Do Consumers Practice What They Preach in Green Hotels

A significant gap lies between consumers’ attitudes towards “green” initiatives in the hospitality industry and their actual behavior, according to a study by two hospitality and tourism management graduate students at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. Moreover, consumers who engage in environmentally friendly behavior at home behave differently when staying at a hotel, their study found.

Master’s students Melissa Baker, of Marshfield, Mass., and Eric Davis, of Lorton, Va., in a project supervised by hospitality and tourism management Professor Pamela Weaver, say that while more hotels are adopting green practices, few scholars have examined the relationships between such initiatives and consumer knowledge, attitudes, and behavior.

Will knowledge about their hotel’s green practices change guests’ behavior, for example? “It has been argued that if individuals became more knowledgeable about environmental issues, they would become more aware of the problems and be more motivated to act in responsible ways,” Baker and Davis note in their study. “Prior research, however, has not shown this assumption to be true.”

They note that the hospitality and tourism industry is under pressure to become more environmentally friendly as a result of consumer demand, environmental regulation, and managerial concerns based on ethics as well as economics. Linen and towel reuse policies are now commonplace, the students note, while low-flow showers and toilets, programmable on/off light sensors, and occupancy sensor controls for guestroom thermostats have been installed by many hotel companies. In addition, most major hotel companies have created green mission statements or LEED-certified green hotels.

Baker and Davis conducted an online survey of 881 students in four Virginia Tech classes (undergraduate and graduate) for their study. The survey received 322 responses, for an overall response rate of 36.5 percent. The survey comprised various categories of questions aimed at gauging knowledge of environmental issues, personal attitudes about environmentally friendly behavior while staying in hotels, the extent to which hotels should operate sustainably, and green behavior at home and while a guest in a hotel.

Only a quarter of the respondents correctly answered eight or more of the environmental knowledge questions. Though 54 percent agreed or strongly agreed that being environmentally conscious while in a hotel will have long-term environmental benefits, only 35 percent stated they would prefer to stay in a green hotel instead of a non-green hotel. Regarding the extent to which hotels should “go green,” three quarters of the respondents thought that hotels should use energy efficient or automatic lights; nearly half thought that hotels should have automatic sink faucets and nearly 60 percent thought that Styrofoam should not be used as a serving container in hotel guest rooms.

Nearly 60 percent said they were likely or extremely likely to stay at a hotel that changed sheets only when requested during their stay; the number was 55 percent regarding towel changes. However, 45 percent stated that they would be unlikely or extremely unlikely to stay at a hotel that provided amenity dispensers instead of individual bottles.

As for their home versus hotel behavior, close to 60 percent of respondents recycle paper products at home, but only 30 percent recycle them while at a hotel. Sixty percent of respondents conserve water at home, but less than 40 percent do so at a hotel. Eighty percent of respondents conserve energy at home, but only 40 percent save energy while at a hotel.

The survey also posed 11 parallel questions about common hotel practices to compare attitudes and behavior. Baker and Davis found “a statistically significant gap” in eight instances. The three exceptions were changing sheets only when requested, having cooler corridor temperatures than guest-room temperatures during the winter, and vice versa during the summer. Offering possible reasons, the students say “guests are comfortable with hotel behavior that has little impact on them or are common practices today.”

As for the behavioral differences between home and hotel, other researchers have suggested that “individuals might feel more obliged to behave in an environmentally friendly manner in their local community as opposed to the tourist destination,” Baker and Davis note. In addition, the destination or hotel may lack the infrastructure necessary to practice green behavior. Lastly, engaging in green behavior may detract from the whole experience of being a hotel guest, the students note, pointing out that some researchers have found “a strong trade-off between participation and the sacrifice of comfort and luxury.”

To better understand the reasons for the gaps between attitudes and behavior and between home and hotel behavior, future research could examine barriers to participation and ease of compliance, service expectations, and convenience, say Baker and Davis. They add that though surveying students was convenient and is “typical for literature on green marketing and initiatives,” future research should sample hotel guests “to improve external validity.”

Though their research did not find a significant relationship between knowledge and concern with regard to environmental issues, Baker and Davis say more research here is also needed. The hotel industry, they note, can help educate consumers to develop a greater level of understanding and concern about their environmental impact as hotel guests.

Virginia Tech’s nationally ranked Pamplin College of Business offers undergraduate and graduate programs in accounting and information systems, business information technology, economics, finance, hospitality and tourism management, management, and marketing. The college emphasizes the development of ethical values and leadership, technology, and international business skills. Its centers focus on business leadership, business diversity, electronic commerce, forest industries, organizational performance, and services innovation. The college is committed to serving business and society through the expertise of its faculty, alumni, and students. It is named in honor of alumnus Robert B. Pamplin, who died in June 2009 at age 97 and was the retired CEO of Georgia-Pacific, and businessman, philanthropist, and alumnus Robert B. Pamplin Jr.

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