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Travellers must sort through lots of green claims to find truly eco-friendly hotels

Maybe for one reason or another you've thought about staying in "eco-friendly" hotels when you travel, but figuring out a conscientious choice can be an overwhelming chore.

You're not unusual. In the most recent industry survey of U.S. travelers, nearly half of all travelers considered environmental impact to be important when planning travel. More may be thinking about their travel choices today, the 42nd Earth Day.

Complexity can wilt good intentions. And add to the tricky green equation that more than half of the respondents in the industry survey said they're skeptical when companies make "green" claims. Of self-described "green travelers," only eight percent thought it easy to find green travel options.

Glenn Hasek, editor-publisher of Greenlodgingnews.com, points to inspiring initiatives: hotels with a windmill or some solar power, an embryonic hotel chain with plans for "revolutionary new environmental practices and sustainability principles," more lodging that's been vetted by Leadership for Environmental and Energy Design — "LEED-rated", increased focus by the industry as the economy improves.

The common problem for consumers, though, is distinguishing window dressing from serious commitment. Some practices touted as "green" — admonitions to re-use towels, save water, turn off the lights or skip the room makeup, for example — are also overtly self-serving. Others — recycling newspapers or providing openable windows, installing some solar panels — are trivial unless they're a small part of a comprehensive program.

All that green noise not only bestows unearned merit on the underwhelming. It also makes it harder to discern genuine efforts.

But there there's no shortage of green certifiers. Alison Presley, manager of Travelocity's green travel program, knows of more than 300. Because of the high level of consumer interest, the U.S. travel market is all awash with rating systems: green hearts and coronets, checkmarks, arrows, suitcases, stars and planets, trees, keys and leaves.

Some certification systems are for-profit businesses, others are nonprofits or run by trade associations or government. Some are demanding, others laughably complaisant.

"Unfortunately, we are in a time when you could today, right now, get on a website, find a certification program where you fill out an online questionnaire and print out your 'Okay, we're green now!' certificate," Presley says.

"We wish that there was some organization, even the U.S. government, that would decide 'These guys are doing what we feel comfortable with,' "she says. "It's unfortunate for the consumer, who's just trying to do the right thing here."

Sorting it out on the Internet

Travelocity's approach goes some distance toward "certifying the certifiers" to help clear the fog. It uses data from 22 certification programs whose standards more or less meet those of the international Global Sustainable Tourism Council. Just as important: They include periodic independent on-site audits to verify compliance. No self-certifiers are on this list.

So here's the first shortcut: Whether you book through Travelocity or not, you can use the "accommodation type" or "amenity" sorter on its website to find, and easily sort by city, its 1,100 certified U.S. hotels (and even more non-U.S. listings). Fourteen Tampa Bay hotels are on this list, among them Grand Hyatt in Tampa and the Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater Beach

It's not a nuanced system, Presley readily concedes — they're green or they aren't — but it's a strong interim effort. She says Travelocity has delisted about 200 hotels since its program began five years ago — another truth index.

Other bookers take different approaches, sometimes listing miscellaneous green features of hotels that users are left to puzzle through. Orbitz offers such lists — hard to dig out of the website — and states that it has "started the process of researching hotels with 'eco-friendly' policies." Independent certification audits are not listed as a criterion for joining the list.

Hotels.com's online system sorts for properties that are "green/sustainable," but the basis for these choices is not always clear, and many on the "green" lists are self-certified, as the fine print explains. Kayak and Priceline do not incorporate eco-friendly filters in their booking systems.

Expedia.com's site can't select for it, but if you enter "sustainable" in the search box from the home page, you get a list of a hundred cities and you can click through that to a list of hotels. Once again, however, the criteria for choosing these hotels aren't explained. Read far enough in the fine print for each listing, and you can figure out whether the hotel has been independently certified and audited. Expedia declined a request for an interview.

A second suggestion is to look for one of those LEED-rated hotels, of which there are nearly 100 in the United States. A rigorous and expensive program for participants, LEED is run by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. Properties are rated as "certified," silver, gold or platinum (there are only two platinums in the United States).

A final suggestion for this quest is conditional: Consider using one of the certification programs that are run by 17 states. These, too, vary in credibility, transparency and toughness. You can easily find them online.

Among the more exacting state programs are Vermont's, one of the oldest, and New York's, one of the newest. Both perform on-site audits for compliance.

Sustainable versus green lodging

Florida's Green Lodging Program is managed by one full-time employee and three part-time retired engineers, according to Kristin Lock of the Department of Environmental Protection. It conducts random compliance audits to check for continuing adherence to program criteria after designation. To remain designated, properties must submit annual totals for energy usage, waste generation and water consumption annually. Each property is audited at least once every three years.

"If there is ever to be a ubiquitous consumer standard, it must come from a travel rating brand that U.S. consumers already trust, and is likely in partnership with an environmental advocacy group and/or government agency," the travel industry "green" survey concluded.

In the last few months I've stayed at a few hotels whose eco-friendly credentials are impeccable: the LEED platinum-rated Proximity in Greensboro, the Felix and the Burnham in Chicago and the Westin Times Square and the Ink48 in New York. All were competitively priced, the experience proved luxe rather than hair-shirt and there was no green horn-tooting to speak of, which I found odd. You really had to ask.

But perhaps you knew this was coming: There's green lodging out there, but no immediate prospect of anything like "sustainable travel." Just for starters, the cars and especially the jet airliners leave a massive carbon footprint.

As for the real-deal sustainable hotel: It feeds energy back into the grid, emits nothing into air, water or dirt, raises the standard of living for native cultures, is constructed of recycled plastic, and does not yet exist — though that platinum LEED rating is somewhere in range.

Meantime, we live in the world of the relative, not the ideal. Audubon International executive director Kevin Fletcher, responding to puristic challenges to his green lodging rating program, likes to quote Voltaire: "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

Eco-travelers among us will just have to keep fingers crossed while the world plays on — and maybe push the limits when the opportunity arises.

Stephen P. Nash is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va.

Travellers must sort through lots of green claims to find truly eco-friendly hotels 04/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 21, 2012 4:30am]

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