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Is the pandemic the right time to refresh your sustainability program?

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We examine the impact of Coronavirus on sustainability - and how it has unexpectedly increased awareness

Over time, the topic of sustainability has gained increasing momentum, with more partners committing to reducing their carbon footprint and removing plastic from their operations. More travelers are supporting and even coming to expect such efforts. But then came Coronavirus (COVID-19). 

The pandemic may have put some sustainability programs on hold, but there is every reason to believe guests are paying more attention to sustainability. In fact, this is the perfect time for you to put a renewed focus on your sustainability program.

Increased interest from consumers

Over half (53%) of global travelers surveyed say they want to travel more sustainably in the future. They are looking for direction from the travel industry, with 69% of them expecting the industry to offer more sustainable options. 

“I think sustainability is a topic that unites the industry,” says Bea de Andres, Head of Sustainability at Booking.com. “As a society, we are becoming a lot more socially and environmentally aware, and there will be a turning point when people expect all businesses to be sustainable. COVID-19 has accelerated this process and this topic is becoming more and more important to customers”. 

To help partners get the word out, Booking.com has created a new set of tools. “As the first of many steps, we've added a sustainability section on the extranet where we’ve identified 14 sustainable practices that are relatively easy for partners to implement that can be verified by guests,” says de Andres. "We also want to acknowledge the efforts of accommodations who are making greater efforts and we will highlight certified properties in the coming months." Of these 14 steps, half of them involve reducing the use of single-use plastics.

Less plastic overall - but more being adopted

This year may go down in history as the year when hoteliers distributed fewer single-use plastics than ever. “Tourism is at an all-time low at the moment,” notes Erwin van der Graaf, Vice President of Operations at Accor. “In itself, this is good for sustainability.” But the sad truth is that this is simply because tourism slowed down significantly. 

At the same time, the industry has seen an introduction of all-new types of disposable plastic in the form of face masks and gloves. More than half (53%) of travelers surveyed indicate they are considering reducing their waste and/or recycling plastic when traveling post-COVID, which points out how partners must strike a balance between hygiene and excessive plastic use. How can properties adhere to new cleanliness standards without compromising their sustainability efforts? 

Plastic reduction advice

The Global Tourism Plastics Initiative (GTPI), led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, recently published a handbook of recommendations for removing plastic while continuing to promote safety and hygiene. They advise partners to focus first on reducing touchpoints where indirect contact with infected people can occur. 

Once you’ve done that, you can reduce unnecessary plastic packaging and items at those touchpoints. When you do see the need to provide plastic items, make sure they’re sanitized and only provide the necessary amount. Even better, you may be able to provide these items to guests upon request, which will help you avoid unnecessary sanitization. With this simple strategy, your property can use less plastic - and fewer cleaning chemicals. 

plastic waste
Reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean starts with addressing the root causes of plastic pollution.


When you do need to wrap items in plastic, GTPI advises you to think carefully about how it will be used. “Single-use plastic items and packaging are not sanitization measures in themselves,” the report notes. They also point out that more is not always better. If you wrap an item in plastic twice, it can provide a heightened sense of security for guests - but it is a false sense of security and is doubly wasteful. They advise that in some situations, it is better to simply sanitize.

For example, instead of wrapping an item like a TV remote in plastic, consider sanitizing the remote. After all, if a plastic-wrapped remote control is touched by a staff member who hasn’t cleaned their hands, it could become a point of transmission for Coronavirus.

A broader definition of sustainability 

In addition to removing unnecessary plastic, you might want to use this time to rethink the goals behind your sustainability program. “What types of products are you purchasing? What types of services are you delivering - and from which companies?” de Andres asks. “Are they contributing to the local economy?” 

This local aspect of sustainability is becoming more important to travelers, with two-thirds (67%)  indicating they would like their travel choices to support their destination’s recovery efforts. More than half (55%) say they would like increased transparency to see how their money is benefiting the local community.

Hotels like Accor, with its Planet21 program, are turning their attention to these aspects of sustainability. They first established an environmental department 26 years ago and have gone on to plant over 7 million trees and reduce their food waste by 30%. For them, the pandemic hasn’t been a time to pause their efforts but to expand them to include economic sustainability for the people who work alongside them. 

In April, they decided to not pay out dividends to their shareholders in 2020. “Instead, we have taken 25% of the intended dividends and put that into our All Heartist Fund, which is meant to help our staff and local communities wherever we operate who have been affected by COVID.”

A good time to get the word out

In addition to broadening your sustainability initiative, van der Graaf believes now is an excellent time for hospitality providers to put a renewed focus on publicising their commitments. 

“Guests are really interested to learn what you're doing,” he notes. “Many hotels have great sustainability initiatives.” In addition to indicating your commitments in the extranet, he advises you utilize your communication channels. 

“They want to be updated in a sincere way. They don't want to be bombarded with emails, but they are willing to see what a hotel is doing” he says. “If you don’t have substantial news to share about your impact right now, you can still show your enthusiasm for environmental progress.”

The path forward 

Sustainability as a topic hasn’t gone away, and it could become even more front of mind for partners in the future. “We have a responsibility and an opportunity to build back more sustainably,” says de Andres. “Those who take a different approach and reinvent the service they offer, with sustainability in mind, might have a competitive advantage over others who do maintain a more short-term focus.”


Booking.com sustainability handbook

Ready to do more? Check out Booking.com's sustainability handbook. 

Sustainability handbook

What do you think of this page?

  • Over half (53%) of global travelers say they want to travel more sustainably in the future, with 69% of them expecting the industry to offer more sustainable options
  • Plastic use is down overall because travel is at a low point, but new forms of plastic like face masks and gloves present sustainability challenges for partners 
  • The Global Tourism Plastics Initiative has published a guide for accommodation providers with tips for how to safely clean without needing to over-use plastic
  • Now may be the right time to get the word out to guests about your sustainability initiative via the extranet and other communication channels