeeper will lose hours or be sent home for the day because one guest tried to conserve some water and electricity. I make a point of leaving the same tip that would have been called for if the room had been refreshed each day, and I try to leave the space as close to its original condition as I can.
This matters because housekeepers are an integral part of the hidden work force that makes meetings possible. They’re one of the most economically vulnerable links in the meetings supply chain, they report higher injury rates than heavy construction workers, and Toronto’s UNITE HERE local charged in 2010 that hotel sustainability programs are about cutting jobs, not saving water and energy.
‘It’s Physically Brutal…’
“There’s no change in the environmental footprint. This ‘choice’ program simply gets rid of housekeepers,” said housekeeper Brigida Ruiz. “On top of 16 rooms a day, I may have to spend up to an extra hour or more cleaning a room that’s been neglected for five days. It’s physically brutal and all that dirt is unhealthy.”
This sounds to me like an Achilles’ heel for hotel linen programs. If the major chains have mangled the incentives so badly that housekeepers risk losing their jobs and their health if they don’t change the linens in every room, every day, why shouldn’t they ignore the room cards when the program is informal and object when the effort is formalized? If it were your health and your livelihood, wouldn’t you?
The irony is that as long as the saving is driven by individual choice or obsession, it might minimize the risk of job loss. But unless the program is organized, it won’t meet its environmental or economic potential, and the hotels won’t have solid data to demonstrate results.
The Bottom Line: Sustainability is Also Social
Sustainability is economic and environmental, but its third pillar is social. So here’s the bottom line: I don’t think anyone needs fresh linens every night they stay in a hotel, and we do need the kind of environmental and cost savings that Westin has documented. I do want hotels—and everyone else in the industry—to recognize sustainability as an opportunity to cut costs and boost profits. I don’t want anyone losing their job as a result, and there’s no definition of a “greener” guest room that should make it an unsafe work environment. With a bit of forethought, communication, and transparency, none of this should be too much to ask.