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Marriott International Brings Green Home To Its Customers

Sunday, 16 Nov 2008 | 7:24 PM ET

When it comes to carbon footprints, Marriott International's has one of the the more global ones, but it's taking big steps to reduce its environmental impact while making an even bigger impression on people in the process.

Boa Frente
Marriott
Boa Frente

Like many companies, the lodging group has a number of energy-saving, environmentally-friendly initiatives, from greening its $10-billion supply chain to using solar power to reducing water and fuel consumption, far beyond linen cleaning and reuse.

In April, Marriott updated its efforts with a five-point environmental plan that sets measurable goals and is coordinated through a green council, co-chaired by its CFO Arne Sorensen.

With 3,000 hotels, 300,000 employees, and millions of guests around the world, "we have a real ability to educate and inspire," says Marriott's Stephanie Hampton, so the company is engaging employees and customers alike with some basic, everyday concepts.

Take recycling. Though the company's been doing it behind closed doors for years, it has introduced the concept into guest rooms in about 10 test markets, in part because enough people—who practice recycling at home—have asked about it.

The company has also introduced green welcome cards of sorts, explaining what the company is doing and how customers can participate.

Starting in November, for instance, customers could make a personal contribution to the company's carbon offset program, which is centered on the protection of 1.4 million acres of Amazon rainforest.

Virgilio Viana, left, Director of the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation, and Arne Sorenson, CFO of Marriott International.
Virgilio Viana, left, Director of the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation, and Arne Sorenson, CFO of Marriott International.

Marriott encourages its employees—who seem to be quite the green bunch—when on business travel to rent hybrid cars and other vehicles with EPA SmartWay* certification, for lower emissions and greenhouse gases.

Here's excerpts of our conversation with Sorensen, who had recently visted the rain forest.

What is the one mistake a company makes in trying to enter the space?

I think there are two big risks. One is that the environmental agenda is set up as a distant appendage to the rest of the organization, where the environmental officer, or whatever people you have pursuing these agendas, don’t really have any power or accountability in the organization and it ends up being marginalized from the beginning. The other risk is that companies will jump in and say ‘We’re going to do this’ before figuring out whether it is economically justified.

What are the easy things companies can do to get started?

The easy things are to look at where the environmental agenda is most easily paid for and jump on that. There’s really no issue that those things should not be pursued. And that’s going to around energy efficiency and recycling. At our headquarters, by recycling our white paper and selling our white paper, we pay for the removal of all other trash in the building.

How is your companies green council integrating into the daily routine?

Initially our green approach was all about complying with local requirements and a community service culture. Often those events had an environmental tinge. And the third piece historically was about cost savings, particularly around energy usage in our hotels. The pursuit of cost savings was very coincident with the environmental agenda.

In more recent times, with so many activities going around, we decided to put tighter a senior level green council that allows us to make sure we are synthesizing all these things. It is partly about telling our story and knowing what’s going around across the globe and also empowering the people who are coming up with ideas and to make sure we can implement them..

That suggests its part of the daily fabric of the company?

We have so many people out there that are creating a lab for us, we don’t have to sit here as the green council—from a lofty level —and say, ‘Here’s what we want you to do.’

You’ve put the green concept into your supply chain. How difficult is that?

Sometimes that’s fairly easy. For instance, we buy nearly 50 million pens a year. Pens walk out the door all the time. It was quite simple to negotiate with Bic and to say, ‘We buy all these pens from you we’d like them to be made of recycled materials, to have agents that aid their degration when they are disposed of.' Both of those things can be done at virtually no cost.

Other things like paints. We’ve negotiated with our significant paint supplier and said 'We really don’t want to pay any more for low VOC [volatile organic compounds] paint. How about if we agree that we will buy it from you and you deliver low VOC?' And they said, 'Absolutely and we’ll deliver it for no more and maybe a little less than our less sustainable product.'

It’s about packaging, production methods ... and they’re generally not very expensive if you use your power as a buyer to drive that kind of conduct from manufacturers and sellers.

You’re doing a number of things to engage your customers. How important is that dynamic?

The easy part of the environmental agenda is to do a) what’s required by local or national law and b) the things that have a quick payback. The new frontier is whether we can drive incremental business to out hotels such that it is in itself a return on environmental steps.

There are a couple areas I would highlight. One is green meetings. And there it’s about how we interact with meeting planners. Meetings in our hotels are a significant part of our business. And increasingly people who are sponsoring meetings want to be able to offer a green meeting to their customers. So, they are saying that’s a value to us. It could be about the furniture we use or it could be about carbon offsets.

The second is this Amazon initiative. It’s partly about leisure and our retail business. We’re involved in a very novel program with the state of Amazonas to avoid further deforestation of the Amazon. But we are going offer you, our customer an ability to connect with that, to say to our customers, 'Do want to participate in this? Here’s how you can make a difference.'

How is that working out? What’s been the response?

It’s just started. I suspect we will be very, very pleased with it (the response). A lot of folks will say, 'We wanted to participate in some way in this and appreciate that you’ve found a way for us to participate in this.'

What about other initiatives, like recycling in rooms?

I think there are huge numbers of customers who want to stay in a place that is environmentally responsible. I think it an open question how much they want to pay for that incrementally. The guest room is the way the customers most connects with us, so if they can see things in the guest room that don’t take away from their experience, show that we’re being responsible, we think that’s a positive thing.

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