What’s wrong with sustainability
Lately, I somehow seem to be revolving around the same hot potato. Not long ago the seventh international event, the Green Destinations Conference, came to an end, this time in Tallinn. In 2016, we organized the first one in Ljubljana, setting the scene for an event that is now moving from country to country, growing and becoming one of the key events in sustainable tourism. The program this year was good and interesting. I set myself a benchmark some time ago that a conference is only good if I take away one message, one piece of knowledge I can use. This year I did, and now it haunts me.
The event was opened by Anna Pollock, who remains extremely insightful and provocative, consistently raising questions that hit the mark. This year, her message was that we will only make serious shifts toward sustainable development if we radically change how we think and see the world. It sounds simple, yet at the same time, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible. Somehow this thought encouraged all participants to think about whether it is possible and, if so, how. Often, these conversations can quickly degenerate when conducted by a group of convinced individuals. This time, it was different. A group of destination decision-makers and creators of sustainable action discussed the challenge.
And how did we do? Hmmm, it would be hard to say that we saved the world and that you can breathe a sigh of relief. But together we have set off in a fairly united direction. Once again, one of the key issues facing destination managers who want to green their destinations is how to get tourism providers into the story. This is an issue that we are also working on intensively in Slovenia. While we have certified practically all tourist destinations with »Slovenia Green«, only a few percent of accommodation facilities have been involved in the story.
This ‘why’ is becoming the million-dollar question. In Slovenia, accommodation facilities have financial support from the state, support in terms of knowledge and support in terms of promotion.
All the statistics show that costs are reduced in certified facilities, that guests are willing to pay more for a sustainable option, and that they are increasingly looking for responsible providers and giving certified ones a higher rating.
“A ‘no brainer’, one might say. But it’s not. Why?
I was talking to a hotelier a while ago and I asked him who was responsible for sustainability at their hotel. The answer that really surprised me was: marketing. Wrong? Yes, wrong. If sustainability is the job of the marketing departments, it’s hard to expect serious changes in the business. Maybe in positioning, but that can quickly lead to greenwashing and a bad guest experience.
And somehow it seems to me that the problem lies in this very bush. Who is the person in the company who should stand behind the values of sustainability and drive them into the business? What’s that saying again? The fish stinks at the head? And yes, even the most sustainable fish is no exception. This means that it is the managers and owners who need to change their minds.
Not long ago I was reviewing another luxury sustainable hotel, this time in Austria. It has been owned by the same family for 300 years. The father is the manager, the three children have divided up the areas, the mother is just a mother and her hand is felt at every corner. They run a very successful hotel with 170 rooms, 300 staff members, and 94% occupancy, with 80% of guests returning regularly. They are clearly doing something right. They are breathing sustainability at every turn and they’re not sacrificing sustainability at the expense of luxury. Probably the best scene was a chance encounter with a mother who was stacking paper bags in the staff room, which were still practically new, as guests had only used them to bring the gifts they had bought from the hotel shop to their room. Then they just left them in the room. A staff member threw them in the paper bin. And now the hotel mum was kindly explaining to him that that didn’t make any sense, showing him how to fold them neatly and return them to the shop. Sustainability is her value, she sees at every turn what can be changed, reused, and upscaled and she pulls the other employees into it. The success is truly enviable.
Definitely a practice that confirms Anna’s thinking that to be successful we all need to change the way we think, because Einstein taught us that we can’t hope for different results with the same thought patterns. This must be done first and most radically by owners and managers. And here is the hard part. How not to convince but to change their values? How can you possibly change someone’s values? You can’t. We can only change our values. But to be willing to change them we need more than rational reasons, something has to knock on our value scales.
At one of the nights out in a bar in Tallinn, I made this very point. I was provocatively seeking an answer to the question: what needs to change for a successful entrepreneur, who drives around in giddy luxury cars and who has set up his business so that he can live on the big foot with all the goodies of this world from all corners of this globe, to change his values and his mindset?
The conclusion, which, even in a more sober state, still seems to me to be perhaps the right line of thinking, is that
the problem with sustainability is that it is not ‘sexy’ enough, maybe not ‘prestigious’ enough, and not ‘exciting’ enough.«
It still has that image of activists behind it, whining and threatening and basing their beliefs on the creation of a bad conscience. We are all still children, too, and what else are we going to do if we are being ordered around and told off? We resist! But if we are sitting on a pile of money and running a business, this rebellion has wider consequences.
After a few nights of finally sleeping, I am more and more convinced that this is the apple we have to bite into. To change the narrative of the sustainability story, which today is about who does ‘less harm’, and to find ways to build an image of sustainability as a movement of those who do ‘good’, which can become inherently more exciting, challenging, interesting and yes also sexy. To tap into the values of decision-makers in a language they understand, even if that means hanging a bit of glamour and prestige on sustainability
To date, this was achieved only to some extent by BCorp, which has shifted the focus from not only controlling the damage to the challenge of thinking: What good can my company do? Something all sustainable tourism certification schemes are still not focusing enough on. But we all know that we all prefer to be good rather than less bad. And being good can also be very sexy indeed.