Homesharing website airbnb has just released a report that claims staying in the rooms leased out by people on its website is much more sustainable than staying in ‘the most sustainable and energy-efficient hotels’. The study was conducted for airbnb by the Cleantech Group from February to April 2014 and based on 8,000 survey responses from airbnb hosts and hotel guests worldwide. Findings published on the airbnb blog include: “airbnb properties consume less energy than hotels per guest night by 63% for North America and 78% for Europe”; “In one year alone, airbnb guests in North America saved the equivalent of 270 Olympic-sized pools of water” and “Less than half of airbnb hosts in both North America and Europe provide single-use toiletry products for their guests, also reducing waste per stay.”
The first thing I find surprising, especially considering this is from airbnb, is how lacking in transparency the survey is. For example, we aren’t told which hotels are being compared to in the survey, just that they are the ‘top 5th percentile hotels (in terms of energy use) from an Energy Star report’. Elsewhere it says that ‘while airbnb encourages more people to travel and to stay longer in the cities they visit, the study found the environmental benefits of homesharing far outweigh the impacts of this induced travel’, but we are not shown how it gets to this fairly striking claim. In fact so far we haven’t been shown the report or its workings at all, but just some ‘highlights from the study’. Indeed the only publicly available information about the study – conducted for airbnb about airbnb – is found on airbnb’s blog, and in an airbnb press release.
This perceived lack of openness has lead some bloggers to challenge the company for what they see as greenwash. Yet Cleantech, who conducted the survey, has a good reputation. And airbnb has a business built on trust and sharing. Hopefully therefore airbnb and Cleantech will soon release the entire report, so we can assess its findings fully.
Because even judging it on the ‘highlights’ that airbnb has so far provided, I reckon the company has missed some opportunities. Airbnb likes to present itself as the ultimate disruptive (and positive) force in tourism. In the press release for this survey it refers to itself as ‘the world’s leading community-driven hospitality company’. There’s a line on how airbnb guests use more public transport and so ‘reduce their environmental impact on the communities they visit’. But there is nothing in this study about the potential positive impact on the local community of staying with airbnb. Couldn’t airbnb have had a question asking how many people used local restaurants and shops while staying with it, as opposed to when staying in hotels? Couldn’t it have used the opportunity to say: sure it’s more energy efficient staying in someone’s home than staying in a hotel, but actually the positive impacts are so much greater than that?
Instead its choice of questions – or at least the ones it has shared – reveals a limited ambition and lack of imagination as to what sustainable tourism can achieve. (In this way it’s not dissimilar to Tripadvisor’s Greenleaders Questionnaire, about which I wrote here).
So, we are told that ‘nearly 83 percent of airbnb hosts in North America report owning at least one energy efficient appliance at their property.’ How this is a significant measure of sustainability is beyond me. Apart from the fact that one energy efficient appliance might be a kettle or a plasma TV, or that the use of many of these appliances is now mandated in many countries, the fact remains that most people buy energy efficient appliances because they are cheaper to run.
For me the most revealing finding is that ‘less than half of airbnb hosts in both North America and Europe provide single-use toiletry products for their guests, also reducing waste per stay.’ This is presented as a positive. I am more surprised to discover that almost half the people who offer airbnb accommodation in their homes do provide single use toiletries.
Of course I understand that this may be the sharing economy, but most people draw the line when it comes to sharing bathroom products. But if airbnb wants to position itself as showing environmental leadership, how simple it would be for them to contact all those letting through its website and say – please don’t offer single use toiletries any more. At the same time it could contact anyone going to stay in one of its properties and say – please bring your own toiletries. Then it could tell the world how – having discovered how many people were going out and buying mini shampoos to offer people staying in their flats, it had made the simple yet bold move of asking them to stop.