With 157 babies being born every minute, the planet's capacity pushed to its boundaries, and the health of our entire delicate ecosystem hanging in the balance, “sustainability” is the word of the day and the word of the future.
It may seem easy to blame our current problems on the high birth rates of developing countries with little resources, education, and limited access to contraception. However, according to a recent assessment of energy demands per square hectare by New Zealand Geographic, some of the poorest, least developed countries in the world actually have some of the lightest carbon footprints on a global scale. It’s the rampant consumption of wealthier, more developed countries that top the carbon emissions scale.
In the assessment, the criteria for measuring the environmental footprints created by various nations was "biological production available nationally versus resources consumed." The top three offenders are unsurprising when we consider deforestation as a side effect of fossil fuel production (Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates), but what steps can we others in the top 25 over-consuming countries such as the United States (#5) or Australia and Canada (#7 and #8, respectively) do to minimize our impact? We can begin with one of our favorite pastimes in the privileged, developed sections of the planet: travel…
Assuming we as individuals can't make enough of a difference is an easy justification for complacency. Everyday changes in the way we grow our food, eat, commute, build our homes, and yes, even travel, are essential for the future salubrity of our biosphere.
Next time you're planning a trip, consider a train or bus for transportation instead of flying. Not only are you greatly reducing your carbon imprint; it's a delightful way to sit back, relax, and take in the passing scenery (simultaneously connecting in a more meaningful way with the region you're exploring) instead of just whizzing above it, oblivious.
When flying is the only viable option, even if financial considerations are not a major factor, fly economy class. Stretching out in first class seats may feel luxurious, but they are decadent with our resources as well, producing anywhere between 2.5 to 9 times greater of a carbon footprint than their coach equivalents. In simplest terms, bigger seats equaling fewer people on a plane means more fuel burnt per passenger to arrive at the destination.
Choosing an eco-friendly hotel is one of the biggest impact decisions we as travel consumers can make as far as sustainable tourism is concerned. And there are plenty of great options to choose from around the globe.
In 2010 the Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers in Denmark, the first CSR-certified (Corporate Social Responsibility) hotel in the world, made headlines by offering free meal vouchers to guests who generated electricity for the property by pedaling a gym bicycle. The bike was hooked to generators and guests would receive a meal voucher when they generated 10 watt-hours of electricity, about 15 minutes worth of pedaling for a person of average physical fitness. A little gimmicky, yes, but a pretty awesome example of how hotels can think outside of the box to create a sustainable model and even offer something memorable to their guests while doing so.
Six Senses, an eco-resort in Con Dao, Vietnam, uses golf balls for their seaside golf course designed to biodegrade in 48 hours and release fish food.
Hotel Punta Islita, in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, has won conservation awards from the Sustainable Tourism Department of Costa Rica for their restoration initiatives, two of which involved partnering with local conservation NGOs to aid in the recovery of local populations of sea turtles and red macaws.
Morgan's Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge, on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua near San Juan del Sur, was built in 2004 with goals of conservation and sustainability. The ecolodge consists of sustainably-constructed bungalows at the edge of a jungle.
And in forward-thinking Tasmania, Saffire Freycinet in Coles Bay is also at the forefront of the sustainability movement—they've planted over 30,000 native plants to help restore the landscape.
Wikipedia defines an eco-friendly hotel as "accommodation that has made important environmental improvements to its structure in order to minimize its impact on the environment." Two thirds of travelers already say they would prefer to stay in a green hotel. For hoteliers this means green practices are part of an intelligent marketing strategy. It’s also a great business strategy as reducing energy and water usage reduces the bottom line.
It's becoming obvious why eco-friendly hotels are a good choice both from a consumer perspective and as a viable, sustainable business practice, but how can we ensure a partnership between hospitality and eco-consciousness when we travel?
Choosing hotels with green certifications is a good step. Although there are numerous certifications, including LEED, Green Key, and Green Globe among others, which can be confusing to navigate. And there isn’t yet one strong leader for finding a comprehensive list of green hotels. When certifications or resources are not available for your destination, researching a hotel’s website can offer insights into how environmentally friendly their practices are.
A few things we as guests/eco-conscious consumers can watch for in our accommodation choices include:
ESL (electron stimulated luminescence) lamps
Heat pumps or other geothermal technologies
solar panels/solar hot water heater
rainwater harvesting/greywater systems
mowed landscaping replaced with native groundcover
low flow showerheads
green products for cleansers, sanitizers, paints, and office supplies
ozone laundry systems
occupancy sensors to minimize use of light in hallways, outdoor areas, and bathrooms
keycard access to electricity (room key must be inserted to utilize lights, etc.)
local, organic food in the restaurant
Not every property can hit every efficiency mark, but at least we can do our best to make an informed choice, as consumers conscious of our lead foot in the global scale of carbon footprints. Choose eco-friendly accommodation. Be kind to our beloved biosphere. Step lightly. And rest easy.
Julia Reynolds is a travel writer, adventure enthusiast, and serial nomad living (mostly) in the Hawaiian islands. She is currently on a one-year trip around the world, avoiding air travel when possible and traveling slowly over land and sea. Some of her best travel experiences to date have been kayaking the Napali Coast of Kaua'i, diving the isolated atolls of Belize, and rock climbing in the Krabi region of Thailand. Her worst travel experiences have been getting robbed in Guatemala, breaking her back in Thailand, and breaking multiple bones in a mountain bike accident in Alaska. She still loves the places where the worst experiences occurred.