In fact, a true zero footprint is nearly impossible to achieve. Take, for example, energy consumption, an issue close to the hearts of many travelers concerned with global warming and energy dependence. Hotel companies are already trying to cut down on electricity use (not to mention energy bills). They might replace incandescent lightbulbs with fluorescents, install motion sensors to reduce power use, or add new glass or insulation to cut heating and cooling costs. Many new properties are being built from the ground up with all these technologies in place, but retrofitting an existing building—to create a sort of "hybrid" hotel—is an expensive endeavor.
Solar and wind power are both still rare in the hotel industry. Large buildings would require massive solar arrays to derive more than a fraction of their power from the sun, and harnessing wind is wildly impractical in an urban setting. Four Sheraton hotels in New York, New Jersey, and San Diego are trying carbonate fuel cells, which create "clean" electricity through a process whose only by-product is water. Although the San Diego Sheraton receives 60 percent of its power from fuel cells, in most hotels, these cutting-edge devices have only a limited effect.
And a carbon footprint isn't just a matter of how much electricity a hotel sucks from the grid. A strict accounting would also include all the energy needed to construct the property in the first place, including that used to transport the building materials from the far points of the globe. Most hotels could become truly "carbon-neutral" only by purchasing green credits or carbon-offsetting (e.g., paying a company to plant trees to counteract the hotel's carbon-dioxide emissions).
Just as carbon neutrality is a noble yet expensive goal, so is achieving an invisible footprint on ecology, be it through minimizing waste, increasing water management, or supporting local communities. Among eco-lodges and their scaled-up offspring, "eco-resorts," the incentive to adopt more stringent standards is strong. The big unknown, however, is whether the rest of the industry will follow suit.
Ultimately, the decision facing both the hotel industry and travelers isn't "green or not?" but "how green?" Though some observers scoff at sheet-and-towel programs as lipstick on a pig, Southey considers them a positive sign. The hotel industry has made great changes recently because properties suddenly realized they had to keep up with the industry leaders. "The goalposts have shifted quite radically," Southey says. "The question is, What's next?"
The answer, most likely, will be lots of little steps. Hotels sit at the top of dozens of supply chains—from bananas to coffee to furniture—many of which are undergoing their own sustainable revolutions. A property can be only as good as its suppliers, which makes hotels handy barometers for the sustainability of the entire consumer economy. Currently, some hoteliers say they want to add more environmentally friendly fixtures, wallpaper, or lighting but are holding off until the prices drop—or the quality improves. Others are making those changes now and betting that travelers appreciate the difference.
"People for the longest time associated environmental sensitivity with inconvenience, and we're trying to debunk that," says Stefan Mühle, general manager of the Orchard Garden Hotel. Michael Freed, whose Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, incorporates extensive sustainable elements, says such attention to detail is just an example of what makes any hotel great: it communicates a sense of place and suggests a way of life. Hotels don't have to follow their customers, Freed argues. "Guests see things we do that they can take home with them," he explains. Hotels can lead guests and introduce them to the compatibility of sustainable practices and a luxury lifestyle.
Ecotourism has always emphasized education—"an interpretive experience," as Mehta puts it, of the local ecology and culture. Why shouldn't all sustainable tourism—from high-design resorts to generic business hotels—make that a goal?After all, most people's "natural" environments look a lot more like hotel rooms than rain forests. The most important test for a green hotel may be whether it can teach even concerned travelers a thing or two about how to live better once the vacation ends.
David Propson is a New Yorkbased writer whose work has appeared in Wired and Business 2.0, among other magazines.