How a 19th-Century British economist can explain today’s challenges in sustainable travel and hospitality

How a 19th-Century British economist can explain today’s challenges in sustainable travel and hospitalityEngland, 1859. William Stanley Jevons, a twenty-four-year-old economist, finds a curious dilemma in the British coal industry. Technological advancements like the coal-fired steam engine are improving coal’s production efficiency, but coal supply still struggles to meet England’s insatiable demand. Jevons posits that the improved efficiency of coal use has, contrary to intuition, increased England’s coal consumption by lowering its relative cost and improving its appeal as a fuel source, a phenomenon that he addresses in his 1865 book, The Coal Question.

This apparent tradeoff between efficient consumption and reduced consumption has become a foundational idea for the study of environmental economics and resource use, and is now known simply as “The Jevons Paradox.”

More than 150 years after his observation, Jevons’ assertions have not only been proven correct, but they also continue to manifest themselves in modern society throughout many industries. The hotel industry is no exception. This industry has struggled to incorporate sustainability and fully embrace its potential to unlock commingled financial, societal, and environmental benefits.

What drives this lag in adoption of sustainability best practices in the hotel industry? Could it be a lack of education? A lack of resources? A lack of concern? Or is the hotel industry simply falling prey to the impossible balancing act of efficiency and responsible consumption that Jevons observed?

Recent research published at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration found that eco-certified hotels consume fewer resources on a per-square-foot basis than their non-certified peers, but more resources on a per-occupied-room basis. Pound-for-pound, an eco-certified physical building may be more sustainable. However, when human nature is introduced to the equation, the outcome defies logic. What are hotel guests and staff doing that would limit the potential benefits of an eco-certified hotel?

How a 19th-Century British economist can explain today’s challenges in sustainable travel and hospitality

A possible explanation may be rooted in the Jevons Paradox: awareness of a hotel’s efficiency initiatives beckons careless resource consumption. Knowing that a hotel is full of sustainability features may lead guests and staff to believe they can be less proactive and still achieve the same level of environmental benefit. A few examples:

For Owners and Operators:

  • A hotel upgrades its washers and dryers to EnergyStar-rated appliances, but then forgoes investing in linenless tables for its event spaces since laundry is now less ecologically detrimental
  • A hotel installs low-flow fixtures and aerators in all guestroom bathrooms, but housekeepers then decide to run water the entire time they’re cleaning (rather than on and off as needed) to save time when cleaning and rinsing
  • A hotel upgrades to LED lighting in its fitness center, but then changes its operational strategy from turning off lights whenever the fitness center is vacant to leaving lights burning 24 / 7 to make the fitness center appear more welcoming
  • A hotel adds recycling bins in its lobby, but then proceeds to hand out even larger quantities of plastic water bottles to guests

For Guests:

  • A guest notices an eco-certification sign in the hotel lobby, and then doesn’t feel so bad spending an extra 10 minutes in their presumed-to-be-efficient shower
  • A guest specifically books a GreenLeaders hotel on TripAdvisor, and then allows themselves to run their room’s air conditioning during the day while they attend a conference so that they can return to a cooler room
  • A guest sees that a hotel has installed bulk shower amenity dispensers, and pumps more of the products than traditional single-amenity bottles would have ever held

Lessening a certain behavior’s environmental damage does not necessarily create a net positive outcome if it causes more instances of that same damaging behavior, or brings about new, related behaviors that are equally harmful.

So, what would William Stanley Jevons have to say about all this?

I believe he would equate the modern hotel industry to the British government of his day. Rather than taking a long-term view and insisting on innovation, they justified continuation of a less-than-ideal behavior by ostensibly lessening that behavior’s detrimental effects. The hotel industry is similar, only instead of coal processing, it’s resource consumption, and instead of decreasing coal’s incremental cost, it’s decreasing an action’s perceived negative impact.

Sustainability innovation that continues to enable harmful behavior is a self-defeating exercise. Innovation must be followed with continued education, measurement, and accountability all the way through the system.

Jevons’ recommendation? Don’t use improved efficiency as an excuse for careless consumption.

For Owners and Operators:

Awareness of this issue can help us identify and mitigate it in our hotels. Try not to settle for making harmful activities less harmful, and instead search for possibilities to eliminate harmful activities altogether. Help staff and guests be allies in this mission by educating them on the property’s sustainability initiatives and the behaviors they necessitate. For example, simple signage can work wonders, and does not detract from the guest experience when done right.

It’s possible to fall into the trap of perceived tradeoffs when it comes to sustainability, thinking that sustainability will only come at the expense of guest satisfaction, staff efficiency, online rankings, focused branding, and most importantly, financial performance. However, hotel sustainability is not a balancing act between responsible operations and financial performance, but rather between responsible operations and human nature.

For Guests:

Our secret is out. Research has shown that we tend to demonstrate fewer pro-environmental behaviors in a hotel than we do at home, even if we feel that sustainability should be a priority for hotels and we place importance on choosing environmentally conscious lodging. We often find ourselves unwilling to sacrifice comfort in the name of eco-friendliness. Furthermore, many of us view hotel “green” initiatives either as thinly-veiled cost-cutting measures or a collective marketing ploy.

So, why avoid running the water for extra time? Why turn off the lights? Why avoid unnecessary waste? Why be an ally in the hotel’s sustainability mission? It costs us nothing and helps support the communities we travel to, but the best answer may be even simpler: if we’re going to ask hotels to do their best, we should too.

* * * * *

Let’s help the hotel industry evolve to meet today’s most pressing societal challenges, and, in doing so, keep the industry thriving (hopefully for a longer time than the coal industry!) and expedite the realization of its potential to contribute to environmental sustainability. The human spirit of innovation can help us overcome any careless consumption accompanying the Jevons Paradox, and instead allow increased efficiency and prudent hospitality to go hand-in-hand

Grant Behnke
Grant Behnke
Grant Behnke is an independent researcher and writer interested in the intersection of sustainable development, hospitality, and the built environment. A graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, Grant currently lives and works in Columbus, Ohio as a real estate private equity analyst specializing in hotels

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