Reviewing Marriott’s sustainability was a challenging task and felt more like doing research for a multipage essay than a review. I initially thought I would only need to research the impact of one of their hotels to gain an understanding of the company’s overall impact. In addition, Marriott is widely praised as promoting sustainability. However, I soon realized that these companies that call Marriott sustainable overlook an important detail. While the practices of the buildings themselves may have several positive attributes, the promotion of an unsustainable form of tourism is incredibly unsustainable. As the parent company to 30 brands and over 7,000 properties, the Marriott brand consists of golf courses, marinas, ski resorts, restaurants, hotels, boutiques, and so much more. Prior to even looking at the specifics, I’m sure it’s easy to see that a brand so large, diversified, and global cannot truly be sustainable.
Marriott operates over 7,000 properties. Constructing industrial buildings releases emissions, and the materials used to construct buildings do plenty of harm to the environment as well. To give a couple of examples, concrete damages topsoil, pollutes water, and is a top producer of carbon dioxide. Timber is often accumulated through deforestation and other unsustainable practices. 180 of Marriott’s buildings are adaptive reuse hotels, which means an already existing building was transformed into a hotel. This is a far more sustainable option than constructing a new building and integrates hotels more smoothly into local communities. 180 out of 7,000 is only 2.57%, which is not a significant portion. If they were to do this more frequently, the company would be far more sustainable. Furthermore, Marriott hotels have many luxury accommodations from golf courses, to ski resorts, to restaurants, to shops, and many others. Marriott operates numerous golf courses which require vast quantities of water to operate. Pumping water for golf courses can cause damage to groundwater and increase water scarcity. The Global Development and Research Center states that, “An average golf course in a tropical country such as Thailand needs 1500kg of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides per year and uses as much water as 60,000 rural villagers.” This is a huge unnecessary use of resources that leaves locals at a disadvantage. Furthermore, sewage from hotels is released into the waterways and contaminated various water sources. The Marriott website offers links to cruises, which release tons of waste and cause lots of pollution. In their hotels, they promote a variety of stores, from clothes to souvenirs. This contributes to over-consumption and waste in addition to the impact of making those products to begin with.
Starting with a 2016 baseline, Marriott has 2025 goals of reducing waste to the landfill by 45%, reducing food waste by 50%, achieving a minimum of 30% renewable electricity use, reducing water intensity by 15%, and reducing carbon intensity by 30%. They also have goals of having all hotels recognized by some sort of sustainability certification, but they do not specify what that certification is. Additionally, they will have LEED certifications. In terms of achieving these goals, Marriott has made some first steps. They partner with Ecolab which aims to offer companies solutions to environmental, safety and other challenges. This partnership is specifically to address the goals of 15% water reduction, 30% carbon reduction, and 45% landfill waste reduction. They have already implemented new practices to reduce environmental impact. Marriott uses the Aquanomic Low-Temp Laundry System which, based on Ecolab’s data, leads to 40% water savings, 50% energy savings, and 20% reduction in linen replacement. Saving water and energy and extending product life are all positive steps. Compared to 2016, in 2019, Marriott reduced water intensity by .15% and reduced Carbon intensity by 8.58%. While this is slowly moving in the right direction, it has a long, long way to go. Also in 2019, 36% of properties were recognized by a sustainability certification, but it is not specified which certifications these are. Therefore, this could be a positive thing but is hard to verify. 70.56% of Marriott’s paper products are Forest Stewardship Council-certified, but there is debate as to how much this means. Some environmental organizations stand behind it while others do not. 30% of their seafood is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. Sources, including the documentary Seaspiracy, argue that the MSC does not uphold values of sustainability due to their promotion of unsustainable practices regarding fishing. Therefore, Marriott could do a better job at finding certifications that are not controversial in order to back up their claims and make sure their efforts actually cause positive impact. They use 55.1% cage-free eggs and and aim for 100% by 2025. Cage-free eggs are substantially more ethical toward the chickens, so this is a good thing. Marriott has also announced plans to completely eliminate single use toiletry bottles and replace them with a residential size alternative to be used by multiple guests. This was delayed due to Covid-19, but once in place, Marriott estimates it will save 500 million bottles from ending up in landfills. Eliminating this type of plastic which does not decompose quickly and is not often recycled is great, as it keeps it from adding to the dangerous amount of plastic currently in the ocean.
The goals Marriott set forth would be great steps. However, it would seem more legitimate if they outlined specific processes they will use to achieve these goals. The updates in 2019 were helpful and hopefully Marriott continues to give them annually to hold themselves accountable.
Hotel service is made through day to day operation of the buildings. These buildings release exorbitant levels of emissions. For example, in the U.S., buildings consume 41% of energy in the country and cause 40% of carbon emissions. Additionally, buildings consume 14% of water that could be safe to drink. Marriott is the parent company for 30 brands and has over 7,000 properties in 130 countries. Being such a large company, many of its properties are not built from Marriott itself and are rather franchised out or licensed. Thus, Marriott does not necessarily construct all of these business, but the environmental impact of operating over 7,000 facilities is enormous. Marriott has introduced resources for employees to learn about waste reduction, such as posters in back rooms to educate employees. This may be somewhat helpful, but does not seem like it would substantiate significant change, as it puts the burden of education on the employees. By 2025, Marriott states that their centrally contracted suppliers will need to source 50% of produce locally. They will measure this by the amount spent on produce. This is a great step, as locally sourcing produce avoids transportation emissions as well as wasted food during transportation.
As the largest hotel brand in the world, Marriott has an expansive presence in the tourism industry. Tourism is the foundation of how the company operates. Having so many properties implores people to travel the world without necessarily thinking of their impact. 60% of air transportation is now tourists, and the environmental costs of flight are extremely significant. One transatlantic flight releases half the carbon emissions that the average person does annually. Even if tourists travel by other means, the global environmental cost of transportation is devastating. This encouragement to visit these areas also gives people reason to visit beaches, forests, mountain ranges, and other nature spaces, which increases waste disposal and harmful actions in these endangered areas. All of this causes damage to delicate ecosystems. Beachgoers often leave behind trash, and toxic chemicals in sunscreen are released into the ocean. Marriott also has ski resorts which are often unsustainable in their use of the land and often entail deforestation. In addition, tourism can exploit resources that are already not readily available in destinations. From food to energy, tourists tend to have high expectations and standards that can cost locals access to these goods. Additionally, tourists often bring large amounts of waste to these areas that is not properly disposed of. Furthermore, use of natural resources can expedite the depletion of already scarce resources. Tourism generally causes significant overuse of scarce water supplies. From the hotel itself to the pools it operates, to the golf courses, the tourism industry consumes water at levels that the Earth cannot keep up with. Forests and natural spaces are often destroyed to make room for properties. Given that Marriott owns 30 brands and over 7,000 properties and boasts of destination locations, it’s fair to assume that they cause ample damage in these ways. Additionally, hotels often visually dominate local areas, imposing on traditional buildings and aesthetics. This demonstrates a lack of respect for local communities and cultures from Marriott. They have a goal of investing $500,000 into partnerships to promote and analyze travel and tourism in a culturally aware manner, but this is not a lot of money for the company, and it seems like there are simple steps they could take on their own.
According to Forbes, 85% of Marriott employees state that Marriott hotels are good places to work, which is significantly above the 59% of respondents that say this on average in the United States. The Marriott business model states that treating employees like customers leads to better experiences for customers, improving Marriott’s bottom line. Furthermore, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the CEO chose not to receive a salary, and the executives cut theirs in half to support lower level employees. Thus, it does seem like, overall, the employees are treated well. In terms of employees that report directly to the CEO, 11% are people of color and 44% are women. I was somewhat impressed that the percentage of women was close to half, and 42% of global executives at Marriott are women which is also getting close. However, the amount of people of color must increase.
In their 2019 update, Marriott states that they have donated $995,000,000 to support women-, minority-, veteran-, LGBT-, and disability-owned businesses. Notably, they invested $613,000,000 into women-owned businesses. This demonstrates a significant effort to promote gender equity, since putting women in positions of power is vital for this goal. Furthermore, by 2025, they aim to have equal gender representation in their company. In order for this to be truly important, this must mean an equal number of women in positions of power. However, Marriott does raise a question mark about one aspect of their human rights practices. They claim that by 2025, all of their on-property workers will be trained on human trafficking awareness. This seems more like a present fault rather than something they should later be praised for. It seems only logical that the largest global hotel chain should train its staff on human trafficking. This is a huge flaw in their claims of equity. They also state that, by 2025, they will invest at least $35,000,000 into youth leadership programs. Based on the investment in the above businesses, I see no reason not to believe that this goal will come to fruition. One of the brand’s sustainability goals is to have more than 15 million hours of volunteer work by 2025. This seems to put the burden of sustainability and ethical activities on the employees rather than the company. They also state that, by 2025, the majority of their hotels will participate in community service. It is not specified how this will be done or what programs these might be. This is vague and meaningless until they actually initiate these programs.
While I can’t say that Marriott is the sole reason for the damage to ecosystems that comes with tourism, as the world’s largest hotel company and parent to so many hotel brands, they bear a great deal of responsibility. Given their stature as such a large company, they have the opportunity to be an industry leader in sustainable practices. They need to do better. They have a lot of goals, but many of them do not have very many specifics as to how they will be achieved. The buildings themselves seem to be moving in the right direction for the most part, but the philosophy behind tourism is inherently flawed.