by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | October 01, 2008

green inside 
If press releases are any indicator, no other U.S. business segment seems to have embraced the growing culture of environmental stewardship with quite as much gusto as the lodging industry. It used to be hotels sang long and loud about achieving the coveted five-diamond or five-star rating. Now, they fairly buzz with self praise each time they launch a "green" product or service.

But unlike Mobile Travel Guide's star rating system, which has been in place since 1958, and AAA's Diamond Rating Program, launched in 1937, there is no industry standardization, based on hotel-specific criteria, defining what makes a property "green." Instead, the relatively new and rapidly growing field of green hotel certification is crowded with government, private and nonprofit organizations, each defining its own set of regulations and assessment standards.

For example, 12 states have in place their own green lodging certification programs, including California, Delaware, Florida, Vermont and Virginia. The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council, a nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of green buildings, created its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification in 2000. The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy are jointly responsible for the Energy Star rating, which tracks energy-efficient products and practices. And Washington, D.C.-based Green Seal, an independent, nonprofit organization that was founded in 1989, has been awarding its Green Seal Certification to hotels since 1999.

To decipher what all the green jargon adds up to, and how the environmentally conscious meeting planner can make an informed site-selection decision, M&C spoke with representatives from several green watchdog organizations about the sustainable hotel movement, how far it has come and where it still needs to go.

Understanding the basics
A hotel's "green-ness" must be divided into three categories: the physical construction of the building, back-of-the house operations (operating systems, products and vendors), and the environmental programs and services it provides to guests and meeting groups.

Creating a level green playing field for the U.S. lodging industry's approximately 54,000 properties is impossible for a number of reasons. Older hotels cannot possibly compete on an infrastructure level with new-build projects made with newly developed, eco-friendly raw materials. Also, independent boutique properties do not have access to the deep pockets of chain-branded hotels when it comes to capital for financing green renovations, upgrades or even marketing those accomplishments.

Adding to the confusion is that some hotels, such as those under the umbrella of San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, which have made environmental sustainability a cornerstone of their practices, do not seek any third-party certification. Kimpton, for example, relies on its own EarthCare program, which outlines specific operating standards, to measure and monitor the greening of its portfolio.

Going for LEED gold: The 185-room Fairmont Pittsburgh will open in 2009.
Another hotel company committed to greening its properties is Toronto-based Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, which has a significant U.S. presence with 17 luxury hotels. "A big portion of our portfolio was built 75 or more years ago, so the focus for us has been in energy efficiency, waste management, water conservation and community outreach," says company spokesperson Lori Holland. "But we are going to manage a new-build in Pittsburgh, opening next year, which is going for LEED gold certification."