Removing Mini-Shampoos from Hotel Rooms Won’t Save the Environment

Yves here, It’s disheartening to see how many corporate pro-environment measures are greenwashing, and worse, how few environmentalists demand better.

By Yossi Sheffi, Professor of Engineering; Director of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Originally published at The Conversation

InterContinental Hotels Group will replace mini-shampoos and conditioners with possibly more efficient bulk products by the year 2021.

But environmental activists shouldn’t rejoice just yet.

The announcement is yet another example – such as banning plastic straws, false sustainability claims and corporate commitments that are far in the future – that seem to be more of a PR exercise than real attempts to move the needle.

I’m a professor of engineering and the director of the MIT Center of Transportation and Logistics. As I argue in my book “Balancing Green: When to Embrace Sustainability in a Business (And When Not To),” announcements of these kinds distract us from legitimate – and more challenging – measures we need to put in place to avoid environmental catastrophe.

Behind the Headlines

InterContinental Hotels Group CEO Keith Barr says that replacing miniature bathroom products “will allow us to significantly reduce our waste footprint and environmental impact” at the conglomerate’s hotel chains, which include InterContinental, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn.

It’s true that the British foundation Clear Conscience estimates that 200 million travel-size toiletries end up in U.K. landfills every year, but there’s another motivation: With 5,600 hotels, the savings for IHG can mount to over US$11 million annually.

Additionally, studies we have carried out at MIT and elsewhere show that evaluations of a product’s environmental impact can mislead if economists don’t consider the entire supply chain management process.

For example, most of the carbon footprint of companies like Apple, Microsoft and Cisco comes from the suppliers who actually make the iPhones, routers and Xboxes, not directly from the company itself.

Additionally, the net reduction in discarded plastic could be minimal at best if the larger containers are filled from single-use plastic pouches. Also, we do not yet know if the larger containers are recyclable, nor the cost and environmental impacts of making, transporting, installing and maintaining them.

Even if replacing miniature toiletries does reduce waste somewhat – as other hotel chains join the movement and California is moving to banthem – the move to bulk products will barely put a dent in the plastic waste that now clogs the planet’s rivers and oceans. It is another “feel good” initiative which help avoid the move to more serious actions that can actually make a difference.

Banning plastic straws is another such example. While outlawing plastic straws makes for excellent public relations copy, it has virtually no impact on the global accumulation of plastic garbage.

Skin-Deep Support

At least the hotel chain is responding to consumers’ professed increasing support for green products and services, right?

Some studies find that more than 80% of consumers say they will make personal sacrifices to address social and environmental issues. However, when actually buying goods, consumer support for environmental products largely evaporates.

To try to explain the gap between what people say and how much they’re willing to pay, my students and I observed consumers’ choices in supermarkets in Boston.

These supermarkets presented sustainable choices in large green frames around the sustainable products – detergents, soaps, paper products and others – alongside “regular” products in the same isle. Fewer than 10% of consumers chose the sustainable products, though the study found somewhat higher percentages among highly educated and higher income consumers. The sustainable products were, by and large, between 5% and 7% more expensive.

Given customer ambivalence toward paying for green products, companies engage in token measures that insulate them from reputational damage and the unwanted attention of environmental groups, which could lead to NGO and media complaints or consumer boycotts and lost sales.

Beyond that, brands will reclassify economically sensible cost-cutting initiatives, such as energy savings, as sustainability initiatives.

One good way to green hotels is to restrict hotels’ use of energy-thirsty air conditioning. Another is to charge guests for not reusing towels rather than imploring them to reuse these items.

Granted, a slogan that states “Our hotel will not keep rooms cooler than 75 degrees in the summer and no warmer than 65 degrees in the winter” may not increase hotels’ market share. Even the replacement of the small shampoo bottles with bulk dispensers is leading to consumers’ apprehension.

Futile Gestures

Perhaps the most damaging fallout from symbolic corporate green “feel good” initiatives is that they distract from actions that can make a difference.

More specifically, companies could focus their efforts on carbon-reducing technology. No existing technologies are available on a global scale, but a small example of such a successful international agreement is the “Montreal Protocol” to ban substances that deplete the ozone layer.

Governments could implement adaptation measures for the changing climate such as building sea walls on vulnerable coastlines, planning for changes in food production patterns and the massive migration that may follow. An example of a comprehensive adaption strategy is the work of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

In a world where companies engage in tokenism to satisfy their customers’ false green preferences, InterContinental Hotels Group efforts are perfectly acceptable. But that world is likely to be short-lived.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I think one reason consumers are less likely to pay more for ‘sustainable’ options is precisely because of suspicion/cynicism about the motives of the manufacturers/retailer. It can be very difficult for those companies that are genuine in trying to do the right thing to get their message across when there is so much greenwashing. This is why when it comes down to it there is no real alternative to strong regulation and pricing incentives – relying on consumer goodwill is not enough. Consumer pressure can force companies to avoid the most egregious offences, but it can’t force ‘deep’ change.

    Hotels are an interesting case study – for a long time they’ve recognised that doing the right thing environmentally is good for the bottom line. As most hotels are built by the operators, they’ve long been more advanced than other industries in reducing energy and materials use (you can often see the difference in hotels built speculatively and those built by major operators – the latter are often of a much higher specification as they know this saves money in the long term). They are also very good at making maximum use of urban land. Ironically, we’d probably all have much less of an impact on the environment if we all lived in urban hotels.

    1. Adam1

      While I completely agree that there is a lot of suspicion and cynicism around distinguishing between green washing and true sustainable efforts a big piece of it is lack of income. A large and growing percentage of our populations are increasingly income constrained. If you don’t have 5%-10% of extra income to spare it doesn’t matter if you want to buy the sustainable products; you simple have to keep choosing the unsustainable ones (assuming it’s a viewed as a necessity).

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I don’t really think income is a huge driver on this, there is little connection that I’m aware of between income and purchasing more ethical products. In my local food co-op, which only sells organic and ethical foods, they’ve found that contrary to the cliche of the rich hipster mom buying organic food, the majority of customers are relatively low income (but more likely to be well educated). They save money by bulk buying dried goods and getting seasonal organic deliveries rather than going for the cheapest thing on the supermarket shelf. Its letting people off the hook for their decisions to say ‘oh, nobody can afford it these days’. For a lot of core products the price differential really isn’t all that much.

        Here in Dublin a few years ago a charity did a pilot project for unemployed men to teach them how to shop and save money for their families – doing things like buying bulk dried lentils and beans for stews rather than buying microwave and frozen convenience food. It was mostly aimed at helping poorer families manage their incomes and diet better, but it was striking from the results that a lot of convenience purchasing was simply the result of people not knowing the alternative (i.e. cooking properly) and being too embarrassed to ask or seek help.

        1. Susan the other`

          We don’t need all those personal hygiene products. We need a bar of soap that doesn’t scorch our skin and a place to shower ourselves down. Some basic lotion like scented natural oils/mineral oils, that don’t come with clever packaging – that’s all just pure marketing. Shampoo is a con. We don’t even need it. Nor do we need “conditioner”. I’ve got long hair almost down to my waist and I wash it with a bar of dove soap. It’s the best shampoo I’ve ever found because it gets my scalp squeaky clean too. Our whole plastic based consumer convenience society is due for a big change. Hotels can say, “Try our famous bar soap shampoo, it’s the latest innovation in hair conditioning.”

          1. Cuibono

            My great Aunt was a beautician at the Waldorf Astoria for 40 years. She swore by bar soap for hair care,

  2. marcel

    My kid is working this summer in a distribution center. Stuff (food, soda, toiletries, …) comes in by the truckloads. Everything is put on pallettes, and filmed to keep things together.
    His job is to unfilm stuff, take six boxes of soda, 5 boxes of beans, 10 boxes of beer … put everything on one or more other palettes and then the stuff is send off to the store where it is sold.
    So every night he unfilms and refilms tens of palettes, which means kilometres of plastic film. He has tens of co-workers, there are tens of such distribution centers in tens of countries.
    And then people complain about plastic straws. One shift of him creates more plastic waste than a city full of tourists sipping through straws over a full year. So yes, we look the wrong way.

    1. PlutonumKun

      There may be a huge amount of waste in that distribution centre, but it will have much less overall impact simply because it will have a centralised waste contract. Even if it just goes to a tip, at least it will likely go to a licensed tip. Plus, the very large quantities of homogenous material makes it much more likely that it can be sensibly recycled.

      Consumer plastic is just a very small percentage of the overall (agriculture is actually a massively larger consumer), but as any glance of a typical river or roadside can attest, it is by far the biggest contributor to visible litter and is the most problematic for minimisation and recycling.

    2. Ian Perkins

      Back in the 1970s, I had a summer job at a British Leyland (cars & car parts) outpost.
      Much of my job consisted in taking Lucas light bulbs out of their boxes, and placing them in British Leyland ‘Leycare’ boxes.
      Each box came – and went – shrinkwrapped in 12s, and these 12s were further wrapped in 10(?)s, which were finally piled on a pallet and given a heavy-duty wrap. All this packaging was thrown into a skip (= US dumpster) along with the pallets, and so far as I could tell (I did ask) none of this was recycled in any way.
      The experience left me even more cynical than I already was when I hear “The economy needs …”. A thoroughly anti-social and environmentally harmful activity, the sole point of which appeared to be to con consumers.

  3. Bugs Bunny

    This kind of effort would have a lot more credibility if an industry body actually studied and published a report on how much less plastic and CO2 it would produce. As it is, it comes off as just a move to increase incremental margin.

    I would think that a more interesting conservation move would be to replace the wall-to-wall acrylic carpet found in most hotels with a natural material like cork or terrazzo that doesn’t have to be replaced every 10 years or so.

  4. Carla

    As is so often the case, PlutoniumKun has nailed it with the initial comment on this thread. And perhaps if we could ever have strong regulations and pricing incentives, the plastic straw would completely disappear. Except for some hospital patients and a tiny percentage of people with certain disabilities who require a drinking straw to ingest liquids, such straws are utterly unnecessary. THAT’s what bothers me about their ubiquity. People manage to drink beer, wine, coffee and tea without straws. Why does a glass of water, soda pop or iced tea require one? It’s nuts!

    1. marcel

      Last week in Ireland, we were served with a macaroni straw instead of a plastic one. Works the same, but you can eat it also :)

  5. verifyfirst

    Well, I dunno. Kroger has huge signs up in its stores that it will be eliminating single use plastic bags….by 2025. Seems legit.

    Kroger ended its program of paying 10 cents for every bag of your own you brought in about 5 years ago, due, they told me, to their satisfaction the program had worked, and sufficiently high percentages of patrons were now bringing their own bags. What that percentage was, exactly, they refused to say.

    Of course, environmental groups jumped on the issue 5 years ago…..oh wait.

    How about a viral protest campaign for this corporate stupidity every time we see it– #pathetic

  6. Ignacio

    For example, most of the carbon footprint of companies like Apple, Microsoft and Cisco comes from the suppliers who actually make the iPhones, routers and Xboxes, not directly from the company itself.

    These just make hummm benefits.
    Small shampoo, bathing gels, foam packages were favoured by legislation on flight “safety”. Some other legislation has helped single use plastics such as the regulation of olive oil packaging in the EU. Much of such regulation was promoted by large manufacturers hoping that smaller corps wouldn’t afford the cost of single use packaging + inspection + certification.

    The same guys that promoted that look reluctant to go back to old less insane practices

  7. Sound of the Suburbs

    The US created an open, globalised world with the Washington Consensus.
    China went from almost nothing to become a global super power.

    That wasn’t supposed to happen, let’s get the rocket scientists onto it.

    Maximising profit is all about reducing costs.

    China had coal fired power stations to provide cheap energy.
    China had lax regulations reducing environmental and health and safety costs.
    China had a low cost of living so employers could pay low wages.
    China had low taxes and a minimal welfare state.
    China had all the advantages in an open, globalised world.

    It did have, but now China has become too expensive and developed Eastern economies are off-shoring to places like Vietnam, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

    An open, globalised world is a race to the bottom on costs.

    Neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus were always going to be an environmental disaster.

    Why do US firms off-shore to Mexico?
    US companies prefer Mexico with its cheap labour, lax health and safety standards, and lack of environmental regulations. They can expose workers to hazardous chemicals and just pump toxic waste straight out into the environment, without incurring the costs associated in dealing with them in an environmentally friendly way.

    Female workers are best as they are less likely to stick up for themselves and are easier to exploit. Most of them are single mothers as well, they really need that wage to look after their children, it’s perfect.

    Every avenue must be explored to reduce costs.

    The lower the costs, the higher the profit.

    Do whatever you can get away with, the laxer the regulations in a country the better.

  8. Kevin C. Smith

    My 68 year old eyes can NEVER read the labels on those mini shampoos etc when I am in a hotel shower [my 45 year old eyes couldn’t either]. I’ve stayed at Relais et Chateaux where they had wall mounted, easy to read, dispensers in the shower containing bulk soap, shampoo and conditioner. That was just great for me.

    If a high end hotel can please its guests with such simple thoughtfulness, why can’t the others?

    The labels on the mini’s seem to have been designed by a 20-something working on a high-end Mac.
    Label might have looked great 20x life-size on the screen, but when printed the label has 8-point type, and is usually grey print on a beige background. Useless in the real world. Hotel managers and execs should be made to stay in their hotel rooms for a few nights each year.

    1. Ignacio

      I very much understand you. I increasingly need to ask for help in supermarkets because of the small size of letters in many instances. For instance ingredients in food. Even for cooking instructions. In the EU spmkts are also obliged to add in the price label the cost of product per Kg or L which I find useful in my purchasing decisions. Those labels are frequently difficult to read.

      As an apart, one of the professions with a brighter future is oculist when the smartphone born generations arrive to their forties.

      1. Ian Perkins

        Assuming they won’t simply point their phones at whatever, and listen to them read it aloud.

  9. Steven

    I really don’t understand this:

    Governments could implement adaptation measures for the changing climate such as building sea walls on vulnerable coastlines, …

    Wouldn’t it be far more sensible to begin moving people out of endangered areas than spending a lot of money to build sea walls – who knows how high?

    Today’s CO2 at 410 ppm literally smashes the old record of 280 ppm that stood for 400,000 years. Hmm.
    Over those 400,000 years, 5°C temperature change brought 120 meter (394 feet) sea level changes in its wake. Looked at another way, sea level rise equals 20 meters (60 feet) per 1°C temperature increase. Uh-oh! Earth’s already heated that much. Does this mean 20 meters (60 feet) of sea level rise is already “baked in the cake,” ready to burst forward?

    Sea Level Rise! What happens if one of those many huge ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica give way – and how fast?
    Isn’t this whole idea of building sea walls the ultimate example of moral hazard?

  10. polecat

    I can’t help but think that the Davos-Darling-of-Green, little Greta Thunberg, is smiling now wherever she be on the Atlantic, having heard the news .. as she sails ever closer to Ferengi Island, in that HiTech bou-cou sailing vessel she was offered .. courtesy of the well-too-do !

    I have to go barf over the railing now .. I’m getting an awful bout of I-See sickness.

    1. Louis Fyne

      Reportedly Greta (and her sailing crew) are flying back home after her conference in America. Hence creating more CO2 than if she and a parent flew stand-by on any of the pre-existing flights from home to America

      Essentially commercial flights are flying buses that will run whether or not it’s full, the marginal CO2 of flying coach is de minimis versus assembling a boat, crew and provisions for a trans-Atlantic journey.

      Illogical vIrtue-signalling wins again.

      1. Thomas P

        It doesn’t matter what Greta does, someone will claim it is hypocricy in any case. Had she flewn people would have complained about that too, not caring about any calculation it may be the lowest CO2-alternative. Nor do I think you should hold Greta responsible if the owner of the boat decides to fly in a replacement crew.

        It’s easy to make fun of symbolic events like this, but those are needed to grab attention.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Yes, there is no ‘right’ thing she can do in the situation, the right will accuse her of hypocrisy whatever she does. I do find it disturbing that a lot of otherwise sensible people are blindly taking up right wing talking points on this.

          1. Ian Perkins

            Very firmly seconded.
            I’ve heard more sense from Greta Thunberg on the topic of climate change in the last year than I have from most economists, politicians or world leaders for decades.
            In particular, her idea that if fighting climate change is politically or economically impossible, then we need to change our politics, economics and economies. I regularly read Naked Capitalism in the hope of clues to how this might be done.

  11. Denis Drew

    Even if we could produce 50% of today’s world energy needs with renewables (sun, wind, water power) — IOW even if we could produce as much renewable power as we are ever likely to produce — that would only amount to 5% of the power the world will need 100 years from now when we will need 10X as much (think all rich countries, population growth).

    A 95% nuclear future is the only way to go — adding on thermonuclear when we get there. Thermonuclear will be a along time — similar to applying steam power to transport and manufacturing. It took a lot of very able people 200 years to bring steam along from pumping water out of coal mines to riding on rails. May take 50 years for equivalent progress in thermo.

    Meantime there may realistically be 1000 times the proven reserves of uranium out there. Doesn’t take much — a pound of nuclear fuel provides as much power as 200,000 pounds of coal. Ditto may even be extracted from the oceans (like thermo’s deuterium).

    The Japanese reactor disaster was easily avoided. They only had to to keep their backup power supply high up enough to not be swamped by a tsunami — which they were warned could happen. Nobody died on Three Mile Island. The Russian meltdown doesn’t count for us. Earth civilization is going to self-incinerate if we don’t go nuclear — totally.

    Disposing of spent fuel: how many coal mines or salt mines, etc., have we dug while waiting to dig a few uranium sites?

    That’s the physics of it — can’t imagine how we will handle the politics and economics of it — 95% nuclear/thermonuclear or bust.

    The book you want to read (I could only read about half — too technical in parts) is: The Future of Fusion Energy by Jason Parisi and Justine Ball.

    For the histoy of steam among other power sources, check out: Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes (Pulitzer Prize winning author of Th Making of the Atomic Bomb).

  12. DHG

    Go back to holding most items like this in glass, its not rocket science. As a kid in the grocery store most things were held in glass. Plastic is made from oil and therefore not sustainable anyway.

  13. RubyDog

    While cynicism about corporate motives and overall impact of actions like banning plastic straws and mini shampoo bottles may be warranted, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t happen at all. Of course they are not going to “save the environment” in and of themselves, nothing will. But small and individual actions should be applauded, not ridiculed, and there is no reason they need to “distract from actions that can make a difference”. We are in an “all hands on deck” situation, and individuals need to do what they can on their level while keeping up the pressure for more meaningful and impactful changes at a corporate and governmental level. If we give in to the cynicism, we might as well not vote, drive gas guzzlers on joy rides, eat meat and more meat at every meal, and have 10+ kids, because none of it makes any difference on an individual level.

  14. Wukchumni

    Had breakfast @ the Grant Grove restaurant in Kings Canyon, and there was some gibberish on the menu about how as a commitment to the planet, straws would not be given out, unless requested.

    Doesn’t that say it all, we care, but yeah, not really.

    1. Thomas P

      It’s a reasonable compromise. The restaurant can reduce the number of straws a lot by not handing them out to people who don’t care about them while avoiding to alienate the few customers who want them bad enough to ask. Avoiding items that no one even wants and end up being thrown in the garbage unused is a first step.

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