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Addressing the Social Side of Sustainability:
Guidelines for the Hospitality Industry

by Michael Estabrook
May 2013

In recent years, sustainability has been widely perceived and practiced in forms of greenification. The hospitality industry has made significant development in the 'green' department by driving towards more sustainable technologies and processes that help both the environment and the bottom line. However, sustainable development should encompass the three elements of people, planet and profit (the 3Ps) - implying long-term considerations for all stakeholders.

With planet and profit already the focal point of the industry's sustainability efforts, the issue of people, and the pursuit of their basic human rights is crucial, and requires an unfaltering focus on the communities our industry operates in.

Now it is easy to point the finger at other industries whose shortcomings are widely covered by the media, most notably with regards to manufacturing - ranging from child workers producing our sneakers and tablets, to factories installing suicide nets in a delusional attempt to minimize a horrific symptom instead of fixing the problem. However, before we judge and move on, we need to take a step back and observe our industry. When we look closer to home it becomes evident that the areas to be addressed are vast and human rights in hospitality remain shrouded by the obscurity of idealism. A mass of work needs to be done to address complicated issues including but certainly not limited to: gaps in wages between men and women in the same positions; withholding of passports and wages by hotel developers in the Middle East, forcing employees to work until they have paid off an ambiguous debt; the polluting of local water sources by hotel companies in tourist hot spots like Tanzania; or the uncompensated redistribution of land occupied by the world's poorest communities by local governments to build a foreign-owned all-inclusive resort in Africa and Southeast Asia.

The Brundtland Commission of the United Nations states "sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Ultimately, present and future needs comprise a plethora of rights to be addressed, and the small sample covered in this article is neither meant to be viewed as exclusive, nor as indicative of a hierarchy of rights, for that in itself would violate the fundamentals of human rights. Instead, view this article as a challenge to the industry's most innovative leaders to change the status quo of this evolving industry. Here are some guidelines to help you factor these rights into strategic decision-making.

Incorporate a social element into your vision

Whether setting up a new business or updating an existing one, it is critical that you operate in an entirely transparent and sustainable manner. This means standing clear of any form of discrimination, corruption, exploitation and unlawful practice, even in areas where the local law is poorly enforced. This can best be accomplished by organizing a series of workshops with employees, customers, and authoritative figures from the local community (trade unions, local government, activist groups, etc.). Start by (re)evaluating your vision and mission, taking on board input, criticism and advice from all your stakeholders before communicating these through your entire organization. Your vision and mission must run through the veins of your organization whilst tailored to the community in question.

One example is the conception of Nairobi's luxury boutique hotel, Tribe Hotel, which was built with a strong consideration to helping locals overcome a turbulent reality caused by tribalism in the region. According to Mark Somen, former General Manager of the property and Director at sustainability-oriented consulting firm Craft House LLC, "by creating one culture among employees originating from once feuding tribes, what has been accomplished is remarkable and is best reflected by the hotel's vision, or Tribe Philosophy: 'There is only One Planet and there is only One Tribe that matters…humankind.'"

Set realistic, measurable and customized goals

Selected human rights initiatives need to be realistic, clearly defined and measurable. A clear set of goals allows a company to introduce measurable key performance indicators that will set the foundation for your employees to both monitor progression and provide timely feedback. Moreover, the ability to track progress allows for your achievements to be laid out for your customers and the media, as well as other key stakeholders. "The different players in our industry need to work together to ensure that the entire tourism supply chain is considerate and respectful of human rights," explains Simon Pickup, Sustainable Tourism Manager at UK-based ABTA - the Travel Association and proprietor of the Travelife Sustainability System certification for tourism businesses - "the real challenge relates to how we identify the risks associated with human rights in tourism for each different place around the world, and then how to address concerns in a proactive and reactive way keeping in mind the differences in social and political cultures."

Spanish hotel chain Riu Hotels and Resorts recently included a 'Social' section on their website as a platform to outline their human rights initiatives. Each initiative is then subdivided into four parts: Commitments, Objectives, Measures, and Achievements. According to Catalina Alemany, Corporate Sustainability Manager at RIU, "we know that our impact will not be huge, but structuring our efforts the way we have in collaboration with ABTA will allow us to maximize the impact we do have on social sustainability and human rights."

Travel service provider Kuoni has taken human rights inclusion and tracking to the next level across its vertically integrated supply chain. Through the development of its Human Rights Impact Assessment, impact is defined, its progress tracked, and results analyzed across the entire supply chain, from which sustainable and scalable solutions may be subsequently implemented.

Continue to update and implement sustainability standards across your entire value chain

Social and environmental standards need to form an integral part of your company's standard operating procedures (SOPs). The Rezidor Hotel Group has set up a Responsible Business (RB) organization with a RB coordinator on each property. Their main remit is to both coordinate compliance with RB related SOPs and head up a property‐based RB committee that is tasked with coming up with local environmental, community and ethics initiatives - all within Rezidor's award winning RB framework: Think Planet, Think People and Think Together.

"Standards should be clear and concise so that employees may immediately understand them, and they should be mandatory for all employees to learn and become part of daily operations," explains Inge Huijbrechts, VP Responsible Business for the company. "That's why we train all our employees on Living and Leading Responsible Business, including on topics like our Code of Business Ethics and Child Protection. We maintain open lines of communication across all departments companywide - a key to ensuring our RB values and Code of Business Ethics are lived by." Rezidor has secured this line of communication by setting up a website available in 11 languages where employees can address any concerns. Top management then follows up on each case, taking corrective and disciplinary action as needed.

Commit to the development of infrastructure & education in communities you are operating in.

It is vital that you help local communities implement and manage their own infrastructure when updating your own. In doing so, not only are you leading the drive towards more sustainable technologies and processes and hence being branded as a sustainability champion within the industry, but you are also assisting in subsequent community development that will increase the attractiveness of the destination you are operating in.

One paradigm was highlighted by Mark Watson, Director of UK-based non-profit Tourism Concern, as follows: "in many tourist hot spots situated in coastal regions like Goa or on islands like Zanzibar, access to clean water and sanitation is a key ingredient to advancing health in the region and will result in a higher life expectancy and larger participation from the poorest individuals in host communities." A prerequisite for tourists, clean and safe water and sanitation infrastructure also raises the level of destination attractiveness. In many communities, a small investment in the implementation or improvement of basic water and sanitation has the potential of advancing both social equality and economic growth.

Improved health alongside time saved from no longer being ill or having to make long, dangerous journeys to go and fetch water give more people basic access and time for education, opening the door to a wealth of opportunities. Whether through the sponsorship of a local school, the participation in an international training partnership, or through an in-house traineeship program, taking initiative in this regard will help develop a more suitable and sustainable workforce for your business to source its talent from. The consequential decrease in outsourcing professional labour from abroad will promote organic and continuous development of locals within your organization.

Take a zero tolerance approach to sub-standard working conditions

As a standard, it is critical that all employees are working in a safe and just environment, free of abuse, fairly compensated for the work they are conducting, and with easy and affordable access to such things as healthcare, hygiene and education - whether through the company or a government programme. Any substandard working conditions or human rights violations within the industry should be firmly rejected and swiftly corrected.

As emphasized by Stephen Farrant, Director of the International Tourism Partnership (ITP), "all hotel and tourism businesses, no matter where they operate, should employ a strategy of conscious vigilance towards human trafficking and sexual exploitation; while instances are relatively rare given the scale of the industry, they do arise from time to time - as they do in all industry sectors - in spite of the best corporate policies, so there is no room for complacency." The Youth Career Initiative, one of ITP's flagship programs, works with international hotel companies to train disadvantaged youth around the world and has an 85% success rate with regards to participants going on to either be recruited by the service industry or continuing in their education. In cooperation with the US State Department, the YCI programme now includes survivors of human trafficking who account for up to 20% of the total mix of participants in certain markets. It also makes sure that these individuals are not identified as one of the victims to their peers in the programme, but rather 'just one of the intake', while also providing them access to the kinds of additional support that trafficking survivors need as they continue their process of re-integration into mainstream society.

Include your human rights approach and community development initiatives in marketing efforts

By operating in a completely transparent and socially sustainable manner you are reducing potentially expensive legal, operational and reputational risks, and thus giving your organization the opportunity to attract and retain better talent that will drive your bottom line.

By successfully leading sustainable change in the industry, you are setting your organization up to become a best practice example that its marketing team can then take to the bank. While this should not be your main motivation, it is a great reward for doing what is right, and makes complete business sense.

"Good hospitality is about profit, great hospitality is about being a good neighbour" - words spoken by my former colleague Ritu Primlani (HVS Sustainable Services, New Delhi). This message should be central to each and every decision made across all sectors of the hospitality industry, for at the end of the day your business is only as sustainable as the community it operates in.

This article was first published in HOTELS magazine. Read here.

About the author:
Michael Estabrook joined HVS Executive Search in London as an Associate in 2012, and focuses on executive search and mid-management recruitment assignments across Europe, Middle East and Africa. Prior to joining HVS, he completed his Masters of Science in Hospitality Management at Rotterdam School of Management (Erasmus University) in The Netherlands. Passionate about sustainability and corporate responsibility in the service industry, with a special interest in human rights, Michael's master's thesis explored the flawed relationship between tourism development and base-of-the-pyramid development, and how a focus on water and sanitation can be used to establish a mutually reinforcing relationship between the two. He also holds a Bachelors of Science in International Hospitality Management with a specialization in Entrepreneurship from the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland.


Michael Estabrook
Executive Search, London
+44 (20) 7065-1394

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