Are hotel towel "reuse" programs saving the environment — or the bottom line?

Copyright © 2010 Joel Kramer

No matter where in the world I travel, it’s the same thing.

Hotels trumpet how they want guests’ help in conserving water by forgoing changing towels and sheets. I don’t know about you, but when I see those “Save Our Planet” placards in my room, I can’t help but think it’s nothing more than a euphemism for “Save Our Bottom Line” — at least for many hotels I’ve used.

Some hotels are making a real effort to truly conserve energy and water, for reasons beyond the bottom line. Marriott and Hilton, in my opinion, are making significant conservation efforts.

Both Marriott and Hilton have developed detailed and serious “Corporate Responsibility Programs.” They are working with the US Green Building Council for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and with their vendors. They are working to create awareness among their associates and guests to work with them to support a sustainable environment.

We all should applaud those efforts because they go well beyond Marriott and Hilton corporate bottom-line consideration.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), water used in the lodging business alone accounts for about 15 percent of the total water used in all commercial and institutional facilities in the US. Hotels’ largest uses of water are for bathrooms, laundry facilities, landscaping and kitchens.

Unlike Marriott and Hilton, there are too many hotels with a conservation policy which doesn’t conserve. While they ask guests to conserve, they continue to waste energy and water despite a plethora of available, easy to implement conservation measures.

If those hotels were serious about sustainability, they’d at least install restrictive flow shower heads, faucet aerators and high efficiency toilets, eliminate drafty windows, install energy efficient lighting, reduce unnecessary lighting in unused public areas, upgrade to low water use laundry facilities, efficient water landscape systems, etc. At many hotels, these measures are coming very slowly, if at all.

It takes a willingness to expend capital to conserve. While their return on investment can be somewhat longer than generally desired by the industry, there is a tangible, measurable financial return for the investment in water and energy conservation. Marriott’s and Hilton’s commitment to reduce their energy and water consumption by 20 percent by the end of the decade illustrates that.

Like many travelers, when I arrive in my hotel room I check the quality and number of towels in the bathroom. At home, I’d speculate most of us don’t change our towels and bed linens daily, so the question arises, “Why do so many hotel guests balk at participating in the ‘linen reuse’ programs?”

For me, it’s because it’s clear many hotels are more intent in adding a new “profit center” than “saving our planet.”

Too many hotels offer the thinnest towels they can, with little water absorbency, no towel racks, just a couple of hooks for four towels or more on which the towels have no chance to dry.

Even if they offered to share their lowered costs from the towel reuse program with a refund, it wouldn’t interest me. Is there anything much worse than having nothing but a cold, damp towel after a hot shower?

It’s about time all hotels have a towel program in which guests can reasonably participate.

I’ve filled out guest evaluation forms, and have spoken to management personnel in Hilton Hotels I stay in frequently in Los Angeles, Montgomery and other cities. I’ve found they are listening to me and other guests. They’ve upgraded their towel reuse program and other conservation initiatives. Speak up with me. The hotels are listening.

Who benefits more from a hotel's towel reuse programs?

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  • JohntheKiwi

    It benefits both. It’s win/win. Good for hotels for doing it – it may save them money but it also reduces water use which is also important. Interestingly, I recently stayed in a hotel in Kansas City (I think Staybridge, or Townplace, or Springhill or one of the little-sister brands, and they had the policy and the sign – the first day I hung my towel, yet they still replaced it. The next day, I hung the town, and placed the sign ON the towel, yet they still replaced it again!

  • TMMao

    There are certain cleanliness standards that the housekeeper has to follow. So if your used towel has any visible dirt or hair, it must be replaced. Other times, if the towel has dried, the maid may have just refolded and placed it on the rack again.

  • John Baker

    My favorite… I once checked into a hotel with the “Save our bottomline” cards that also had a large fountain out front… half the time the water was landing outside of the fountain. I would guess they probably had to add water at least daily if not a weekly basis… Really showed how serious they were about water conservation.

  • charlieo

    Definitely, it’s about the bottom line. It takes 5 minutes to “straighten” out a room when the bed and towels aren’t being changed. Hotel can reduce workers and laundry. If they really want to save water, give the customer an incentive to keep the same sheets for “3 days” and use the same towels – – – reduce the bill. I don’t mind that the hotel wants to reduce costs, but they should pass on the savings. Want to save the environment, pass on the savings.

  • VELS14

    Maybe to some extent they’re passing on the savings view the room rate not going up.

  • VELS14

    It seems that most everywhere I stay, even if I want to participate in the towel program they replace my towels. What’s the point in that? How does that help anyone?

  • AKTraveller

    I agree that it benefits both — since when is reducing one’s impact on the environment supposed to be costly or noncompetitive?

    I usually stay at hotels that have nice thick towels, and more of them than I can use during a 4-5 day stay. I almost always leave the “Do Not Disturb” card on my door for the duration of my stay. I don’t need fresh towels every day and am quite capable of pulling up the bedspread. I like my room to stay ordered the way I want it to be set up; I don’t want the clock radio alarm to go off at 5 AM (loudly, tuned to a station I would never choose); I don’t want fresh soap; I don’t want the thermostat turned up to 70+ in winter; and I don’t want the little placards and ice bucket cluttering up all available desk and counter space. Nor do I want to find a chambermaid in my room when I stop by for a quick visit when my meetings are on-site.

    I agree about the low-flow showers and toilets. Showering, in particular, can be unpleasant when there is only one flow to choose from and it’s too fast/hard to make it possible for me to keep conditioner on my hair or shave cream on parts I’m trying to shave.

  • VELS14

    I prefer to have my room vacuumed daily, get some fresh fruit, and have the bathroom cleaned each day myself.

    I also rearrange my room quite a bit, but have found housekeeping almost never rearranges what I’ve done during my stay. I’ve never had them change the clock in the room either. Periodically they might turn off the thermostat but that’s better than not having the bathroom cleaned, plus according to where I am, I may want fresh towels periodically, such as if I’m at the seashore.

    Then again, to each their own.

  • AKFlyer

    Like most of us these days, I use my phone as an alarm. When I get a room that still has a clock-radio, I try to remember to check the settings and turn off the alarm if it is already set. But even after I’ve done this, I sometimes find that the maids have turned on the radio while in my room (nothing wrong with that) and inadvertently re-activated the alarm — at high volume (not OK!!!!). This only has to happen to you once or twice as you try to deal with jet lag for you to ban maids altogether. My bathroom just doesn’t get that dirty in 3-4 days, I guess.

  • 10DogMom

    I am completely blown away that anyone ever has a housekeeper that takes those signs seriously. I ALWAYS hang up my towel (until my last morning). I can’t think of a single time in the last 5 years where my towels have still been there when I get back. No one ever pays attention to it when they are cleaning a room. (I stay almost exclusively in Hilton properties (or Disney). And I do have to add that the Hamptons appear to have upgraded their towels in the last several years – much softer and more absorbent!)

  • mike313

    Its a scam on the traveler to aid the hotel’s bottom-line.
    Hotel’s where you need to place your room key in a box on the wall by the door to activate the room lights, routinely provide me (without my asking for them) with two keys so that the air conditioning can stay on when I am out of the room. If hotel’s were eco-minded they would install motion sensors in hallways to switch corridor lights on/off; install water flow restrictors in showers and install smaller flush volumes in toilets, and remove the mini-bar refrigerators (which saves both on electricity and on the salary of the person who checks the mini-bar daily).

    I do not mind not having sheets replaced every week (which is what I do at home), but I insist on daily fresh towels – it’s the only pampering I get out of staying at a hotel.

  • TMMao

    Why is it important to keep a room chilled when nobody is there? Does anybody keep their house that way, or their car? Just because it’s paid for in the room rate doesn’t mean it should be wasted. Pretty much any hotel room will cool down within five minutes of the AC being activated. Five minutes of discomfort to save on 8 or more hours of energy waste seems like a small price to pay.

  • dcta

    I am most sympathetic and compliant with these programs while in the Caribbean, or on the Med – both in hotels/resorts and on cruise ships. Have to admit, not so much in North American cities.

  • Jason

    They (Hilton) place their “Conservation is Simple” cards up in bathrooms but I believe it’s just to make themselves look good. Every where I stay (mostly Hilton) have these cards. I always hang my towels up and every day they’re replaced. Again, they’re just trying to look good with out the benefit.

  • imborgia

    I run a hotel and the towel issue is simply a win / win situation. The hotel industry is cut-throat, so its not a case of just trying to increase our bottom line, its a case of trying to save costs to survive. With the current finacial crunch, we have not increased our prices for the last 5 years. I wish the same could be said for wages, taxes, fuel etc.