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Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009
Green Key inns are all eco-stars
COPENHAGEN — Whenever climate change comes up for discussion, many industries say going green and reducing their energy consumption would be bad for business, even affecting the quality of service and products they provide.
But a movement in the hotel industry to introduce a low-carbon means of doing business that originated in Denmark and was recently introduced in Japan could be a good way to meet both ends — reducing energy consumption and leaving customers satisfied.
"It's trying to find the best solution so everybody can get something out of it. The environment, the hotel industry and the customers," said Mikal Holt Jensen, general manager of the Green Key program in Denmark.
Established in Denmark in 1994, Green Key is an "eco label" awarded to hotels and other leisure facilities. Having a Green Key means the facility is officially accredited by the Foundation of Environmental Education, the international nongovernment organization that runs the campaign, as being serious about reducing its impact on the environment.
To win a Green Key, a hotel must fulfill criteria laid out by the foundation. The thorough list covers everything from management issues to energy consumption, waste disposal, food and beverages, and parking.
For example, the facilities must have a clear environmental policy that all employees share and an action plan to meet their objectives. They have to register water and energy consumption and report it to the program headquarters.
They should also avoid using individual containers for liquid soap and shampoo in their rooms. If individual containers are used, they must be made of recyclable materials.
The hotels are encouraged to use locally grown or organic food and try to increase the ratio of such ingredients in their restaurants. Choosing natural or organic pesticides and fertilizers for their landscaping is a must, as is the use of rainwater for watering plants.
Most of the efforts to meet the criteria are done behind the scene, so customers won't even be aware of them, according to Jensen.
"Customers pay a lot of money to stay here, and so they have to have some comfort. If they don't have enough water from the tap, if they freeze in their hotel room, they will not come back," he said.
Jensen explained that hotel managers must communicate with staff so they are all working on the criteria together. Motivating staff by getting them to realize that being part of the Green Key program works to their own favor is important, he said.
"Hotels are divided into the kitchen, the entrance, the cleaning (and other sections), but with this environment you have the chance to work together," he said, adding that employees from all sections can contribute environmentally friendly ideas.
Hotels seeking the Green Key label are screened by a national steering group, which consists of representatives from the industry, NGOs and businesses that ensure the credibility of the Green Key campaign for that country.
Compared to non-Green Key businesses, hotels that win the label use up to 20 percent less electricity, 25 percent less energy for heating and 27 percent less water per guest, the foundation said.
Initial investments are required in the pursuit of the label, but Jensen said the costs will be recovered within a few years, if not months, depending on the area of investment. Green Key hotels work to continue setting higher targets to maintain the label while making improvements to their existing practices.
"Installing sensors that recognize when to switch off lights when nobody is in that room, or introducing LED lights that are expensive to buy but save energy and don't require replacing as often so they save time, things like that," he said. In Denmark, interest in preserving the environment has become much stronger in recent years, Jensen said, and the Green Key label is now applied not only to nearly 60 hotels but also to youth hostels, campsites and conference halls.
Hosting the current U.N. climate change talks has also helped boost local interest in going green, he said.
In fact, Bella Center, the site of the conference, obtained the label in October before the talks began.
The Green Key program has spread to 16 countries, including Japan, where three hotels — Ginza Yoshimizu in Tokyo, Myojinkan hotel in Nagano Prefecture and Hotel Rich & Garden Sakata in Yamagata Prefecture — were certified in May.
According to Shoko Itoh, head of the board of FEE Japan, interest in the label is growing within the nation's hotel industry. But because the program requires the participation of all employees and a shift in the mind-set of the way a hotel operates, many still find it too big of a challenge.
"There is a big learning process as a team until employees work together to improve the hotel," Itoh said. "I hope they can see it as an investment that's beneficial for them."
Jensen said Japanese inns appear to want to meet all the criteria at once, but some can be met as they keep improving.
"In my point of view, Japan has the technology to do so, so it's about changing the way of thinking," he said.
For Jeppe Muhlhausen, general manager of Hotel Alexandra in Copenhagen, it was his interest in saving the environment that led him to seek the Green Key label, which the hotel obtained in 1997. At that time, he was already attracted to secondhand Danish furniture designed in the 1930s to 1950s and was aiming to introduce the items in all of the hotel's 61 rooms. Introducing old furniture can be considered a recycling effort.
Talking about going green wasn't all the rage back then, Muhlhausen said, so the biggest challenge was to make his 22 staff members and the 20 restaurant employees aware of what the program was about and why they were working to become an environmentally friendly hotel.
"In the beginning it was quite funny, because it was like having a child inside the house who was not part of the family. It was very difficult to cope with it," Muhlhausen said. "But now we don't think about it anymore, because it's part of the way we work."
It took almost two years to become part of the daily routine, he said.
Over the years, the hotel has reduced water, electricity and energy consumption by at least 35 percent, Muhlhausen said, adding it was "fun" trying to instill a green component in every decision affecting the hotel.
At the Hotel Alexandra, changing sheets and towels is done only at the request of customers. Guests who choose not to have them replaced get a discount for dinner in the adjacent restaurant, which also operates under the green criteria and uses locally grown goods as much as possible.
About 2,500 customers, 10 percent of the total, choose this option each year, which helps the green effort, he said.
"If every hotel did that, it would be a big reduction on consumption of water and energy," he said.
While only 20 percent of its guests know beforehand about the Green Key label, 80 percent say afterward they would like to stay at another Green Key hotel, Muhlhausen said.