(CNN) — Hotels, like so many other businesses, go through waves based on changing attitudes -- from design to amenities to excursions.
But when it comes to making hotels and resorts eco-friendly, it can be hard to know which moves are setting up long-term sustainability and which ones are just trends that will disappear as soon as the next fad emerges.
While many travelers say they are concerned about the environment, it isn't always their only concern when booking hotels for a trip -- price, location and loyalty programs also play a significant role. Combine that with sometimes-confusing messaging from the industry, and you have a recipe for difficult decision making.
What do those awards mean, anyway?
Top 10 CNN Hero Samir Lakhani saw that poor hygiene in rural Cambodia made children there vulnerable to disease. So he started the Eco-Soap Bank which recycles discarded bars of soap from hotels and distributes them to people in need. Watch CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute, Sunday, Dec. 17 at 8 pm ET.
Plenty of hospitality industry businesses mention awards they have won. The problem is, have you even heard of those awards? And are they legitimate recognitions or just vanity prizes given out within the industry?
Justin Francis is the co-founder and CEO of Responsibletravel.com, an activist group that wants the travel industry to be more environmentally conscious.
"Some hotels will say 'we are certified as environmentally responsible'," he points out. But that wording is intentionally misleading. Francis talks about a hotel in Las Vegas that has thousands of light bulbs on the outside but still retains its "environmentally responsible" designation.
"You are awarded if you make a small improvement in a number of criteria, not that you've achieved any level of sustainability," he explains. In other words? Get rid of one or two of those energy-hogging bulbs, and you're doing better than you were last year.
Francis cites this as an example of greenwashing, a practice where marketing and PR language is intentionally misleading and used to convince consumers that something -- whether it's a hotel, a soap or a brand of diapers -- is better for the planet than it really is.
How do you distinguish between a greenwashing award and a legitimate green award? Francis gives one suggestion: "A really good hotel will have an environmental report, and that environmental report would also be shared and made public. On that, I can see the energy [and] waste water use, and I'd want to see that it's reducing. If they don't have an environmental report or are not prepared to make it public, that's a red line for me."
Your best bet is to consult a third-party, independent group that isn't connected to the travel industry financially. A few good options: LEED, GreenKeys, and Green Seal.
Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott are among the global chains vowing to eliminate or greatly reduce single-use plastics.
Big brand vs boutique
One common assumption is that any boutique property will automatically trump a big brand name when it comes to being environmentally friendly, simply because it's smaller.
But that's sort of like assuming that any show on Netflix is going to be higher quality than a show on a mainstream network -- you're going to have to watch the programs and decide for yourself, even if it's the unnecessary fourth and fifth seasons of "Orange Is the New Black."
Part of the greening process is financial. Smaller, independent hotels might not be able to afford the fees that come with applying for green certification. Even if they are certified, they may not be able or willing to spend money promoting that on their website or by hiring a publicist to get the word out.
Ironically, the very thing that makes some people wary of mega-chains -- their size -- is also these chains' biggest asset when it comes to sustainability.
Think of it this way: if you live in a more remote part of the world, odds are you're way more likely to try a plant-based burger for the first time at a McDonald's than at a specialty vegan cafe.
That's the same operating principle for large hotel groups, which are able to make major dents in emissions, plastic use and other green principles by applying them brand-wide.
Denise Naguib is the vice president of sustainability at Marriott, which became the biggest hotel brand in the world when it merged with Starwood in 2019.
Amid customer outcry, Marriott was one hotel brand to mostly end its use of single-use plastic straws across all of its properties. Though it seemed like banning plastic straws was a huge fad that fell off the radar as quickly as it appeared, Naguib and her team saw it as an opportunity.
"The cutting off of plastic straws in the world was not going to save the ocean, was not going to reduce the significant pollution of plastics around the world." Naguib says. "However, it was the canary in the coal mine. It brought attention to the subject like nothing else had before. A lot of companies moved to what's called PLA -- polylactic acid base, which looks and acts like exactly like plastic. Well, ultimately, even though it's plant-based, it has additives in it that treat it that make it act exactly like plastics, and so it did exactly the same thing [as] if it landed in the ocean."
Ultimately, Marriott opted to stop using straws -- regardless of material -- except on request from a customer. It saved hotel staff the step of automatically putting straws in drinks, and overall the practice has saved a billion straws from the brand's overall portfolio, which also means the company saved money. What seemed like a small, inconsequential move ended up making a significant difference thanks to how big Marriott is.
However, Naguib knew that making a sweeping ban wasn't necessarily the best option for all guests, as good as it may have sounded on paper. There are still some straws around for customers, such as ones with disabilities who may rely on them, upon request.
Power to the people
Dubai's Expo 2020 is giving visitors a sneak peek inside its Sustainability Pavilion, which showcases green innovations.
The single biggest factor motivating a hotel to make changes is money. Without customers, there's no profit, and without profit there's no incentive.
Christina Chi, professor at the School of Hospitality Business Management at Carson College of Business at Washington State University, underlines this point. She leads a team that is studying greening practices in the hotel industry.
"We did compare green and non-green hotels and there is not a significant difference in occupancy or revenue," she says.
Even hotels that do have certification or awards don't necessarily list those on their website or make it easy for potential guests to find out.
Like any other business, hospitality goes through changes based on what their customers want. Right now, Chi points out, lots of hotels are leading with their hygiene credentials front and center as potential visitors weigh their options for traveling during the pandemic.
Plenty of hotels had those practices in place before, but they weren't advertising them since guests didn't ask. It can feel like a chicken and egg problem: hotels don't share since guests don't ask, but guests don't ask because hotels don't share.
Francis of Responsible Travel reminds travelers that even small questions or requests can really add up.
"Every time you ask [a question], even though you might not get the answer you were hoping for, you're part of the process in creating change."
More than plastic bottles
Okay, so you only stay at LEED-certified hotels that have eliminated single-use plastics. That's a great start, but the whole world -- including the hospitality industry -- can still do better.
Francis points out a few things that customers can push back about if they really want to spur industry change.
One topic to think about is how employees are treated at the hotel or resort.
"I want to understand about staff ... are they paying the minimum wage, or are they paying the living wage?" he says. "I would like to understand whether they have a program in terms of staff, to employ the less advantaged or people from minority groups as part of maybe an entry-level program. I'm really interested in opportunities for people who come in at lower levels to progress. Do they have examples of people who started at lower levels, maybe washing dishes or cleaning rooms who have progressed in (the) organization?"
Not every guest feels comfortable asking these kinds of questions out front. And nobody wants their relaxing vacation to feel like a homework assignment. But Francis urges people not to think of speaking up as counterintuitive to having a good time.
"We're all part of the change. Every question we ask is part of the change."
Chi agrees, saying that the one with the financial power -- aka, the guest who is paying to stay -- is the one who has to step up.
"At the end of the day the customer is the final determinant of the greening of hotels. If they don't want it or care whether you are green, then hotels will not be so enthusiastic about going green."