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There are few terms that have become as inflationary in recent years as that of sustainability. Whether on supermarket shelves, in travel catalogues or on the financial market, the promise of sustainability is omnipresent. 

But if you take a closer look, you soon realise that there is often a gap between what the word actually means and what it is used for nowadays. "Sustainable" is used for so many things today that the term has lost its meaning because it is all too often greenwashed. Now, what does sustainability actually mean?  

What is sustainability?

Today, we hear the term mainly in the context of climate and environment protection. But even though protecting nature is a central element of sustainability, it is not the only one. According to the Definition of the United Nations, sustainable development is about "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" in ecological, social and economic terms. But what does that mean in practical terms, for a hotel for example?

The ecological aspect is about minimising the negative impact of the business on nature. This is where issues such as CO₂ balance, food waste, plastic reduction and energy-efficient construction come into play. In the social dimension, it is crucial how a hotel deals with its environment (such as the local population) and social justice. Here, the keywords are, for example, diversity, inclusion and equality. And the economic perspective looks at how the hotel management thinks in the long term and how sustainably it operates. In other words, whether profits are distributed fairly or returned to the local population or other relevant groups.

No one can account for all of the Sustainable Development Goals. In the end, everyone has to decide for himself or herself which aspects make the greatest contribution to sustainability.

Monika Bandi Tanner from the University of Bern

The devil is in the details

So how can you tell if a hotel is run by people who are trying to reduce their resource and energy consumption, who care about the environment and their staff, and who care about where the beans for their espresso have come from? Especially when dealing with seemingly trivial products like coffee, you have to take a closer look to find out how big the CO₂ footprint is and how fair the trade is. Just because you buy your mocha from the local roastery and it is delivered in jute bags does not mean that what goes into your cup is sustainable.

We have to admit: many things - for example, what kind of coffee the hotel serves, which type of heating it uses and how satisfied the staff are - are often only found out after arrival. And you would probably have to ask a few more people on the spot to get to the bottom of the sustainability of things. Fortunately, there is an easier way for laypeople to find out how sustainable a business is.

How to find a sustainable hotel

"Sustainability labels can be a good guide," says Monika Bandi Tanner from the University of Bern. In the jungle of labels, which has become denser in recent years, greenwashing traps are also lurking, according to the tourism researcher. "Some labels are more like brands and serve mainly to communicate rather than to design the offer. In other words, although it says sustainable on the label, there is little sustainability in it. But there are reliable independent labels that take into account all dimensions of sustainability and certify according to clearly measurable criteria, such as Ibex fairstay, for instance. 

But no matter how hard a company tries: It is simply not possible to meet all 17 of the UN's goals for sustainable development. "So in the end, everyone has to decide for himself or herself which aspects make the greatest contribution to sustainability."