Case Study: Struggles of a Hospitality Giant

Facade of the Mövenpick hotel in Marrakech with artwork by  MONK .

Facade of the Mövenpick hotel in Marrakech with artwork by MONK.

WOMB has since its beginning worked with small brands. We meet our makers, we talk to our designers, we know their kids’ names… Only few of our projects have been conducted in collaboration with bigger firms (who of course, have bigger budgets, but also more rigid frameworks to operate within). Today we want to bring to you an article written on the base of a few conversations we have had with the staff and Managers of The Mövenpick Hotel in Marrakech, Morocco.

Not sustainable enough

Our eco-trained eyes have become very quick to spot non-eco issues and even when looking at enterprises/businesses that try really hard, we often see things that could be improved. This was the case of the Mövenpick Hotel. On their website they claim to prioritize sustainable solutions. In fact, the hotel chain is behind SHINE - a “[…] global sustainability programme, [that] aims to positively impact the environment, our people and the local communities where we operate our hotels and resorts. It is one of our core corporate values and we divide our sustainability practices into three key pillars – Environment, Employer and Social sustainability, with education the common thread., and the website explains how “sustainability” is understood on different arenas: Social-, Employer- and Environmental.
We appreciate this “mapping” very much, since it also shows to the customers, how vast “the sustainable debate/approach” really is, and how many factors must be in sync in order to make/call a place sustainable. And whereas we did see a lot of interesting solutions and implementations (especially regarding the employer sustainability, as the hotel activates and employs disabled people!), we also noticed some unsustainable practices that (to our more-or-less sustainably trained eye) seems fairly easy to change and “make right”.
Knowing that no one would become more educated and no debate would arise if the subject was left untouched, we confronted the hotel management pointing out the things that did not make eco-sense in our heads. Here are a few answers we got, braided with “wake up calls” from the operational pain of view of a giant hospitality business.

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Hotel guests are not ready for reusables

Every day at the abundant, beautiful breakfast buffet the hotel guests go through (hecto)liters of coffee and tea. The tea and coffee is mostly served in a porcelain cup, if you do want to take it with you, you can choose a take-away paper cup (with no plastic lits provided! Yay!). So far so (semi-)good. The problems start with the next step: there are no sugar-bowls anywhere. Rather the sugar comes in small plastic-lined paper tubes. And once you have put sugar in your coffee, it needs to be stirred. I’d prefer to do it with a reusable metal spoon (which obviously are available at the hotel, and I know it), and yet during breakfast only plastic spoons are brought out. Confronted with this silly detail, the hotel staff told me that they used to put only metal spoons out there. And they kept disappearing! The hotel guests did not regard them as important enough to care to pick up if they fell on the floor, under the furniture. Some guests took the spoons with them - practical piece of cutlery to have on the road!
In the long run, having reusable metal spoons out in the breakfast room was bringing economic loss to the hotel as they constantly needed to replace the disappearing spoons! The single-use plastic solution was obvious, and it has since stayed that way. I learned that not only in the dining rooms things keep disappearing. Pool towels and other items are regularly being taken home by the guests, which on the other hand pushes the hotels to keep buying the cheap single-use items.
We are guessing that the same logic then applies to eg. changing the small single-use, plastic packaged toiletteries out with larger glass dispensers in the room and suite bathrooms. Mounting dispensers on the walls would be costly, and if you do not attach it to the wall they might either end up broken or… kidnapped.

Profit is priority

Alright, so we learned that reusables are risky to bring onboard, it is definitely cheaper to buy single-use items than replace metal spoons all the time! But what about making the single-use items more sustainable? Paper straws, bamboo bowls, compostable cutlery? It is all out there, we know very well that there are solutions, why aren’t they applied? The answer is, as you might have guessed, the money.
The sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic items are still too expensive to order, especially to locations like Marrakech in Morocco, where there is no local production of eg. paper straws, so the products would have to be imported from Europe (another continent), which 1) makes the price higher 2) adds to the general carbon footprint of the ordered product, and you end up replacing one evil with another; trying to “hide from the rain under the gutterpipe”, as we say in Polish.
This confirmed that the institution/business/enterprise can only be as sustainable as the country itself. How would a major hotel recycle if there is no recycling policy in the country? Where can the sustainable products be sourced (in a sustainable way) if there are no local manufacturers?
And suggesting importing a big batch of reusable straws/small bowls/etc., in order not to keep importing single-use items all the time, brings us back to the “disappearance issue” that we delved upon in the beginning of this post.

General knowledge about sustainability and education in how to apply it

Noted. There are economic obstacles, and we cannot argue with that. We do understand that profit is what drives businesses, and sadly we cannot (yet!) expect conventional businesses to want to go down on profit in order to protect our planet.
So how about approaching this problem from a more social perspective and simply telling the staff not to give that straw or that plastic spoon to the customers, unless they actively request it? In theory, yes, that could be a great idea, however we must not forget that the general eco-awareness is relatively high in countries where the education system is well developed, in countries that have access to impartial media, where sustainable practices are being taught in schools, where kids go out with trash bags every year for Earth Day to collect the publicly disposed litter. This knowledge, this awareness is a privilege. We are lucky to be informed, we are lucky to know (even if the knowledge and the facts scare us). Because many people live unaware, which is the case in Morocco. There is no general awareness and understanding of what “that one straw” may or may not mean. There is no general awareness of plastics and single-use disposables being “bad for the environment”.
Back in Hong Kong, the main battle was consciousness versus convenience - people knew what damage the plastics were causing but because they were in hurry, because of their jobs, because of [insert another cheeky excuse] they chose NOT to pursue the sustainable solution. In Morocco, this battle does not really exist yet, because the average level of environmental consciousness is generally quite low. Often, people use and dispose plastics lightheartedly because they do not even know that there may be a risk of environmental damage linked to it. Hence, one (as a manager) may ask the staff to skip the straw to reuse, but thee might be no understanding (and willingness to follow) these new-age rules that “just make things more complicated”.

Final thoughts

As easy as it is to shame big companies, to pressure them to do more on the arena of sustainability, request more mindful action, sometimes we must understand that the leadership of these giants really is trying to push things into the right direction but they are limited by policies, money or … culture! Caring for the environment on an industrial scale and the awareness of the spectrum of the problem is a privilege as it proves we have access to education and well-developed and well-informed sources of information.
It brings us back to the fact that we need to talk about climate change, we need to talk about the damage that single-use plastics may cause to our planet, but we must stay aware of the way we phrase things. Instead of shaming big companies, let’s try to understand the mechanisms behind their ways of operation and engage in (polite yet assertive) climate debates!

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