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It was in the wake of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the original Rio Earth Summit) that the International Hotels Environment Initiative, now known as the International Tourism Partnership (ITP), was formed. Over the last two decades, ITP has grown and evolved as part of the International Business Leaders Forum, a not-for-profit registered in the UK and US, and with offices in China, India and Russia.
20 years on, this is a good moment to reflect on what has been achieved up to now, and what still remains to be done.
1. What is ITP?
ITP is a unique industry partnership, whose role is to act as the voice for environmental and social responsibility in the global hospitality industry. The hospitality businesses that established ITP recognised that they had a choice to make. They could either choose to ignore the environmental and social implications of their businesses and pursue economic development at all costs. Or they could use their collective might to find and communicate ways of doing business differently. And so ITP was born.
While the precise language used may have changed over the years, the mission of this small not-for-profit organisation with a global reach has remained remarkably constant. Back in the early 1990s the ‘sustainability’ agenda was in its infancy, whereas today every major company has a corporate responsibility function, and ‘green’ initiatives are ubiquitous. So what have been the accomplishments, lessons and developments along the way that have kept the partnership together for so long?
2. What have we learned over the years?
When tackling some of the world’s greatest social and environmental challenges, finding the best solutions that already exist and then taking them to scale remains the holy grail for many organisations, whether they be businesses, NGOs, Governments or multi-national agencies. It has often been said that if we took the best in class and made it the norm tomorrow, we would be half way there already. ITP has always had a key role in highlighting and encouraging best practice in environmental and social responsibility across the industry, and that role continues to this day.
When asked what ITP has contributed to Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Alex Leclerc, Associate Director Global Citizenship EAME, acknowledged that ‘ITP has been a valuable platform for best practices – this has been a source of inspiration and motivation, strengthening our commitment to doing the right thing for the environment and communities in which we operate.’ Founding member and Chairman Ian Carter of Hilton Worldwide adds ‘we’ve enjoyed membership for many years; we feel that ITP has represented our industry very well on a number of issues that actually pertained to all of the members rather than individual companies.’
However, over the years we have also learned that best practice alone is not enough to drive real change. There has to be action to match the words. So ITP has also developed a range of practical opportunities for companies (at whatever stage they may be on their sustainability journey) to engage with the big issues and take the next step forwards. Examples include our Youth Career Initiative (YCI), Going Green, the “Environmental Management for Hotels” and “Sustainable Siting, Design and Construction” publications, and more recently, the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative (“HCMI”), a major collaborative programme that ITP leads in partnership with the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Yvo de Boer, formerly Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and now Special Global Advisor, Climate Change & Sustainability at KMPG, commented on HCMI that “this initiative ensures that hotels are aligned in their approach to carbon measurement, which is a vital step in addressing the challenge.”
And on the Youth Career Initiative, Catalin Popa, National Director World Vision says "World Vision Romania is proud to work together with YCI in facilitating a practical education for a new generation of young men and women of disadvantaged backgrounds who otherwise would have few opportunities."
Inge Huijbrechts, Director of Responsible Business at The Rezidor Hotel Group recently commented that, “ITP gets people around a table to discuss sustainability openly, whilst also coming up with practical solutions. This is unique; in the industry organizations of the motor industry sustainability was on the agenda mostly from a government relations perspective, but here you see genuine exchange and a platform for sharing information.”
And more than this, we also know that, in some areas of the broad, complex and fast-moving sustainability agenda, there may not always be suitable best practice in existence that we can point to. That is one of the reasons why ITP is also now putting an increasing emphasis on forming and co-ordinating a range of thematic working groups, so that through collaboration we can work with the industry to co-create new practical solutions (for example, in areas such as water, supply chain and human trafficking), where none may currently exist.
Ed Fuller, former President of Marriott International adds ‘What’s unique about ITP is the consolidation of the competitive membership and the cooperative spirit they have displayed in all efforts, alongside the acceptance of ITP and partnerships by other organizations such as WTO and WTTC.’ Which is an opinion shared by those organisations on the other side of the coin; Neill Wilkins from Staff Wanted Initiative, a joint project between the Institute of Human Rights and Business and Anti-Slavery International added ‘We were very pleased with the level of engagement at the UK government roundtable on human trafficking and it certainly seems that ITP has played no small part in organising the hotel industry around this agenda.’
3. What have been some of the milestones along the way?
4. Five lessons in developing a business-led sustainability agenda
a. You can take a horse to water...
As has been noted previously, no matter how compelling a case study or a particular example of best practice may be, these things alone are rarely sufficient to drive action or lead to real change. For example, some of ITP’s publications have gained widespread recognition and acclaim as points of reference for the industry, but any argument can be easily overlooked if it is not supported by some of the points that follow.
b. Engage with and involve your audience
The hospitality industry is above all else a people business, so engagement has to be the first step in achieving any kind of success. One of the most effective areas of ITP’s work has been its increasing focus in recent years on collaborative working groups. Topics are identified jointly with member companies, and have ranged from subjects as diverse as human trafficking and carbon measurement. How can one NGO have depth of technical expertise across such a broad agenda? Well, ITP doesn’t always try to; our focus is on our partnering and facilitation skills, underpinned of course by strong industry and subject area knowledge, to bring the real experts together. With a stake in the origins and design of each piece of work, member companies (along with academics, partner organisations and other NGOs where appropriate) are more likely to want to engage in, contribute to, and learn from the work itself.
c. Co-creation is vital
Making meaningful progress on sustainability is a significant challenge for any business; and there are limits to what any one company can achieve alone, no matter how inspirational the leadership or how committed the workforce. That is where the multiplier effect of collaboration comes in. The old adage of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts is fundamental to ITP’s approach, and the clearest possible evidence of the existence of a genuine partnership.
d. Sector-specific initiatives get the best results
The name of the International Tourism Partnership implies a broad focus on a huge global industry. But over the years we have learned that greater shared interest and therefore real traction can best be achieved by focusing single-mindedly on a single constituency, in this case the major international hotel companies. Trying to be all things to all people doesn’t work.
e. Keep your head in the sky but your feet on the ground
ITP always endeavours to understand and, where possible, contribute to the big debates in the responsible business agenda. Seeing the big picture and trying to anticipate the future is essential (and inevitably we approach this from a slightly different vantage point than multi-national companies), but it is vitally important to couple this with programmes and activities that are practical, tangible and sufficiently real-world to allow business to see a clear benefit.
5. And where next?
With its strong membership base and unique position at the interface of the global hotel industry and the sustainability agenda, ITP is well placed to act as a driving force for positive change, and to demonstrate the power of pre-competitive collaboration.
The early pioneers that founded ITP made their choice clear. They chose to do business differently – to do business as if people and the planet matter – in short, to do business responsibly. Over the intervening decades, hundreds of other hospitality companies have also become advocates of the responsible business message. The collective achievements of the sector are impressive. But so much remains to be done if it is to reach its true potential as an industry delivering environmental and social improvements alongside economic development. In a finite world, this requires us all to find new ways of achieving growth; growth that is smart, inclusive and responsible.
Looking to the future, ITP intends to play to the full its part in creating the best sort of growth:
1. Smart growth, by helping to create an open and transparent marketplace for environmentally responsible products and services, as the industry is already starting to do through the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative
2. Inclusive growth, and addressing the global challenge of youth unemployment, by taking the Youth Career Initiative (already supported not just by hotel companies but also by the likes of Accenture, Starbucks, national Governments, local NGOs and many others) to full scale around the world
3. Responsible growth, by highlighting where the industry’s future success depends on finding new solutions to resource constraints (for example, water in specific locations) - and where collaboration is essential to achieving this.
We have already seen repeatedly that by working in partnership, and through strong leadership, real progress can be made. The opportunities for those leading companies who are focused on this agenda are significant – in terms of profit, people and planet.
In which other industry sectors could this model of competitive collaboration be used to support the development of a more sustainable world?