Reusing Hotel Towels: Essential Answer

Photo: cogdogblog

Q: When I stay at a hotel there is always a note that a towel hung up will not be replaced, thereby saving on water. However, I come back to my room and it always appears that the towel has been replaced. Do hotels actually do this or is the note there just to appear environmentally conscious? Also, is there a website that ranks which hotels recycle newspapers, plastic bottles, reduce heating and air conditioning, etc.?

Asked by Cathy Clonts, London, England

The short answer to your question is yes and yes—yes, many hotels do actually let guests reuse towels, and yes, the note is there to make the hotel seem as green as an organic farm. The longer answer, and the guide to the most environmentally friendly hotels, is a little more nuanced.

Towel-reuse programs have become nearly ubiquitous. A 2008 survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association found that 83 percent of the responding hotels had reuse programs in place for towels, and 88 percent had similar linen-reuse programs. AH&LA also estimates that hotels with towel-reuse programs do 17 percent less laundry.

That little in-room placard, however, may not be telling you the whole reason for the program—towel reuse programs are a classic case of the environmental and economic win-win situation. By not washing your towel every day, the hotel saves on utility, product and labor costs with the bonus of a little environmentally friendly PR.

With all that motivation, it does seem odd that your towels are replaced even when you're ready to play along. But your hotel—or your room's housekeeper—may simply be playing it safe, preferring to confuse eco-conscious guests rather than annoy the less enlightened. Fellow SAGE author Shaker Muasher, who comes from a family of hoteliers, shared his experience with hotel housekeeping and management on this topic. Some guests hang towels out of habit, he says, even if they want new towels. Others may place towels in such a way that the housekeeper is unsure of what they want. And that's where the miscommunication can occur.

"As I'm paying so much (for a hotel room)," unhappy guests say, "how come the towels aren't changed?" If a complaint were to be made, "It's the employee's word versus the customer's word," Muasher says, so wary housekeepers often replace towels as a precaution, safe in the knowledge that very few people complain about clean, fluffy towels on the rack.

For once, unfortunately, human psychology turns out to be simpler than finding a nice green room on the road. There are so many environmental certification programs available for hotels, it's like sorting through a climate model trying to figure out the details and relative merits of each.

The AH&LA has a voluntary program—and an on-staff green hotel expert—to help member hotels green their operations. Other common certifications, such as the Green Key Eco-Rating Program in the United States and Canada, are self-reported but may include on-site inspections as well. Others, including the international Green Globe program and the U.S.-based Green Seal, require outside assessments for certification. One of the oldest programs, the Audubon Green Leaf Program, has been rating hotels in North America and Europe since 1998.

Still, there's probably a business model waiting for someone to build a great website to instantly help travelers find the most sustainable lodging wherever they're headed—especially if it can help find great deals, too. In the meantime, the basic searchable database at Environmentally Friendly Hotels will get you started—its ratings provide a simple yes/no assessment for a list of 29 "green attributes," ranging from towel and sheet programs to organic food service and gray-water recycling. You can help build the site by ranking the hotels where you stay—and help make the towel programs work by (politely) complaining when yours are replaced.

Reese Rogers plans to receive his bachelor's in Human Biology in 2010 and his master's in Earth Systems in 2011.