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The Ultimate Green Hotel

Is your hotel everything it claims to be?We've all seen the discreet bathroom placards indicating that, in an effort to conserve water, our linens will not be washed unless requested. These ubiquitous sheet-and-towel programs are an easy way for hotels and guests alike to bask in the warm, green glow of environmentalism. But pay attention: often, housekeeping washes those towels even without your approval, according to Ronald Sanabria, who has spearheaded Rainforest Alliance's efforts to standardize ecotourism certification in the Caribbean and Central and South America. "It's easy to claim to be green," he says, "but God knows what's going on behind the scenes." For the hotel industry, which has long had a troubled environmental reputation, so-called greenwashing—taking on the appearance, but not the substance, of environmentalism—is a big concern. A nature tour here, a recycling bin there, who's going to notice if you're dumping waste into the coral reef or running up energy bills like a Vegas casino's?

There's no doubt that green hospitality has come a long way from the traditional eco-hotel tropes of thatched-roof bungalows and on-staff naturalists. More than a decade after the pioneering Lapa Rios Ecolodge in Costa Rica began championing waste management programs, renewable energy sources, and ecological preservation, hotels new and old are trumpeting an astonishing array of environmental measures. In Paris, near Montmartre, the Ibis Porte de Clichy has a façade covered in photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight into electricity. At San Francisco's Orchard Garden Hotel, which opens next month, every room will have the city's first door-key-card–controlled electricity system—remove your card when you leave and the whole room automatically "turns off." The nearby Hotel Triton has decorated a room on each floor using environmentally safe paints, furniture created from salvaged forest-fire wood, and organic hemp towels and sheets.

No one would accuse these hotels of greenwashing; indeed, they're among the industry leaders. But as green becomes the color of the day, many luxury chains and boutique properties, already experienced in catering to lifestyle fantasies, are scrambling—sometimes carelessly—to bottle it and market it to guests. Perhaps this is the inevitable result when a feel-good trend such as greening meets the realities of the marketplace. It's not just that legitimate and effective environmental measures are expensive and unwieldy for hotels to implement or that there are inherent conflicts between mass tourism and environmentalism—the industry is also plagued by a lack of consistent and uniform standards. Without government regulation or universally accepted certification programs (see "How Green Is My Hotel?"), travelers have little help distinguishing between competing claims for their green dollars. Unless hotels can show guests they're meeting the highest standards, they risk alienating the very affluent, intelligent customers they're trying to attract.

Perhaps the biggest problem, for both hoteliers and travelers, is one of definition. To put it simply: what on earth does "green" mean anymore?A hotel that draws on solar power is green. So is one that composts food waste or passes scraps on to pig farmers, like the Lenox Hotel in Boston. So is the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu in Quebec, which has "adopted" a whale. And so is Turtle Island resort in Fiji, which helps to provide both medical care and high-school educations to members of the local community. Is one hotel more environmentally committed than another?

Ecotourism, by its traditional definition, places equal emphasis on energy, conservation, ecology, and community—issues that are integral to most eco-lodges. But experts such as Hitesh Mehta, a Florida-based landscape architect and board member of the International Ecotourism Society, suggest that "ecotourism" should be thought of as a category within a larger idea: sustainable travel. Mass tourism can be one of the most depleting effects on the environment, explains Sean Southey of the United Nations Development Programme's Equator Initiative. Jets and cars consume fossil fuels, hotels create tons of waste, and trekking humans encroach into natural areas. Sustainable travel seeks to reduce negative impact both locally and on a global scale.

To approach sustainability, one must first calculate the sum of a building's environmental impact, often called its ecological "footprint." A sustainable hotel should have as small a footprint as possible; it should sit lightly on the land. Eco-lodges do this in part simply because they are physically quite small. It's a different story at larger hotels and resorts. "One large hotel in an urban setting can have as much effect, for good or ill, as the eco-lodges of an entire region," says Tedd Saunders of Boston's industry-leading Saunders Hotel Group, which owns the Lenox Hotel. But economics and logistics make it difficult to replicate an eco-lodge's benefits in urban areas and on a larger scale.

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