We’ve all seen those little cards in our hotel rooms that promote the green-ery of, say, the hotel’s linen laundry schedule. That’s not a bad thing, not at all, but it’s hard not to notice that the hotel is saving staff time and money being eco-friendly on your behalf. What else is there to greening a hotel?
To find out more about sustainability at hotels, I set up a meeting with Molly Phillips, the Global Responsibility Manager at the 160-room Pan Pacific Hotel in Seattle, in the South Lake Union neighborhood. You might be surprised to learn that a luxury hotel has someone directing sustainability efforts–I was. Was it just greenwashing?
But Phillips is an alumnus (’08) of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, where she got her MBA in Sustainable Business. And she’s serious about closing waste streams: When she shows you printed materials, she asks for them back, and then sends you electronic versions of any you’ve an interest in.
We met up at the Seastar Restaurant at the Pan Pacific for lunch. (Phillips picked up the check, but the Seastar has a surprisingly affordable “45-minute lunch” menu–if you’re in the 2200 Westlake neighborhood and want to give them a trial run before splurging on dinner, I recommend it.)
Phillips has been so aggressive in auditing the hotel’s operations and implementing sustainable solutions that she’s now in the position of leading “sustainability tours” of Seattle’s Pan Pacific, as the hotel empire proceeds to roll out changes across its North American properties. The program, launched in 2010, is called PanEarth, naturally, and while it’s not one-size-fits-all, certain elements of it are worthwhile just about anywhere.
The tricky part is to be both sustainable and offer five-star luxury, but in some cases, the two go hand in hand. Phillips has led a purge of bottled water, in favor of filtered drinking water that comes in pitchers, and is poured into actual glasses. Pan Pacific (along with Hilton, Four Seasons, MGM Grand, Kimpton, and Hyatt) uses the Natura water filtration system, and says it helps save them 60 percent of their water costs each year. As you’d expect, you can count on toxin-free cleaning products, too.
Some major inputs (water, electricity) are easier to get a handle on. You separate drinking and gray water, and install low-flow bathtub, shower, and sink faucets, and dual-flush, water-saving toilets. Everything’s Energy Star, the rooms’ light and heat are triggered by occupancy sensors, CFL bulbs are everywhere (insulated, floor-to-ceiling windows offer natural light), and the big-screen TVs are energy-saving LCD (rather than plasma).
But the Pan Pacific is more than a 160-person town–that’s just the guests. Go behind the scenes and you see there’s a lot more granular work to be done. Besides by-request linen service, there’s paperless check-in and check-out, and property-wide recycling and composting. (Even composting can be harder than it looks, depending on where you live–it turns out bears are big fans of compost.) The hotel staff’s voluminous night audit of its operations has switched from paper to pdf. (At monthly meetings, staff feedback is solicited on ways to improve.)
Besides these more logistical questions, Phillips has also begun forming community partnerships that speak to the less-often-trumpeted social responsibility side of sustainability. (Sustainability initiatives are supposed to account for a “triple bottom line” but in practice, engineering feats and environmental solutions tend to grab the most interest.)
Maybe it isn’t that sexy that unused shampoos and conditioners are donated to the local YWCA, but it’s much appreciated. Working with Clean the World, the Pan Pacific gets recycled soap (100 pounds per month, or 1,400 bars of soap over the first eight months of 2011) into the hands that need it. 500-meals-worth of back-up banquet food per year is given to Food Lifeline. (Part of the PanEarth program allows for prestigious surroundings for conferences and meetings, while “zeroing out” the event’s carbon impact.)
The hotel also works with Pike Place Senior Center, Seattle-area Red Cross, Alley Cat Acres (an urban farming collective), Muscular Distrophy Association, Angeline’s House (shelter for homeless women), and World Vision. There’s also a “Green Team and Social Committee” that has helped with clean-up of the Burke-Gilman Trail and Pioneer Square.
Only in Seattle, you might sigh. But not if Phillips has her way. It turns out to be an eye-opening tour–walking in, I had thought of a luxury hotel working on sustainability as the something like a dieter snagging a Skinny Cow fudge bar from the freezer. The thought of a hotel “giving back” in the myriad of ways that Phillips has come up with never entered my head. It’s at least as impressive as the hotel’s bid for LEED certification, maybe more so, as it reasserts an emphasis on social responsibility at the precise moment that people find so little of that in corporate environments.