Can You Travel Sustainably with Airbnb?
People, places, love, airbnb ... and sustainability?

People, places, love, airbnb ... and sustainability?

Airbnb, the wildly popular home-sharing platform that gives travelers the option of staying in a home instead of a hotel room, has stirred up much controversy since its launch in 2008. City officials and landlords around the country are locked in sometimes fierce debates over how to regulate Airbnb listings. Are they hotel rooms or traditional rental apartments? Regulators don’t quite know what to make of this newfangled invention of the sharing economy.

Other issues revolve around the potential impact Airbnb has on neighborhoods. Not to mention the teeth gnashing it’s caused in the boardrooms of major lodging chains that now must compete against Airbnb rentals.

One thing is for sure, with listings in 34,000 countries and a guest total surpassing 60 million, Airbnb is here to stay (pun intended). But should an eco-conscious traveler want to stay in an Airbnb rental? Does it present an environmentally friendly alternative?

Airbnb certainly thinks so. In 2014, it commissioned a study, conducted by Cleantech Group, to assess Airbnb’s impact on the environment. Not surprisingly, the study found that, according to a press release, “traveling on Airbnb results in significant reduction in energy and water use, greenhouse gas emissions and waste, and encourages more sustainable practices among both hosts and guests.”

Per the study, North American Airbnb guests use 63 percent less energy than hotel guests (enough to power 19,000 homes annually); save enough water to fill 270 Olympic-sized pools; and reduce greenhouse emissions equal to 33,000 cars. Airbnb guests are more likely to take public transportation, walk or bicycle, and the vast majority recycle when given the opportunity.

Sounds great, right? Since the study was done at the behest of Airbnb, some observers have noted it’s best taken with a grain of organic salt. “I don’t know if that analysis has been independently verified by anybody, but they make that claim,” Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Travel Council, says.

Editor’s note: Airbnb did not respond to two requests for comment.

Durband’s organization has yet to do any analysis on the question of Airbnb and sustainability. Most of the controversy regarding Airbnb has arisen more from a regulatory standpoint, he says. Yet he doesn’t reject the potential green benefits of Airbnb rentals outright.

“Airbnb and the sharing economy is here to stay, and they are concerned about those issues,” Durband says. “Airbnb has a significant social responsibility team studying that. They say they care and it’s clear they do some things right — and may do some things some people might find a bit questionable in terms of their view toward regulation and landlord rights. Purely from a sustainability issue, I don’t think there is anything terribly controversial in terms of environmental impact from what they do versus a hotel.”

Airbnb has established several sustainable initiatives, such as partnering with Nest to give free thermostats to select Airbnb hosts in the U.S. The Nest thermostat automatically turns down the heat when the home is unoccupied. It made a similar deal with electric car manufacturer Tesla to install chargers free of charge at highly rated Airbnb homes. The rollout began in California.

Further, under Airbnb Picks, Airbnb’s website lists what it terms eco-friendly options under the banners “It’s Easy Being Green,” and “Urban Farms.”

Too many to certify?

Simon Smedberg, co-founder and CEO of Glooby.com, a search engine listing hotels certified green by an independent organization, says his platform has investigated the “greenness” of Airbnb rentals. Yet given the sheer number of properties on Airbnb, “it’s hard to gather all the necessary information to determine if an apartment is eco-conscious,” he says.

Hotels can obtain independent third-party certification for sustainability planning, maximizing social and economic benefits for the local community, enhancing cultural heritage, and reducing negative impacts to the environment, Smedberg points out. No such mechanism exists currently for Airbnb rentals.

“Perhaps it would be interesting for organizations to start certifying apartments as well,” Smedberg says, “taking into account standard data such as energy consumption, emission factors, laundry and private space.”

Do your own research

Absent of any type of official certification, it’s up to the individual to research the Airbnb rental and to bring along his or her own sustainable practices.

Cori Dossett, president of Conferences Designed, is a professional meeting planner and frequent traveler. She also rents out her guest room on Airbnb. “Unlike the required consistency in a hotel brand, with Airbnb you get, quite literally, the run of the wheel,” she says.

For instance, an Airbnb host may — or may not — ask guests to recycle. “In my home, I recycle paper, cans, glass and other random household items,” Dossett says. “I let my guests know about these practices and provide a bin in their room, but it is never forced. In speaking with other Airbnb hosts, I have not personally found anyone else who supports recycling efforts.”

Dossett contends a green hotel offers a more “earth conscious experience” to travelers. Nevertheless, she maintains Airbnb can serve as a sustainable travel option. “I am sure there are fantastic ‘green’ practices being done by some Airbnb owners,” she says. “In fact, I have asked Airbnb about starting a certification program in this regard.”

Perhaps if enough Airbnb guests demand it, the company will start mandating greener, more sustainable practices by its hosts. Until then, eco-conscious travelers must evaluate any potential Airbnb option for its green characteristics.

Or, Airbnb guests can follow several sustainable practices while on their trip, such as:

  • Even if the host doesn’t mandate recycling, do so anyway. Find out if the building has a recycling program where you can place recyclable items.
  • Use public transportation, a bike or walk as much as possible around your destination.
  • Monitor water and energy usage.
  • Buy locally produced food and other items. If you eat out, go for a restaurant that incorporates local ingredients into its menu.
  • Volunteer or donate to a local charitable organization while on your trip.

Published: 3/7/2016

A journalist and writer for over 20 years, Maria Wood has reported on such diverse topics as the nursing profession, commercial real estate, and local politics in her home state of New Jersey. In the business realm, she has written extensively about the lodging industry, annuities, financial/retirement planning, and marketing. 

She served as the editor of Real Estate New Jersey, a magazine focused on the commercial real estate industry in New Jersey, as well as the managing editor of Retirement Advisor, a publication for financial planners. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching baseball and jogging. She is on LinkedIn and can be followed on Twitter.