Roundtable debate: Can ethical luxury exist?

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Mike Barry, Marks & Spencer’s director of sustainable business, recently said: “80% of consumers expect big business to take the lead in sustainability, and that ‘they don’t expect to pay more’.  We partnered up with Tradelinens, a leading supplier of premium linen and towelling to discuss if this is true in hospitality and the sector’s approach to sustainability and social responsibility.

Panelists:

Joe Molloy – founder director, Tradelinens

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Graham Copeman – group hotel director, The Zetter Group

Jonathon Bates – co-founder, Thomond

Andy Mossack – travel writer & broadcaster

Moderator – Zoe Monk, Boutique Hotelier editor  

 

Q: How important is sustainability and social responsibility to guests when they visit a hotel?

Andy Mossack: Personally I think when a guest is coming to a hotel, they are paying what they consider to be a rate that should encompass everything. They are not too fussed about looking after the environment because they are paying for it. If they can contribute some way too, that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s uppermost in their minds.

Graham Copeman: I think there is a shift in awareness and people are a little bit more environmentally conscious. Not to say they expect to pay more to get it, but more importantly is that the business should operate environmentally consciously without impacting the guest experience. If everything we do as hoteliers means that we are being more responsible to the environment and our guest still feels they have had a great experience then we’ve achieved what we set out to do. As soon as that experience is compromised because of the environment then that’s wrong.

Jonathon Bates: I think from our perspective, first of all it’s about defining the audience – looking at lots of ages and demographics I think it’s fair to say that broadly speaking the under 45 demographic might be more sustainability conscious whereas the over 45 might not be so. Secondly we work to this basis of ‘what’s in it for me’ so why would someone choose this? The over 45 generation they might not look at the hotel brochures or reviews and think I’m having that because it’s sustainable, but if all hotels are of a similar standard and I think anything that you can do to show you are slightly better or different or contributing positively is a plus, and I think as time goes on, you’ll have to do it. Just like the Fairtrade logo on coffee, it’ll become something you have to do, and I don’t think we are far off that tipping point when people come to book travel now, it’s starting to be expected.

Graham: The younger market are definitely a lot more conscious and aware of it and they do feel the need to feel that whatever they are doing has the least impact on the environment. But also the corporate responsibility is changing; a lot of the companies we work with, particularly US companies, are often stipulating a need for a policy that is aligned with theirs, so perhaps that breaks the demographic but comes more as a corporate initiative, rather than the individual.

Joe Molloy: It’s not necessarily what we are thinking today but definitely those with kids are thinking about it. The other thing is from the hotelier’s point of view, the exciting thing that we are involved in, is we are heading in that way , we are not there yet but it’s very much going to be part of the future. Any smart hotelier needs to be looking one step ahead, and it’s so competitive – the number of new hotels coming on board is astounding and everybody is looking for something unique and different, so why not sustainability? The thing that hits you right between the eyes is, when you open a menu in any restaurant and you’ve got line-caught cod and locally-reared chicken, everything has a provenance. You go to the bedrooms and you just don’t see it. Luxury hotel guests, what defines them from the average hotel guest is the attention to detail and anything you can add from that point of view and provenance point of view must be at the forefront of everyone’s mind – if not today then certainly tomorrow.

Q: Why do you think some areas of a hotel (F&B for example) take priority over others (such as the bedroom) when it comes to transparency and traceability of products?

Jonathon: I think traditionally – if we use the over 45 analogy – then sustainable often means compromise. If you’re traditionally doing something boutique and luxury it’s all about the pinnacle of perfect so you have this natural conflict: I’m paying top dollar for something amazing, but the word sustainable means I’ll have to compromise. But actually it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Graham: Do you think it’s because people are more conscious about food – it’s on TV a lot, celebrity chefs talking about sustainability…

Joe: I think what restaurateurs have identified is that this sets them apart and is a selling point, and more to the point, people expect to pay a premium for it and they don’t mind paying a premium for it. Would you agree with that?

Graham: I’m not so sure, I think there is a shift and people expect it as the norm, rather than it being a premium product. The accepted way of eating cod is the fact that it’s been line caught and is a sustainable product, rather than something that is damaging the environment and depleting stock.

Andy: I see it differently, as a consumer if I saw something with provenance on it, it would say to me it’s quality and it’s not a frozen product that is bulk bought somewhere. So for me, it’s saying, we’ve thought hard about where we are getting our produce from, we might work closely with local producers and in the US now, farm to folk has become a very big business for them.

Graham: There is also that assumption though at that luxury level you’re not going to get frozen, you’ll actually have fresh from the kitchen…

Andy: Yes but now they are actually stating it.

Joe: It’s reaffirming their purchase decision – you’ve bought correctly.

Andy: I just think it’s the quality rather than the sustainability, in my head anyway.

Joe: But specifically where luxury hotels are concerned, by very definition their clientele look for that attention to detail and the provenance and everything that goes with it.

Graham: There is a tradition of excess equals luxury too and I think that is shifting too. The way we provide luxury is actually by creating something very special and individual – of the place, great service and everything that goes with that. There are a lot of sustainable things that happen within our company but they are not down the throats of the guest. Some guests may choose to book us because we are sustainable – we don’t hide the fact that we are sustainable, we have it on the website – at the same time we are not shouting about it to the guest, it’s not part of their experience, it’s part of our experience and who we are.

Joe: Sustainability does come with a recognition of waste and what The Zetter does is they spend money wisely; the reason why you’re staying in a luxury hotel is because you’re quite successful and you’ve spent your money wisely so what you want to know is be reassumed at every point that the hotel delivers value for money.

Jonathon: The successful business person who can afford to stay in high quality hotels are generally more ethically and sustainable conscious. You can look across all walks of life where people are spending high amounts of money, brands are starting to recognise this.

Andy: So are you saying they are doing this as a marketing exercise rather than a philosophy?

Jonothan: Very few businesses would do something if they thought it was going to make them no money. So I don’t see any problem with using sustainability as a marketing ploy, so long as it’s genuine. And I think the public will start to see if it’s just a cynical badge-wearing exercise that doesn’t run all the way through.

Graham: Staff need to be engaged with it too. Getting staff engaged in an environmental policy for the company pays dividends so you’re not pushing it in the faces of guests, but by virtue of the fact that the team are engaged with it and talk about it, helps for it to permeate through the business. One of the big issues for the industry at the moment is recruitment and as we look at the millennial generation coming up, it is a critical thing for them, not just as a consumer but as an employee. A lot of our young people are seeking us out as a business and then find a job within the company because they respect what we do and how we operate.

Joe: The key thing is if you’re going to embark on any of these programmes, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk; just to have a box ticking exercise people see through it pretty easily. The key thing is to be able to demonstrate to anyone within the business that you are serious. We have something similar to farm to folk, a seed to bed type of thing.

Q: What role does a hotel need to play in order to highlight the importance of sustainability to guests?

Graham: With our choices with how we operate the kitchen, what we are buying, what suppliers we are working with, what their policies are they have to be aligned, I think it’s easier to do that within the F&B environment because it’s very conspicuous and there are a lot of suppliers, you can pick and choose and change very easily. In the bedroom environment how you celebrate that or how you make people aware is much more difficult.

Joe: What we’ve bought in now is a Better Cotton Initiative, which is a commitment to the people growing the cotton, so that it’s better for them, better on the environment. From seed to bed, in every step of the production we are making sure it’s ethically sourced. We’ve built into our company’s commitment that by the end of next year, 10% of all our cotton will be as a result of better cotton initiative. The first in our business, and that’s what we see as a proper green initiative.

Jonathon: I think that’s the opportunity with luxury products, rather than just saying it’s ethical and sustainable, is to get behind campaigns and very cynically, that’s where I think there is great marketing opportunities as well.

Q: Whose responsibility is it to make sustainability and social responsibility more accessible to hoteliers and consumers?

Graham: I think it’s across the board. With food becoming more in people’s minds, in the same way that as the media improves our customer demand will with it – whether it’s individuals or the corporate accounts that insist upon it – as well as our suppliers. Also from within our own teams, we very much have now engaged staff who care and want to know we are making a difference, so there is a pressure from pretty much every direction.

Joe: Good successful companies have an integrity at the core of their being and things like sustainable products and working with suppliers, this is an initiative that’s good for now and good for the future, it’s not demanded now but I think it reaffirms their buying decision in coming to a hotel for all the right reasons and will bring them back for the same reason.

Jonathon: The tipping change will come because so many hotels are doing the sustainable stuff and it will actually reflect negatively on you if you don’t do it. It’s an element of keeping up with the Jones’s. One of the driving forces might be the corporate market – if they demand it and represent a sizeable chunk of your business then hotels will promote that more.

Joe: The concept of sustainability in the bedroom is an innovative approach and the successful hoteliers of tomorrow will continually try to innovate on what they are doing. To be seen to be putting support behind these initiatives that shows that luxury doesn’t come at anyone’s expense, can only be a positive and it’s as simple as that, maybe in the future hotels will do it, but at the minute, it’s fairly groundbreaking.

Q: What does the industry need to do to highlight sustainability better?

Joe: The key message from me would be, there is nothing wrong with luxury, but it is like everything else in this world, luxury in the right context. As long as the luxury doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment and on the lives of the people who produced it and every part of the chain, the key thing is that we do have a responsibility to our children and our children’s children to make sure there is something for them in the future.

Cotton is a very difficult natural resource and takes up a lot of water and in producing it we need to make sure we are producing it as efficiently as we can and that’s really to drive that message home.

Let’s bring it forward to make sure everything that goes into a hotel environment is ethically sourced and has provenance to it.

 

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