by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | April 20, 2012

New York HiltonEnvironmentalists take heart. As this year's Earth Week wraps up across the globe, the hotel industry's commitment to green initiatives and sustainable programs has gained some serious momentum.

If a prize was being awarded for "outstanding environmental achievement by one property," the New York Hilton would get my vote. The 1,981-room property in Midtown Manhattan took time out this week from hosting the sixth annual Sustainable Operations Summit to unveil its new 16,000-square-foot, fifth-floor green roof and co-generation system. Together, these innovations will provide more than 50 percent of the hotel's electrical power and more than 40 percent of its steam consumption for heating and hot-water requirements. And all that new greenery has some significant added benefits: Not only are the plants harvested from an upstate New York farm, its vegetation will play a huge role in reducing the "Urban Heat Island" effect by absorbing air pollutants, preventing the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and helping to reduce the property's thermal load.

This isn't the New York Hilton's first green achievement. In 2009, its neighbor, the Avenue of the Americas Association, awarded the hotel the Green Street award for its environmentally friendly electrical-energy fuel system, known as PureCell. The property's impressive green initiatives reflect parent company Hilton Worldwide's commitment to sustainability programs, which maximize operation efficiencies. The company's target goal is to reduce energy, carbon and waste by 20 percent, and water by 10 percent, at its 3,800 properties by 2014.

Also making strides this week was European hotel giant, Accor, which launched Planet 21, a direct reference to Agenda 21 (the environmental action plan signed by 173 heads of state at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992). Planet 21 takes aim at 21 environmental goals, including a crusade against those untold thousands of non-recyclable discarded hotel room key cards. The company is introducing new key cards made from from FSC-certified wood from responsibly managed forests, which break down naturally in landfills. That may sound like a small green battle to wage, but with more than 530,000 hotel rooms in 90 countries, that's sounds like a war to me.

Accor's Planet 21 program has spelled out some lofty operational goals for 2015: a 15 percent reduction in water consumption, a 10 percent decrease in energy use, and the use of eco-labeled products at 85 percent of its more than 4,000 owned and leased hotels worldwide. Those goals are all in keeping with the company's commitment to reduce its footprint on the planet, even as it ramps up expansion and development. "I am convinced that sustainable development will lead us towards a new business model," said Dennis Hennequin, chairman and chief executive officer of Accor.

Another first this week was Hyatt Hotels Corp.'s inaugural Hyatt Thrive Leadership Awards, for which the competition was fierce. More than 70 nominations were submitted from among the company's hotels, resorts and field offices for one of six awards recognizing leadership in environmental sustainability and community engagement, which were rolled out last year under the chain's global corporate responsibility platform, Hyatt Thrive. This year's winners included the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, which reduced its energy consumption by 35 percent and established a robust recycling and composting program; the Grand Hyatt Jakarta in Indonesia, which, armed with a US$20,000 Hyatt Community Grant, adopted an impoverished rural village and provided significant economic and health improvements for its residents; and the Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok in Thailand, which sheltered 233 hotel associates and their families, in addition to donating food, drinking water, clothes and other necessities to the Thai Red Cross, when severe storms flooded the region.

"We are honored and humbled to recognize the valuable contributions made by the winners of our inaugural Hyatt Thrive Leadership Awards," said Brigitta Witt, the chain's vice president of corporate responsibility, in announcing the awards. "Actively contributing to the environmental and social well-being of our communities is integral to sustaining our business; and the recipients of this award exemplify Hyatt's longstanding commitment to contribute to the prosperity, health and advancement of the many communities around the world that we serve."

With such sweeping initiatives becoming a priority in leading hotel companies, just imagine what strides can be made for the green cause during next year's Earth Week!