THE ACCOR Group says it is about to change the face of the hospitality sector with an ambitious five-year action plan to reduce its environmental impacts. And it might do just that.
You’ve probably turned over expecting to read about green hotels: hotels that use clever technology to make sure the lights arent left on, or have reed beds for sewage treatment or perhaps even solar panels to produce the electricity for those clever lights that turn themselves off. But youd be wrong. These are all commendable ambitions, and ones that are within reach, financially, for small businesses. However, for corporate companies they may well be the sustainability challenges of the past. Such initiatives are what the environmental lobby often refer to as the low-hanging fruit. In other words, the environmental impacts you can manage on-site with little disruption and some investment.
Yet the impact of any hotel (or indeed business) extends much further than the lobby, 150 rooms and a restaurant or two. How about the raw materials used to serve 56 million breakfasts a year; the water needed to grow the oranges for juice or the emissions from rearing the pigs for bacon? How about the waste that comes from building or renovating hotels as opposed to that left by guests in their rooms? How about, even, the hotels role in watercourse pollution, not just from the site but from the production of the thousands of varieties of foods and beverages it buys each year?
Economists refer to such impacts as the externalities of a businesss operations. Side effects is another way to describe them but this suggests they are negative, which isnt always the case. Spillover effects is perhaps more favourable; a phrase promoted by Christopher Meyer, the founder of Monitor Talent in an article for the Harvard Business Review in 2010. In recent years, the likes of Meyer have argued that a true measure of corporate responsibility is the willing, constant internalisation of externalities. An example would be McDonalds move to have fruit in all its Happy Meals, or Pepsi working with its farmers to reduce water use in potato production: both are moves made not through regulation but through action.
In his article, Meyer suggested this was a far more disciplined way to respond to the challenge [of corporate responsibility]. Its also far more complicated. Unilever and M&S have, arguably, led the field with their far- reaching impact assessments and long-term sustainability ambitions. But could there be another green pioneer in the making? Is the hospitality sector about to have its own Plan A?
Next month, Accor, which owns hotel chains such as Novotel, Sofitel and Ibis, will publish a five-year plan that it hopes will change the face of the hospitality sector. The plan is a closely guarded secret, however could Accor be about to provide the hospitality sector with its own Plan A? The group has given Foodservice Footprint exclusive access to the unique environmental impact assessment it has carried out, the findings from which will underpin the new strategy.
The study was co-ordinated by PricewaterhouseCoopers and involved life cycle analyses to look up and down Accors entire business chain, from the point where raw materials are extracted, through to use by the hotels and on to disposal. This idea of assessing impacts outside of the four walls of a hotel, especially across 4,200 of them in 90 countries is, says PwC senior manager for strategy development, Clement Lefevre, something very new for the hospitality sector.
Accor is already seen as a leader on sustainability in the sector but, by its own admission, has focused mainly on its on-site operations and impacts to date. By 2010, for instance, 100 of its hotels had solar panels in place and, according to vice president for sustainable development, Sophie Flak, the group was doing so many great things that it wasnt even talking about. Id been a consultant in sustainability and I began to wonder why Id never heard [about Accors initiatives], she explains.
But Flak had bigger plans. In order to really make inroads into the groups impacts including those spillover effects she knew they would have to invest in life cycle analyses. Intuition in sustainability is rarely [right], she continues. With life cycle analyses you can identify your full environmental impacts.
And thats exactly what they did. But it wasnt easy. Unilever had already managed it across 1,600 products, while many more companies have assessed the impacts, often limited to carbon or water, of individual products. Transferring that methodology to an international hotel group, however, was heavy work, says Lefevre, whose team spent a year on the study. Its a long [project] and quite intensive. But this is the first and we hope it will be easier to replicate it for smaller groups.
So, what did the analysis show? Were there any surprises? For Lefevre and Flak alike, the impact of the groups food supply those 56 million breakfasts, for instance on water use and eutrophication was a big surprise. Accor consumes 544 million cubic metres of water every year about as much as 438,000 Europeans. Some 86% of that water isnt from people flushing the loo, or from laundering sheets, its from irrigating systems that are used to feed crops and livestock.
Beef is by far the biggest consumer, with watering, feeding and bathing a cow for seven to nine years using no fewer than 15,500 litres of water per kilo. However, Flak is under no illusions about the challenges Accor is facing to alleviate some of these impacts: changing the eating habits of guests will be a lot trickier than asking them to make sure the taps are turned off.
She has already tasked a working group to look at the concept of what she calls smarter menus; which could, for example, include the integration of more vegetarian options over the coming years. It would be an adventurous move: I wouldnt want to start a war with any certain industry …we want to integrate more vegetarian [options] and we do in some areas but not enough. Given that the brand stretches across many different cultures, Flak admits that it is early days and Accor has a challenge on its hands. However, she admits they wont be guilting anyone into anything or losing sight of the fact that they are a hospitality business: Food is about pleasure.
Flak wont be drawn on what else might or might not appear in the five-year plan next month. However, she does say that the life cycle assessments and the plan are a watershed in Accor history. But could they be more than that? Could they help the whole sector cross the Rubicon into the willing, constant internalisation of externalities? Id like it to, she admits. This project isnt about leading [on sustainability], its about changing the way we do things today. We believe that we need to change our footprint on the environment and the ecosystems we work in and we need to do it pretty fast.
Im happy if people see that as leading the way. But Id be a lot happier if they tell me theyve seen the work, used it, changed things and can show the difference thats made.
Meyer would be pleased, having concluded his paper with a remarkably similar theory: A consensus will emerge that we are all responsible for our world and must work together to make it better and well all wonder how we could ever have thought otherwise.
The way to do business is changing and so is the face of the hospitality sector. But dont expect to see all thats going on just by looking at a new Novotel.
Accors impact assessment study can be viewed at www.foodservicefootprint.com.
Hungry for data. Accor has spent a year analysing its impacts across 11 activities, making this the most detailed study of its kind by a global hospitality business. The group collated phenomenal amounts of data – though there are gaps given the reach of its supply chain – in order to develop a new five-year sustainability plan. Food and beverage threw up a few surprises for both Accor and the consultants involved at PricewaterhouseCoopers, with big environmental impacts at the production end of the chain. The introduction of “smarter menus” could therefore be one of the central planks of the new plan launched next month. This could involve a move to cut the use of meat, which would be a very bold move indeed.