Beyond Cliché: Effective Communication of Sustainability in the Hospitality Industry

The annual research by published last April with insights from more than 30,000 travelers across 32 countries and territories revealed that four out of five global travelers now say that they would want to travel sustainably. 

Of these, 50% of global travelers say that recent news about climate change has influenced them to make more sustainable travel choices. The study also revealed that 25% would be willing to pay more for travel activities to ensure that they are giving back to their communities.

Without a doubt, the hospitality industry is collaborating, pledging, and committing to more sustainable practices. It is becoming increasingly important for the hospitality industry to communicate its sustainability practices. 

However, a “let’s save the world” claim and tacky towel policy stickers, on the other hand, may be perceived as shallow and unappealing by increasingly environmentally and socially conscious consumers. 

Studies have found that consumers are dubious of sustainability claims made by hospitality institutions when they recognize a self-serving motive. 

Aside from being genuine about sustainable practices, there are some key questions to be addressed: What works and what doesn’t when it comes to communicating about sustainability? How can sustainability be communicated more effectively and consistently? 

Here are some suggestions to be considered. 

  1. Measure and Communicate Hard Numbers  

Measuring and communicating actual baselines and targets, as well as progress can be used as a strategy to steer clear of unsubstantiated claims. 

When controlling operational effect and narrating progress, a set of solid measurements is crucial. Therefore, more uniform definitions and industry-wide benchmarking are needed. Hotels could leverage free measurement tools such as the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative (HCMI) and the Hotel Water Measurement Initiative (HWMI).

Businesses in the hospitality industry that periodically benchmark their energy use can inform their clients about their energy, emissions, and improvement measures. Something along the lines of “With your support, we’ve saved this premises’ annual water use by 20% since 2021.” 

Can the actual impact of your social initiatives be illustrated with absolute statistics, keeping in mind to address less tangible sustainability criteria, so customers can have a clear sense of how significant that influence is?

  1. Talk About the Invisible, Impact, and Context 

The best sustainability solutions are often those that are invisible to visitors. 

Many hotels and other hospitality businesses have made commitments to use renewable energy, reusing grey water, or hiring individuals with disabilities—things that most customers are probably unaware of. 

Hospitality operators could describe the specific impact that these acts have rather than concentrating solely on the efforts. Remember to contextualize the language you use when discussing these impacts. 

Very few individuals, for instance, are aware of the significance of a tonne of carbon. A clearer example would be to communicate it as 1 tonne of CO2 per year needs 16 mature trees to offset, or 1 tonne of CO2 is equivalent to 18 dairy cows in weight, or for 1 tonne of CO2 that a person emits anywhere on this planet, 3m2 of Arctic summer sea ice disappears.

Storytelling is one technique for enhancing customer experiences. By delivering the information through a personal narrative, you may encourage customers to relate to and empathize with the sustainability principles of your firm.

  1. Alignment to a Bigger Picture with Integrated Evidence 

The architecture of an organization’s sustainability blueprint can be systematically reflected and communicated when it is aligned to a larger picture of a global sustainability agenda. 

Start broadly by describing how your initiatives match with the UN SDGs, a national sustainability strategy, or the policy of your company. Then focus on what you do explicitly using tactics and realistic, feasible goals. Observe the inter-relational or inter-dependable sustainability initiatives and ensure that they are equally evident, not in conflict with one another, and not lopsided efforts. 

Avoid situations where a program to reuse linens is advertised but there are no recycling bins on hand, or claiming that there are no plastic straws in restaurants but still allow for single-use plastic bottles in hotel rooms; or that you are particularly environmentally friendly at an exhibition but throw away an entire decorative floor covering right away after the exhibition closes; or to provide recycling containers but don’t hire recycling companies to pick up different types of waste. That will just risk the organization’s reputation by being called out for greenwashing. 

  1. Let Credible Parties Speak for You 

Numerous previous studies have indicated that third-party certification can directly improve buyers’ trust-related beliefs and intentions. 

Hence, hospitality firms are encouraged to be certified by independent and credible organizations such as Green Seal and Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), Green Globe, EU-Eco-regulation, and others in the hospitality industry. In recent years, the event industry has developed a plethora of voluntary guidelines, regulations, and checklists to assist stakeholders in acting more sustainably. 

  1. Sustainability as Part of Service Experience

Offering sustainability as a component of service excellence can be a more natural and efficient method to express it. Instead of just providing factual information to customers, sustainability can be packaged into an experience. 

The experience could come in the form of eco-friendly amenities, clear waste segregation practices, locally sourced, organic, and fair-trade food supplies with low-carbon cooking methods on the menu, local workforce inclusivity in guest services, sustainable transportation options, and so on. 

Not to mention, the sustainable architecture and interior design of the rooms, dining areas, gyms, convention halls, etc are the most obvious facilitation of sustainable experiences.

Conclusively, hospitality companies must exercise caution when communicating with customers to avoid creating doubt in their minds. Most importantly, sustainable practices should not be portrayed as deceptive claims or a form of greenwashing.

By Associate Professor Dr. Daniel Chong, Associate Dean (International), School of Hospitality and Service Management, Sunway University

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