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Ethics, hotel chains and globalisation’s darkest secret

A friend of mine once suggested that we run a series of articles in Ethical Corporation on “industries that corporate responsibility forgot”. It was and still is, a good idea.

One of those industries must be hotel chains.

Whilst all of them do the “We won’t wash towels unless you ask us” bit now, often with accompanying cute animal pictures on leaflets in the rooms (last year in a three star hotel in Toronto I felt like I was in a zoo for all the animals begging me not to ask for my towels to be washed in leaflets around my room), generally speaking most big hotel chains have been laggards on corporate responsibility.

Aside from the towels and sheets issue, most new hotels like to now crow about their energy efficiency of course, and even some older chains are catching up with refurbishments. But mostly of course, this is just to save money, not to be greener.

There’s still only one hotel in London with ISO 140001 certification, amazingly.

That’s the refurbished Novotel West in Hammersmith. At least that’s what their literature says (we held a conference there recently).

So while many hotels continue to waste electricity and water on a grand scale, some, like the Marriott and Accor chains, are making an environmental effort.

It’s on social issues hotels tend to perform really badly.

Hilton Hotels in the UK, for example, has an appalling record on gang masters/labour sourcing, payment to staff, employee treatment generally and even illegal labour.

Many other big hotel chains are in a similar state.

A low-margin (fairly) industry stuck in its ways, hotel chains have managed to innovate to a degree when it comes to internet marketing, so why not on social as well as environmental issues?

Answer: Because they fear higher costs, particularly in the current climate. And because NGOs largely leave them alone, as does the media, in general.

Now though, there is at least some emerging pressure.

SocialFunds.com reports that the Christian Brothers Investment Services outfit, a “Catholic SRI investment advisor with $3.6 billion in assets under management for over 1,000 Catholic institutions worldwide” has written to hotels asking them to take “the sexual exploitation of children and other human trafficking crimes” much more seriously.

You might not think this is a big issue in the regulated West. But I know for a fact many UK hotels employ illegal immigrants. How do they know some of them are not underage? I bet the situation is worse in the US, and equally as bad in other parts of the EU.

And sexual trafficking / exploitation is rife in many poorer nations (Although perhaps sometimes exaggerated in the UK)

One initiative on the last point that has had some success is “The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism” (the Code), which was developed by ECPAT, “a global network seeking to eliminate child prostitution, child pornography, and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes”.

Those who sign up agree to create policies to help prevent exploitation, engage suppliers, educate travellers, and provide worker training to spot the signs it might be happening in their premises

SocialFunds says corporate responses have been mixed. And US firms are real laggards:

“According to Julie Tanner, the Assistant Director of socially responsible investing (SRI) at Christian Brothers Investment Services (CBIS), a Catholic SRI investment advisor with $3.6 billion in assets under management for over 1,000 Catholic institutions worldwide, “There are 900 corporate signatories to the Code, and only three are in the US.” “

Hotel’s failing to respond to enquiries by CBIS include Best Western, Hyatt, Hilton, and Starwood, which calls exploitation problems “globalisation’s darkest secret”

Clearly, the big hotel chains, aside from their cute animal pictures to save money on towel washing, need to grasp this is an issue. One company has. Carlson, the chain that owns the Radisson, Park Inn and Park Plaza brands, among others, is way ahead.

The company won our partnership award earlier this month, for their work with ECPAT on implementing the Code.

Question is: What will it take for the rest of the industry to wake up to the problem, and take steps to tackle and prevent it?

No doubt, as usual, it will take a campaigning NGO, consumers and a major media outlet working in concert to wake up the industry.

Moral issues aside (because they often still don’t count in many companies) the business case for NOT being the chain caught in that campaign ought to be reason alone to take action.

1 Comment

  1. And I cannot yet find a single hotel chain where the housekeeping department complies with its policies on sheets and towels. The staff insist on replacing them, and as they snatch away towels hanging on the bars, say "but it's nicer to have everything clean every day!." Complaints to managers are ignored.

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