05/02/2012 03:50 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2012

A Critical Look at Hotel Sustainability

The hotel industry is in the midst of a sustainability awakening -- and on a level deeper than offering guests the option to reuse bath towels. Industry leaders are beginning to get serious about their energy and environmental footprints. If we're lucky, this transition could include consumer accessibility to hotel sustainability data that does for the lodging industry what nutrition facts and organic labeling have done for the food industry.

The number of LEED-certified hotels doubled last year. An industry working group organized by the International Tourism Partnership and World Travel & Tourism Council is set to release its new hotel carbon accounting standard, long under development, in June. And the business travelers that comprise a critical customer base are paying unprecedented attention to hotel impacts, with 40% of Global 500 companies now publicly reporting employee travel footprints. With US hotels using more than $6 billion worth of energy every year and generating 35 million metric tons of CO2 in the process, a trend toward sustainability is nontrivial.

In light of this growing emphasis on hotel efficiency, we at Brighter Planet began searching for hard data on where the industry actually stands on energy and carbon efficiency. When we came up short, realizing that very little quantitative information was available on the state of US hotel efficiency, we decided to fill that gap ourselves. Our findings, based on analysis of the impacts of 46,000 individual US hotels, help to paint a picture of where the industry stands on sustainability performance.

For starters, we found massive variation in hotel energy and emissions per room-night. Impact per room-night varies more than tenfold among US hotels, with the dirtiest quarter of properties accounting for more than half of the entire industry's energy use while the cleanest quarter uses less than 8%.

And it turns out that this variation plays out in interesting ways across hotel chains, luxury levels, geographies, and hotel ages. Vagabond Inns, Red Lion Hotels, and Red Carpet Inns took top spots in our energy and carbon efficiency rankings of 75 US hotel chains. On average, budget hotels outperform upscale establishments on sustainability. And hotel vintage data shows an unambiguous trend toward less and less efficient hotels, with energy use per room-night doubling between the 1960s and the 2000s -- a troubling trend, but one that may explain the current surge in sustainability interest among hoteliers.

But an equally important finding was that even within a given city, a given chain, or a given luxury level, major efficiency variation still exists. This means that regardless of location or budget, significant opportunities exist for almost all travelers to reduce their footprints simply through their choice of hotel. If authoritative hotel efficiency data were available to travelers at the point of sale, it would offer a whole new way to cut carbon beyond the traditional suggestion of simply reducing travel (which can be a nonstarter for business and leisure travelers alike).

I look forward to the day when this data is readily available. When we do reach that point -- and current data and software offerings suggest that could be soon -- it will be a boon for travelers and progressive hotels. It will provide non-greenwashed transparency and actionable decision support to travelers, and it will reward efficient hotels, helping accelerate the much-needed transition toward sustainability in an industry that's been trending in quite the opposite direction.