Chris George, Head of Energy & Environment for Whitbread hotels and restaurants has been driving the company’s high standards on sustainability for the past seven years, but he has a 21 year history with Whitbread. Here he tells Green Hotelier how he harbours a secret passion for the environment and why the company loves it when its staff play computer games.
GH: At what point in your career did sustainability become something you wanted to get involved in?
CG: So, before I started with Whitbread  I was very interested in the environment. I was an ecologist - an environmental instructor in America - so I’ve always been passionate about the sustainability agenda for environmental issues and energy. Then during my time working with Whitbread, some of the energy managers and I did some training with the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leaders and I was one of the 20 people that graduated with them.
GH: So you were right in at grassroots level learning as you went along?
CG: Yes! When I started in Energy Management it was a very specialist field and I hadn’t a clue what people were saying because it’s a very different language, so it was quite an interesting first six months. But some of the basics around eliminating waste and looking at simple things – turning lights off and closing the door – there are a lot of key areas where you can save costs and kilowatts, so a lot of it is just behavioural change.
GH: Have you noticed any particular trends or changes taking place over the past seven years?
CG: I’d say certainly. The sustainability agenda is growing and there’s more of an emphasis for all companies that consideration of the environment is a pre-requisite of how they do business. And consumer habits are changing too. Ten or 15 years ago, if you think of food and health and safety, they were pretty new initiatives that are now standard practice, and I think energy and environmental awareness and sustainability practices will become standard in companies in the next few years too. That’ll be driven by legislation, but also by doing the right thing.
Some of the key trends that are evolving for us include integrated reporting where it’s no longer a financial report or a director’s report but a more integrated CR report. There’s a new role of a CSO - Chief Sustainability Officer - in companies; someone who has Leadership In Action which I think is great. That’s on the rise.
Mainly thanks to the CRC scheme, energy and carbon and water are now boardroom agenda points. That’s driven by having to pay taxation, but also the price of energy and volatility coming through the market.
I think there’s a big trend now – probably coming in from school and media – but employees emerging as a key stakeholder group. Graduates saying, ‘Well I’ll come and work at your company, but what are your sustainability credentials?’ A lot of 18 – 24 people who work for us are really encouraging us to recycle, because they do it at school, at home, and it’s their future wellbeing we’re trying to safeguard.
I think there’s a deeper awareness and understanding on the scarcity of business resources and waste. It matters now to businesses where costs have come up in the supply chain because of limited resources, or regulations around things like sustainable timber.
And also I would say consumer trends. It’s the view of customers on company reputation. They support the sustainability agenda and they expect companies to act and make a difference. It’s no longer ‘tell me’, or ‘show me’, it’s ‘prove it to me’, now. There’s very much a theme of doing the right thing and acting with authenticity and being genuine.
One thing I’d change to make life easier is people’s views and approach to sustainability.
GH: Do you feel the hospitality industry has been successful at raising the profile of sustainability in the wider business community and with consumers?
CG: There’s a lot more collaboration in our industry thanks to the ITP  on the HCMI. And then out of the HCMI came a group called the Hospitality Carbon Restaurant Forum. And that is a group that we are key members of and their common goal is to promote sustainability and share best practice and look at best values for the brands. Groups like that are coming together in our industry to raise the profile of sustainability, and go to boards that might not be behind the agenda so much and say ‘Look! Peer pressure! Competitor advantage!’
I call it the Five Cs when I’m talking to our team members; Cost, Compliance, Consumer, Company reputation, Competitor advantage.
The big, key players in our industry are driving a lot of the activity and the initiatives, so if we look at the hotel industry; IHG and Hilton and Marriott, Starwood, have got some fantastic plans and are really pushing the agenda, and it’s great to be part of that initiative.
We want to lead our industry, but we also want to lead our priority to a more sustainable future. We take sustainability very seriously; we’ve got a well developed CR programme called ‘Good Together’. Our employees came up with the name. We use our employees very much as sustainable decision makers and we try as much as we can to engage them from the design and management of our property estate or the way we source our services and goods, and then on how we train and engage the teams.
GH: If there was one thing that would make your life easier, what would it be?
CG: Reporting. Our team probably spends three months out of the whole year filling in different external and internal reports, indices, and some of those are good because they benchmark our performance against our industry and other peers. But I think one of the best things we ever did is now, in our 11th year, we do an environmental report and it’s a one stop shop for all the answers to what our policies are.
But one thing I’d change to make life easier is people’s views and approach to sustainability in general. So people always say ‘What do you do?’, and you tell them, and they say ‘Are you going to hug a tree?’
Because people use this word ‘sustainability’ and no one really understands what it means. They often use the definition of the ability to live within your means; or to meet the needs and wellbeing of future generations. And then something I heard which I think is really powerful, is just because people are born later, why should they have a lower standard of living because we failed to act? I’d reinforce that message to say read what’s out there, judge the impact and then make up your own mind. No one’s forcing you to do this, it’s just common sense to do your bit.
I think sometimes a lot of people look at a short term view and they don’t look at long term. In Whitbread I would say, ‘Look, we’ve been around for 270 years, we’re one of the oldest brewery professions in the UK, and we really want to be around for another 270 years but we’re going to need resources to do that’.
Additionally I’d like to make people realise that all the small actions make a big difference. One of the analogies I sometimes use is if all our team members - and there are 40,000 - recycled an extra plastic bottle a day, it would keep the lights on at Whitbread Court for 18 years. There’s a disconnect for people between the two actions but when you explain it they say, ‘Ah, I never realised there was a link between recycling and energy demand’.
We’re also looking now within the supply chain where if you only use a product once does it have another value? So we’re now addressing ‘what’s the second use of products?’ The whole lifecycle.
GH: What do you think the next big challenge in sustainability will be for the industry?
CG: If we look at the last 12 months, one of the biggest challenges for us was weather. We saw some of the most diverse weather conditions last year, which really impacted our energy consumption, because heating and cooling and hotels are heavily linked to temperature. Fortunately the energy programmes we had in place really limited our exposure to risk for high utility use and cost. But I think with climate change – whether you believe it or not – weather is changing and it has a material impact on businesses, whether they are planning for the future or modelling their sites.
The hospitality business consumes a lot of energy and water; it produces a lot of waste. Unlike retailers that can close everything down, we’re a 24/7 business. There’s a lot being done to address the impacts of energy use in hotels now, so some of the major changes I think our industry needs to adapt and look for innovation in how they can lower their average room energy demands, even with more guests staying in rooms.
One of the examples was HCMI , which was a fantastic carbon measurement tool and that’s done some great work in identifying actual usage and average daily usage and how you can reduce as well.
I think this invaluable piece of work will help us find the right solutions and technology as we start to build our new properties.
GH: You’ve achieved your Water Standard, and your Carbon Standard, what targets are Whitbread looking to next?
CG: We want to lead the hospitality industry. Year on year we’ve got impressive savings, but also targets to achieve. Our ultimate goal is to - by 2017 - reduce our carbon and water by a quarter and send no waste to landfill, and we’re on track to meet that.
There are a lot more initiatives we’re doing around real-time monitoring and measuring, so all of our hotels and restaurants have real-time AMR, so we can look at consumption by hotel. We’ve also got 15 green hotels where we have very complex metering, so you know what the kitchen equipment’s using, what the lighting in Reception is using.
We won a competition with the Technical Strategy Board – TSB. With all the new sites there are a lot of green measures that go in and we always strive to be BREEAM ‘Very Good’, and in some of the sites we’ve achieved BREEAM ‘Excellent’. The TSB project will help us investigate the disconnect between design, construction, commission and operation, which is a massive area of opportunity for hotels; certainly for new builds. I think this invaluable piece of work will help us find the right solutions and technology as we start to build our new properties.
GH: Whitbread have some amazing statistics concerning the water and energy savings you’ve made. Is there an initiative that you think has had the biggest impact for the business?
CG: I think the one that I’m most proud of this year would be waste. By the end of the year we had diverted 93.06% of our waste from landfill from all our hotels and restaurants, which means we only send 7% of wastes to landfill. For us it was a significant achievement and it’s put us in a really strong position for our target of sending no waste to landfill.
We’ve done loads of work around team member engagement this year, so we’ve got The Academy Online which is our online training platform, and we did a platform of training called ‘Say No To Landfill’, where team members would go on and they went through an interactive training and then took a quiz at the end of it and we certify it. We’re really trying to embrace digital technology, so the quiz was a slot machine and it asked you questions and you pulled the arm and you got the stars or the waste, and at the end of it you have to win the jackpot.
We’re launching ‘Say No To Carbon’ and that also has an interactive quiz which is a sort of Wheel of Fortune / spin the arrow quiz.
And then, do you remember Space Invaders? So we did an in-house Carbon Invaders game, where you had to destroy the toxic spaceships of carbon and water and waste, and it had our ‘Good Together’ logo and we had over 4,600 hits in the first week, which was amazing for us. Everyone was talking about playing it, but it backfired because a lot of the Directors would go round in the Support Centre and instead of people working they’re all playing this sound effects Space Invader game and they were like ‘What’s going on?’!!
The next one we’re working on, do you remember Pac Man? Now we’re going to develop Waste Man, where you’re a ‘Good Together’ logo and the bins are chasing you and you’ve got to eat an old fruit like an apple or banana and then you can chase the bins. For us these interactive games are really working with our employees.
We incentivise our staff. We’re one of the first companies to motivate and enable all 3,000 of our managers to reduce energy, so they get financial incentives on – we call it the WhitCard – on energy, so each site and each region has a specific reduction target and if they hit it, they’re green, amber or red, and that’s a bonusable performance measure.
GH: Looking back on your seven years so far, is there anything you would have done differently?
CG: Earlier on, when I first started looking at the training and launching some of the modules back in 2008/9, they were very technical and in-depth and people didn’t really get what carbon was, or what kilowatt hours were. So I think now we’ve gone into the digital age with interactive e-learning games and quizzes, people are getting it. I would look at tailoring the messages so they’re interesting and fun, so it makes everything worthwhile.
We’re going to spend the rest of our lives in the future, so it’s important that we actually do look after it.
GH: And if you could look to the future and see the impact of all this work you’ve been doing, what would you most like to see?
CG: We don’t know what the future holds, but we hold it. We’re going to spend the rest of our lives in the future, so it’s important that we actually do look after it. I would like to see us in a good state of play with resources, where we’ve all learned to really live within our means and consume less and respect one another. But people always say, ‘We’ve got to save the planet’, and I say to them, ‘Well the planet’s been around for four billion years and it’ll probably continue to be around. We’ve got to save ourselves and improve our own lives.’
GH: If there was a piece of advice you could offer to anyone setting out on the sustainability journey, what would it be?
CG: That’s a really good question because there’s loads of advice out there and it’s all meaningful but I’d say for an individual who’s starting in a sustainable profession is get out there, build a network of experts or partners, where you can have credible advice and knowledge and clarity in your direction. Every scenario and challenge you face will be different and companies will have dealt with it slightly differently. Be transparent and well-informed.
Sustainability has got to be part of your core business DNA, not just a luxury bolt-on. It’s got to be your way of working. Use Leadership In Action to drive the programme, so the ownership must come from the top. There are some really good CEOs and MDs out there – ours included – that are really passionate in this area. They must be behind the campaign and responsible for delivering it, because then everyone will get behind the campaign. We have our CR committee every three months, and they’re all there saying ‘What are we doing next?’ and they’re proud to talk with their peers; ‘This is what we’re doing in Whitbread, and this is a first’. I think that passion is the biggest transformation I’ve seen in the last three years.
I’d also say be genuine and authentic for the right reasons, not green-washed as a lot of companies say ‘Look at us, we’re green and we’ve got this product over here’, but they’re not really following it through.
And I’d say make realistic decisions, but they have to make financial sense.
I’d say communicate and engage in a fun and simple way that people understand. Your messages have really got to get across and resonate with your team members.
I want to add, there’s a quote I’ve heard, which is ‘Leadership is all about getting people to go where they wouldn’t have gone on their own, and getting them to want what they didn’t think they wanted,’ and that really sums up my aims for my role in sustainability.