Saving Energy, One Step at a Time

Along with china, the company cafeteria offers biodegradable dinnerware made from potatoes.
Along with china, the company cafeteria offers biodegradable dinnerware made from potatoes. (Susan Biddle - Twp)
By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2007

At Marriott International, green has been an evolution, not a revolution.

More than a decade ago, the Bethesda hotel chain began focusing on reducing energy and lowering waste-removal costs. There was no environmental language wrapped around the efforts. Among executives, green was simply a color. The company was just trying to improve margins.

Move ahead to a couple years ago: Marriott installed comfy new beds, which featured heavy designer linens. Not only were the sheets heavier, but in some cases there were more of them -- not to mention more pillows (and pillowcases) and fancy duvets with covers. More linens meant more laundry, which meant more detergent and more water.

The company started to use environmental language to characterize its solution. "We are committed to undertaking practices that preserve our natural resources. Your bed linens are fresh when you arrive and your room is serviced every day. For extended stays, your linens will be changed every third day. . . . Working together, we can conserve millions of liters of water, save energy and minimize the release of detergents into the environment."

Fast-forward to today: Marriott recently put out a brochure, printed on recycled paper, titled "Social Responsibility & Community Engagement," that outlines the company's environmental sensitivities. The chief financial officer, Arne Sorenson, is co-chairman of a company-wide green council and chief executive Bill Marriott blogs about the "greening of Marriott." He also travels to hotel groundbreakings to tout environmentally sensitive buildings and speaks regularly about his commitment to the subject.

Beyond making operational changes that are financially sound, the challenge for Marriott -- and other large companies -- is to make sure the green efforts aren't just hype. After all, the company profits from the enormous footprint its guests leave on the Earth as they hustle to their hotels, whether it be a cross-country plane trip or a stop-and-go taxi trip from an airport.

"If we were just going to come out and say Marriott is green, I could easily say, 'Well, wait a second. I just checked into my room and it was 68 degrees and you have a comforter on my bed and I know you are burning a lot of energy,' " Sorenson said. "So what it means is that the message has to be a little nuanced. It has to be a bit nimble: We're doing what we can. We're doing it as fast as we can."

The company has installed low-flow shower heads and toilets at its hotels. It is moving to compact fluorescent light bulbs. It strives to reduce energy consumption year-over-year. At its headquarters cafeteria, Marriott is using biodegradable utensils made of potatoes. And by 2010, the firm hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1 million cubic tons.

Still, as Sorenson said, "we still have a big environmental footprint. We don't know what it is but we know it's significant."

The company is getting help from Conservation International, an on-the-ground protector of the environment that is now nudging companies -- including Wal-Mart -- toward meaningful green efforts. Glenn Prickett, a senior vice president at the organization, said Marriott is "looking at all the right issues."

"We have to challenge them a bit, but not any more than the other companies we've worked with," Prickett added.

Sorenson said he thinks that done right, green can drive more guests to its hotels. That's the holy grail for any company -- helping the environment in a way that also increases shareholder value. "I think lots and lots of people will vote with their feet to send their business to environmentally responsible companies and less responsible companies will lose business -- if the product is equal," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company