Consumers Seeking Green Hotel Eco-Labels

Do you rely on "green" labels to make your purchase decisions? Eco- labeling, or green- labeling, came along in the 80s to help people make environmental purchases, or so we thought.

Does "unscented" mean no fragrances or perfumes were added? Not usually. Does the term "free range eggs" mean chickens roam free and enjoy "the good life?" Not often. Does "recycled content" mean pre- or post-consumer content? It's hard to tell. Green labeling became so misleading in many cases, the term "green washing" evolved.

Green labeling is a tool to help consumers make better informed choices. Green washing is a tool to trick consumers to make an misinformed choice. Green labeling and green washing connote something environmentally positive. And with either term, definitions vary depending on the product. Eco-labels can mean that the product ingredients are "natural" and don't include petrochemicals; that the machine or equipment is energy efficient; that the product is organic, that no poisons, chemicals, or drugs were used in the growth of plants or animals; that it's biodegradable; that the animals were treated well as they were raised; that sustainable methods were used in growing and managing the forest; or that environmental awareness and sustainable approaches were used in the construction of a building and management of a business.

Information provided by an eco-label can shape the public's buying practices, which is of course why it's used. Given the broad nature of items to be consumed, it's no wonder that the definition varies so much. But there is a common thread through these definitions: the health and well being of not only the end consumer is in mind but also of the resources used in providing the consumable.

Green labeling began as part of the "green" revolution in marketing with non-food products. Labels on products with "green" claims like "environmentally friendly," "nontoxic," "energy efficient," "recycled content," and "recyclable" began appearing on the store shelves in the 80s. Then food items started using green labels to increase their market share. Manufacturers had determined consumers wanted to buy products that wouldn't harm the environment, so they found ways to cater to that need by using eco-labeling. The manufacturers' green claims were often made by merely placing an emblem that looked like a seal of approval on the product. That emblem symbolized the product's environmental qualifications in one or more ways. However, it didn't offer any details about what those environmental qualifications were.

The trend became so popular that often a product's label would change but nothing about the product actually changed. For example, paper product manufacturers started talking about how much recycled content their products contained to show how environmentally sensitive they were. But in fact, wood and paper scraps have always been part of paper making, so there really was nothing new about their manufacturing, only their marketing and labeling were different. Subsequently, paper-product labeling changed to show the paper products' post-consumer content so consumers had a better idea of what they were buying; paper products still use that information on their labels.

By 1990, about 11% of all new grocery products marketed themselves as having a "green" connection. A recent survey showed that 55% of the surveyed consumers look for products that claimed some amount of environmental sensitivity. Eco-labeling and consumerism aren't a passing trend; it's a way of life and one way the public can be environmentally active. Consumer awareness of the potential environmental and health impacts of products has increased, especially in the last decade. Green consumerism has grown in Europe, Australia, North America, as well as in some Asian and Latin American countries. Green consumerism is here to stay, as is green labeling.

The rapid proliferation of eco-labeled products serving as marketing tools has led different countries' governments, together with representatives of consumer groups and industry, to develop programs to standardize eco- or green-labeling. Manufacturers are encouraged by market trends to eco-label their products to avoid losing their market share.

Some countries are using one approach that is to require manufacturers to apply for the right to use a green label. By doing so they certify their products meet certain standards established by their government. This approach serves to maintain truth in advertising and reduce the "caveat emptor" mentality that has surrounded green labeling for years. It doesn't get rid of the problem of green labels having different meanings, partially because each country is developing its own eco-label criteria, but it's a step in the right direction. It's a step toward accuracy, honesty, and maybe toward international standardization.

Another result of eco-label marketing is the creation of organizations that evaluate labels for meaningfulness as well as several other criteria we use to assess what makes a good green label. Consumers Union's website called Eco-Labels is one such group. The site covers eco-labels on food, household cleaners, personal-care products, and wood. Further, they evaluate labels' claims broadly to include worker welfare and animal welfare in addition to environmentally sustainable labels. Consumers Union is also developing a site called Greener Choices that will help consumers evaluate larger product purchases, environmental issues, and environmental actions they can take. The evaluated products presently include autos, home and garden devices appliances, and electronics. Issues they'll help evaluate include household energy, climate, waste, and toxins.

One of the Discussion Papers presented at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) analyzes the benefits of a voluntary eco-labeling program, how to develop the criteria, and how to encourage its improvement and evolution. There are several eco-label programs around the world, and they are generally designed to promote products that reduce environmental damages during the use and disposal phases of the products. A distributed sample of such programs includes:

Developing such programs has problems and raises concerns, as discussed in the UNCTAD paper, but worldwide, "green labels" work to reduce environmental degradation by helping consumers make more informed choices about the products they buy. The challenges are worth facing and overcoming to help standardize the information conveyed by green labels. If green label information means the same thing around the world, consumers can make informed decisions regardless of where they are or where the product comes from. When consumers "vote with their dollar" because of standardized green-label information, manufacturers learn what the public wants and can act accordingly.

How does eco-labeling relate to the hotel industry? The hotel industry doesn't make or grow anything, so why would any hotel business need a green label? The lodging industry is a major consumer of resources and products. Consumption includes land, construction materials (carpet, paint and wood), fixtures and furnishings, cleaning supplies, food, and equipment (air conditioners, computers, elevators, furnaces). Then there is the daily consumption of water and power. Hotels are active 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year in and year out, using water and power throughout the day for general operations, cleaning, and guest use. With this massive ongoing use of products and resources there is a need for environmental action to preserve the environment and conserve resources for future generations.

Environmental action needs to be with purchased products and daily operations. The ideal is the products brought into the hotel operation will have been produced with environmental care, both at the source and for the guests' health. And the resources consumed daily like water, power, newspapers, and cleaning supplies, are minimized to reduce the strain on the environment. Just as consumers want to buy products according to their environmental sensitivities, they also want to buy their hotel "product" and experience according to their preferences and needs; they want to choose hotels that have an environmental awareness. Is the lodging industry listening to their guests desires?

There are several voluntary regional, national, and international eco-labeling programs for the hotel industry. Some of the programs are verified and others are on the honor system. Some of the certification programs include:

  • international standards for lodging properties to follow for certification
  • lodging certification programs
  • hospitality property certification
  • U.S. building certification
    • U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
Environmentally Friendly Hotels is one non-certification program available to hotels. Some of certification programs apply a green rating to their members, helping consumers focus their purchasing behavior.

There's an interesting irony in this green labeling issue. Many of the world's businesses want to attach a green label to their products because it helps sell the products, but not so with hotel industry. For some reason the lodging industry has concluded that their guests aren't interested in preserving the environment or their health. Even when a hotel has gone to the effort to get green certification or join a green hotel organization, they too infrequently attach the seal to their "label," leaving their guests in the dark about the hotel's environmental actions. And when they do market with their eco-label, they rarely give specific details about their specific green actions.

Though too few hotels participate in green certification programs, and even fewer use an eco-label, there are some who are making the same mistakes the early adopters of green labels made; the mistake is using a misleading green criteria. There are "green hotels" that promote towel/sheet re-use programs, but when guests request their towels and sheets not be changed, housekeeping ignores the request and changes the towels and sheets anyway. There are hotels that are Green Seal certificed that claim no use of Styrofoam in their certification application, but use it anyway. That is the same sort of "green washing" we saw in the 80s. That's the sort of green labeling the public is objecting to.

It seems that hotels are 20 years behind the times, and the U.S. is behind Canada when it comes to having hotels on the green band wagon! It's time for them to pay attention and play catch-up while avoiding some of the mistakes other industries made. It could be advantageous to the hotel industry that green labeling isn't prevalent because they can adopt green labeling that's accurate and honest, unlike many businesses that went before them. They can also help resolve the different meanings behind eco-labels by offering detailed information about their specific green actions. It's been shown time and again across the marketplace that there is business and profit in being green. It's past time for the lodging industry to hear and learn that lesson and to boldly, prominently, and proudly display their green seal. If a green hotel doesn't want to participate in a certification program, they wisely will still share their exact green actions with the public and promote their own green label.

It's time for green labeling to be used more widely in the lodging industry. And when hotel guests read a green label, they should be able to trust what they read.