Q&A: The Little Green Queen

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The woman who goes by the title above says she ended up in the hotel industry by mistake, but Lorraine Jenks has had an interesting career, including time in the UK, Canada and the US, where she worked with Californian ‘environmentalists’ (read hippies), in the early 1970’s. On her return to South Africa, she was appalled at the lack of concern for the environment, particularly in hospitality. She’s spent the past few decades trying to change that.

You have two websites – hotelstuff.co.za and greenstuff.co.za. What services do they offer?  Hotelstuff was started as a simple ‘yellow pages’ database of hospitality specialist suppliers and manufacturers. I launched Greenstuff four years ago. I already knew who had eco or ‘greener’ products, and we isolated just those for a free link on the sister website. Nothing is 100% green, so we endeavour to find the greenest version of a given product, and, of course, acknowledge those with internationally-accredited labels.

How difficult has it been for you to get the South African hotel industry to sit up and take notice of why it’s important to adopt a more ‘green’ approach? It took 20 years during my stint in the hospitality industry, but all in all, it has taken 40 years. South Africa is so far ahead with conservation, but was way behind in sustainable hospitality and responsible tourism. 

Time to name and shame – which hotel groups share your vision of ‘greener’ hotel management, and which ones are lagging behind?  I don’t want to judge, but it does concern me that the focus is on carbon auditing and cost savings. Sustainable hospitality should be way beyond that and beyond financial benefit. The audits and green certificates focus on energy, water and waste – all of which are obviously important. But the industry is still not taking cognisance of capital and operating equipment – everything you use every day in an establishment and everything you use to build, furnish and equip a property should be thought through. Going green can seem complicated, and we have made it our mission to simplify it, and make it really easy for development and procurement teams to make more responsible choices.

Tell us about the ‘green’ stand you built at Hostex a few years ago? I wanted to prove to the industry that I could take my old purchasing manual and find a greener version of each one of the 120 products and services I used to tender for. So, with absolutely no experience in exhibitions, building and decor, my staff and I booked a 100 square metre stand and I invited all the subscribers on our website to send me stuff, such as carpeting, lighting, paint, cabinetry, furniture, fabrics, linen, duvets, appliances, decor, food and beverages, cleaning chemicals, toiletries, clothing and of course, examples of central energy controls – solar, wind turbines, geothermal models, heat pumps, grey water systems, composters, worm farms etc. So, we built and furnished a mock hotel from front to back with only eco products.

Do you think initiatives like that will change how hotels and hotel groups view their sustainability programmes? No. They still don’t understand. They concentrate on the carbon audit. Then they play around with window dressing and vague statements about their operating equipment, food and beverage, cleaning and amenities. In all fairness, there are some that are really trying, especially the smaller establishments. But it’s far too few. The majority are hoodwinked by manufacturers who make dishonest claims and jump on the green bandwagon, with deliberately misleading labelling and classic ‘greenwashing’. I absolutely despair at products with names such as “earth, eco, organic, gentle, herbal, or natural”, which mean nothing.

Very simply, why is it important for hotels to be more responsible and adopt a more ‘green’ approach? Because a hotel has a massive impact on the environment. Everything used every day has an impact. That’s not only on the immediate environment, but right back to where a visitor travelled from and where a product was originally sourced, and how these impact on the land, air, water, fauna, flora and local community. I firmly believe that tourism is driving the green revolution in South Africa, and that we could become the greenest destination in the world.

How can the business traveller play his or her part in a more ‘green’ approach, when it comes to hotels, airlines and car rental? Hybrids are good, but they still require coal-fired electricity here in SA. So, choose the cleanest possible option – a compact fuel-efficient car or travel by train or bus. Travel less and use video conferencing. Then, in the nicest way possible, point out to the hotel management where they could lighten their eco footprint. 

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