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Barry Sternlicht Sees Luxury In Green

What's the point of being green at home, if you can't be green when you're traveling for business or pleasure?

Barry Sternlicht, who knows a thing or two about providing luxury for travelers, is one of those who thinks he has an answer. The man who built the Starwood lodging empire has launched a line of green hotels and condominiums.

His current company, Starwood Capital Group Global, plans fifteen properties under the "1" Hotel & Residences brand in cities such as Seattle, New York, Washington and Atlanta.

The Seattle project, which broke ground in June, is a $200 million, 23-story, all-residential structure. The New York property -- now under construction near Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan -- is being billed as the city's "first environmentally friendly five-star hotel," but will also have condominiums.

The buildings will use energy efficient systems, recylced materials and derive 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources, qualifying for LEED certification, the green movement's seal of approval. One percent of profits will be donated to local environmental groups.

Sternlicht, who's private equity company also has a unit that specializes in energy infrastructure investment, talked about his green ways and the need for change.

(Here are excerpts of an interview first published late last year.)

Where did the idea come from?

I’ve been a supporter of green initiatives for years. I've been paying more and more attention to it, you know with three kids. I thought it was tragic when the Kyoto Protocol was killed by the U.S. It was sort of a call to action.

Also, I’ve been traveling to Asia a lot lately and been very focused on what they are doing in China. It is just unbelievable the lack of air quality. And it is not just China's problem, it will be a global problem.

On top of that personal view is the business view is that this is a profitable business.

That’s the bet. Yes, we thought it could be profitable. We're going to try something and see if it works. The education is the hard park, the dream is the easy part.

It’s a challenging space. It's really just evolving. The quality of the material varies widely, the amount of material is limited. There are practical issues in designing properties that are usable and enjoyable.

Is some of the green movement corporate fashion?

I would say that is true in many cases, but to the extent that consumers will pay more for it and expect it, then why not do it? I also don’t criticize businesses for going green. What’s the alternative? They don’t go green. If it can be profitable to be green, that’s just smart business.

Have you experienced green tourism yourself?

I’ve been down to the Ecolodge in Panama. but there really are only a handful of real green hotels in the U.S. We looked at all of them.

You're serious about this though. After all, you’re giving one percent of profits to local environmental groups.

We’ll just load it into the P&L. It could be real money and we’re happy to do it. We believe in it.

What is the biggest mistake people are making about sustainability, climate change?

In our business, what we’re trying to do is have people not sacrifice their lives. You’re not going to sleep in burlap and eat carrots. There has to be a way to live the life you’re accustomed to and not sacrifice things. Americans are not very good about sacrificing.

More broadly, our country needs an energy policy. I’ve been a huge complainer that we don't have a national energy strategy. There’s nothing worse than not having control over this. It is not just an economic issue, it is about national defense. It is embarrassing. We ought to tax gasoline and put it into a fund to research alternatives -- renewables, wind, solar -- with the right government incentives. This is an accident on the way to becoming a real problem.

Is there an opportunity for corporate leadership?

The government should lead this. The government should subsidize this stuff. I don’t know who would lead this in business. Business can’t really do this on its own.

What's the biggest misconception about the issue?

Americans have awakened to it but they really don’t know what it means to go green. There’s no starter kit for it.

I think the dialogue is good. Americans are so short-term oriented; it makes us entrepreneurial and fun loving, but we need to find a long-term course and make a dramatic change.