Hotels’ Green Programs Mistake the Meaning of Sustainability

Published March 30th, 2018 -  - 03.30.189


The NY Times and several national newspapers recently reported that a number of hotel chains have begun offering rewards to guests who agree to forgo housekeeping services.  Those rewards can range from $5-10 in daily food and beverage credits, to significant rewards points, to other forms of vouchers for hotel services.  In exchange, guests decline to have their rooms cleaned, towels changed, and toiletries replaced for all or part of their stay.

Such programs–currently in place at Starwood Hotels (which include brands like Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, W Hotels, and St. Regis) and Caesars Entertainment (which operates Caesars and Harrah’s hotels, among others)–are framed as triple successes: they are responsive to customer preferences for greater privacy, good for the environment, and beneficial to hotels’ overall financial success.

Because of these results, the programs are typically painted as clear wins.  At one hotel, it was estimated that “more than 223 million gallons of water and 961,000 kilowatts of electricity” were saved over a four-year period.  Together, Sheraton and Westin properties claimed that “8.2 million gallons of water, 38,000 kilowatts of electricity and 11,000 gallons of cleaning chemicals” were saved in the first six months of their program.  But what impact do these seemingly ideal, ostensibly utility-maximizing arrangements have on hotel housekeeping staff?  Interestingly, the NY Times article makes no mention of this question.

But housekeepers themselves have plenty to say.  When a Vancouver Westin implemented a similar program in 2010, the Tyee newspaper reported that for every fifteen guests who opted out of housekeeping services, one hotel employee would lose a shift.  And in 2014, the Chicago Tribune noted that housekeepers at that city’s Westin felt the hotel’s green program was “killing their jobs.”  That article also noted that housekeepers were having “to work harder because the rooms tend to be dirtier” at the end of people’s stays (while the number of rooms each employee is expected to clean in a single shift typically remains unchanged).  In addition, housekeepers are often forced to “run around delivering fresh towels to guests in the program who cheat,” while the possibility of reduced tips is also a real concern (and a topic the NY Times reported on separately just five months ago).

In assessing these programs, one might cast a skeptical eye over the numbers, questioning how big a dent the changes are truly putting into hotels’ environmental footprints.  Relatedly, one might interrogate the programs’ purported motivations.  While they are promoted as planet-saving endeavors, labor groups have accused them of being “fake environmental programs,” and argued that they are actually “a way for hotels to cut labor costs rather than conserve energy.”  As one advocate put it: “Reducing laundry use in a hotel setting can be justified on environmental grounds. I’m not so sure skipping room clean up qualifies. It’s a sham to say that you’re saving the planet by skipping on a room clean up.”

But a more challenging question arises if the programs are actually environmentally effective.  Assuming, perhaps just for the sake of argument, that the programs do make a difference, but that the difference comes at the expense of workers, where does that leave consumers?  Should guests opt into such programs for the sake of the environment or opt out of them for the sake of workers?  But it’s precisely this question that reveals the key problem with the programs: no truly sustainable environmental project pits workers against the environment, or forces customers to make a zero-sum choice between housekeepers and the planet.

To require such a choice is simply bad policy.  And it’s bad for numerous reasons.  First, approaches like these create enmity where none need exist.  When hotel workers protested an environmental program at the Hyatt in Vancouver, a spokesman for the Greater Vancouver Hotel Employers Association said, “[W]e can all play a role in helping to reduce the impact of climate change. We are disappointed UNITE HERE Local 40 does not share this goal.”  Obviously, this statement paints with too broad a brush.  At its last convention, the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor organization, embraced the need to aggressively address global climate change, supporting the Paris Climate Agreement.  While there may be disagreement about how to protect and safeguard the environment, there is certainly common ground as to the importance of doing so.

Second, such a zero-sum approach fails to justly mitigate the impact on those least able to bear the cost of responding to climate change.  Advocates have noted that “when changes are made to protect the environment, employers should take steps to re-train and/or re-deploy displaced workers, so people at the bottom of the salary scale don’t end up paying the costs of green programs.”  Moreover, the evidence shows that the wealthiest populations have played an outsized role in bringing about the environmental predicament we now face, while at the same time “environmental crises hit hardest and first poor communities and people of color.”  It simply cannot be the case that those least responsible for and most affected by environmental problems will also be forced to pay the highest price for their solutions.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, hotels implementing these types of environmental programs have thus far forfeited the opportunity to solve environmental problems inclusively and collaboratively.  Despite the divisions and animosity implied by people like the Vancouver hotel association spokesman, everyone is interested in solving environmental problems, housekeepers included.  And when those with the power to create policies and programs bring everyone to the table to solve them together, not only can we create solutions that are truly sustainable, we can also forge relationships that will help us reach even more solutions in the future.

Across the county, labor and environmentalists are succeeding in working together to find mutually beneficial outcomes through coalitions like the Blue-Green Alliance.  For example, in Illinois, workers and environmentalists worked hand-in-hand with industry to support legislation that would increase investments in renewable energy while protecting and creating jobs in communities across the state.  In the hotel context, collaborative problem solving might include allocating water and energy savings to purchase more environmentally friendly cleaning products, training displaced housekeepers to fill vacancies in other jobs at the hotel, or adjusting room quotas to account for the increased workload that comes with cleaning dirtier rooms.  The key point is that we won’t know what’s possible until housekeepers have a seat at the table.  Until hotels offer that kind of solution, keep getting your hotel rooms cleaned, and when you do, be sure to tip your housekeepers.

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