Dr. Alain Imboden, Associate Professor at Les Roches Switzerland, teaches courses on sustainability within the Innovation and Sustainability specialization stream. He also coordinates graduate school dissertations on this topic. Here, Dr. Imboden discusses the intersections of sustainability, business and hospitality, and explains why future hospitality leaders should care.
Why Study Sustainability?
Sustainable tourism and corporate responsibility are topics that have fascinated Dr. Imboden throughout his career. In his classes, he introduces students to different areas of sustainability — social, environmental and economic — and highlights some of the paradoxes and challenges of running a sustainable business.
“Many businesses originally began adopting a policy of corporate social responsibility (CSR) to enhance their brand image. It wasn’t to make a profit,” Dr. Imboden explains. “But it turned out that there is a link between CSR and higher profits. In fact, if you want sustainability to be adopted at a large scale, then it has to be profitable.”
And adopting sustainable practices often benefits businesses in two ways: first, by cutting long-term costs, and second, by appealing to like-minded customers, many of whom are willing to spend more on sustainable products. “Through social media and other platforms, best practices are increasingly visible today. Social credibility counts. There is an important customer segment that values respectful, ethical businesses — but which also needs to see evidence to know that companies are really doing what they say.”
Sustainability and the Hospitality Industry
The concept of sustainable tourism has its fair share of paradoxes. As Dr. Imboden remarks, “The most environmentally friendly thing to do would be to not travel at all!” Of course, this is an unlikely reality. But in the travel and tourism industry, there is still a lot that businesses can do to be more sustainable.
“Hospitality is different from other industries, like clothing or food, that have led the way in sustainability,” notes Dr. Imboden. “The product of hospitality is a combination of service and atmosphere. And you can’t control how sustainable that product is in the same way that you can control the manufacturing of a tangible good.”
“On the other hand, hotels can take steps to use less energy — and save on costs. They can take responsibility for the whole supply chain, finding out where their linens come from, where their food comes from, and under what conditions those goods are produced. They can purchase locally, reducing the distance that products travel.”
Don’t Buy This Jacket: What the Clothing Industry Can Teach Us
Dr. Imboden often looks to industries outside of hospitality for examples of sustainability that can inspire students. For example, outdoor clothing brand Patagonia ran an ad in The New York Times in 2011 on Black Friday, one of the most popular shopping days of the year, with the headline “Don’t buy this jacket.” Six years later, Patagonia still features the ad on their blog.
“This ad is almost an extreme of anti-consumerism,” Dr. Imboden says, “It’s telling you not to buy their product. And at the same time, it implies that the company puts the interests of the environment, and the customer, first. It acknowledges that clothing waste is a problem — and encourages you to repair, reuse or recycle your garments instead.” In fact, Patagonia has partnered with DIY repair site iFixit to help customers fix their gear. This commitment to sustainability seems to be one reason why Patagonia has earned such a loyal customer base.
The Future of Sustainable Travel and Tourism
A quick look at some popular tourist destinations shows that facing the issue of sustainability is inevitable. “We’re exceeding the carrying capacity in destinations around the world. Places like Ibiza or Mt. Everest are running out of resources to support tourism socially and environmentally. In Ibiza, for example, locals are being pushed out of their neighborhoods, and on Mt. Everest, you can actually see a queue of climbers. It puts people’s lives at risk, as climbers may have to wait their turn at very high altitudes.”
But some hospitality brands are prioritizing sustainability now. Accor Hotels has a dedicated website outlining their commitment to sustainable development and their actions. Nordic Choice Hotels is also well known for environmental and social responsibility — perhaps no surprise, given the importance of these values within Scandinavian culture. Dr. Imboden recently experienced this for himself: “I stayed at a Nordic Choice hotel in Copenhagen, and on my bed was a small brochure with the words: ‘We care.’ No mention of the brand — just tips on living a healthy lifestyle. Meanwhile, the hotel’s breakfast was very healthy, with lots of organic choices and fewer high-sugar, ‘typical’ breakfast foods.”
A future where brands care? Perhaps that’s where we’re headed.