Can luxury be sustainable? And what is luxury anyway?
Since we launched our GoodPlace, the term I have been most concerned with is sustainability, from all angles. Some time ago, I was invited to work as an assessor for a luxury hotel chain that had developed its own sustainability standards. I gladly accepted the assignment. Since then, I have visited some of the highest-end properties to assess how sustainable luxury properties can be. And what have I found? Hmm, the answer is not at all simple. I can honestly admit that, in all the assessments, I have learnt about some of the best sustainable practices and met some amazing managers with an incredible understanding and commitment to sustainability, but at the same time, several new questions have been raised.
This summer, with our growing family, we headed to Scotland. We hired a campervan and, with a little effort, squeezed five adults and all the paraphernalia that accompanies such a group on holiday into it. As the chosen destination boasts cooler summers and heavy rainfall, this naturally had an impact on the amount of luggage. For two weeks, we were enclosed in a little travelling box and admired the incredible beauty of the landscape that surrounded us. Every day, Filip did careful research on where we would park in the evening to get the best view. The Scots are very campervan friendly and parking is allowed virtually everywhere. We stopped by the lake that was ours that night, we drove by the heavenly blue sea, we sat in the evenings with a glass of whisky and admired the steep shore, we warmed our hands with tea on the high plateau in the morning … Every day a different view, a different experience, a different nature and the closeness of a family that is spread all over the world for the rest of the year. If you ask me today what luxury is for me, the answer is exactly that.
A family playing cards, laughing and just being, night after night, in a small campervan with the roar of the sea in the background. Having a limited amount of water for your morning shower, washing the dishes with as little water as possible is a daily challenge and having the whole family go to the toilet first every time you go to the pub for a coffee can be a plus and a fun part of the trip. Even my teenage daughter, after some initial reluctance, has embraced the game. Our daily water consumption has brought our yearly average down a little over these two weeks. Every fairy tale comes to an end and we scattered to our respective parts of Europe.
I went to Ireland to assess a luxury castle. I probably couldn’t have imagined a starker contrast. My bathroom was bigger than the whole caravan. I no longer had to create my bed in the evening from the sofa. On the contrary, I was immersed in the comfort of fresh sheets and feather pillows. I stood under the hot shower (I admit) for a little too long. And in the morning, I no longer stacked pots on the stove like Lego blocks to satiate my family members according to their wishes. No, the menu boasted the best eggs from the neighbouring village, smoked salmon prepared according to intricate traditional methods, assorted meats, cheeses and on and on. And all locally sourced, selected, exquisite. The castle dining room and the hushed conversation of wealthy guests competing with each other on the destinations they have visited and the number of electric cars and the corresponding number of chargers waiting for them in the home garage. And the staff. Smiling, friendly, although the “Do you need anything else?” was a bit too much for my taste. Which is not so unusual when you consider that 300 people are looking after just over 100 guests. I sent a photo of the dining room to my family, with a note saying that a hot coffee at the camping table next to the campervan on a cold Scottish morning was a bigger luxury for me.
And that’s where all my dilemmas begin. What is sustainability and what is luxury? Can luxury be sustainable at all? If we say that a 5-star hotel is sustainable, we naturally stumble over the amount of water and energy it uses to meet guests’ expectations of immersing themselves in freshly laundered sheets every night, that the room will be tempered to the right temperature at all times of the day, even if they are not in the room all day, that they will be able to spice up their holiday with a round of golf on the course that stretches alongside the castle, and that they will be greeted in their room by more luxurious, neatly packaged creams, and on and on and on. If I compare the amount of water we used in the caravan with the amount of water I used in the castle, I can forget about the idea that I have decreased my annual average.
And then there is the other side of sustainability. The social, the cultural. The castle’s managers care for the castle’s exceptional cultural heritage and pass it on to new generations. Along the way, they educate guests about the history of the castle and Ireland. And just as farmers once depended on the land of the landlord, today local suppliers depend on guests who want the luxury of a castle. A former local schoolteacher grows most of the vegetables in his garden to meet the needs of visitors to the castle. A local historian lives from guided tours of the castle. The castle chef coordinates with local suppliers, guides them to new solutions and teaches them the standard he expects. And when you arrive at the front of the castle, you are met on the steps by the porters, two brothers who have been carrying suitcases and greeting guests in the castle for over 40 years. They live in the neighbouring village, as do many of the other employees. They are proud of the castle, it is part of their history and they love their jobs. Most of the employees have not changed employer for more than 15 years. A record in tourism.
So can luxury be sustainable? Hm, it’s not that simple, is it? But sustainability is never black and white, and even the signs on the door do not mean this is sustainable and that is not. It is about processes, values and governance. It’s about finding solutions and getting guests used to them. Giving them the option not to change their sheets every day, introducing a system that turns off the air conditioning when the guest leaves the room, finding more environmentally friendly providers of luxury cosmetics, making sure you mix as few chemicals as possible on the grass of the golf course, etc. And managing your staff, giving them a pat on the back and some well-deserved recognition. And above all, making the most of opportunities in your local environment. And then I, without guilt, pin the sustainability label on a luxury castle. Because they are on the right path and guided by the right values. Luxury castles, family farms and, last but not least, caravan rental providers all have or do not have this.
And luxury? That will always be something different for me than for you, and that is the charm of all of us, of this world and of tourism.