In conversation with Whitbread’s Chris George

Chris George, head of energy and environment at UK hotel, restaurant and coffee shop operator, Whitbread, tells edie that the biggest 'green innovation' isn't green at all and why he'd like to have a beer and talk science with Einstein.

What area will you be focusing on next in terms of sustainability?

Our sustainability vision at Whitbread is simple. We want to lead the hospitality industry to a more sustainable future. Since launching our Good Together corporate responsibility programme in 2009 we have made significant progress, and demonstrated that a major hospitality business with an aggressive expansion programme can deliver valuable energy, water and waste savings. This is at the same time as improving shareholder value and increasing team member engagement.

Our challenge as a business is to continue to deliver impressive sustainability savings and achieve our corporate sustainability targets. In that respect it’s difficult to highlight one specific area of focus. Our Good Together programme underpins the Whitbread ways of working and everything we do – from cutting waste and water at our hotels, to improving the energy efficiency of our logistics fleet – and our focus is to continue to improve sustainability right across the business, doing more for less.

What are the major changes you see happening in your industry?

By its very nature, hospitality businesses consume a lot of energy and water as well as producing a lot of waste. I think the industry is aware of that and a lot of progressive work is being done by large-scale businesses such as ours to reduce our impact on the environment without affecting the guest experience when they sleep, eat and drink with us.

The industry needs to continue to adapt and be innovative in order to meet the challenges posed by climate change and the opportunities and issues that flow out of that – specifically higher energy costs and greater water scarcity alongside decreasing landfill space. At corporate level I expect to see greater collaboration and sharing of best practice between hotel chains on measuring / benchmarking energy and water consumption and building awareness and capacity for our teams.

The International Tourism Partnership (ITP) through the HCMI guest carbon measurement tool and the Hospitality Carbon Reduction Forum (HCRF) through the UK restaurants carbon benchmarking project are doing some great work in this area already and I expect more to happen moving forward.

In physical hotel buildings I think there will be a greater use of energy and water real time metering and energy saving technologies. Simple things like introducing water saving shower heads and LED lighting can yield real results and I think these relatively simple technologies will start to trickle down to smaller sized hotel businesses as investment payback periods get better. Team member energy and water awareness training and incentives also prove effective for efficiency performance and motivating real energy and cost reductions to the site’s bottom line.

With hospitality being a property focussed business I also think that the possibilities offered by on-site and off-site energy generation are huge, and I think the sector has a lot to gain by embracing them.

What are the challenges for someone in your position?

It’s an interesting question as it can all be very challenging at times. I guess staying current on legalisation and technology as well as managing my resource time, come out top. The great thing about working in sustainability is that you work at the heart of the business and you can make a real positive difference. The downside to that is that everyone wants you to help them, yesterday!

What green innovation do you think can revolutionise the economy?

I think the biggest ‘green innovation’ isn’t green at all – its digital technology. We recently developed an on-line interactive training tool and quiz game for our team members on the importance of saving waste and energy. It’s part of the basic training package for staff and will enable us to train 40,000 colleagues on why it is important to conserve valuable natural resources and cut waste very quickly and cost effectively. As digital technology gets ever more engaging, interactive and accessible the possibilities for changing how people think about the environment is endless and that’s exciting.

What’s the big focus over the next 12 months for the environment?

From Whitbread’s point of view it’s delivering on our sustainability targets in our Good Together programme and launching our new Academy on-line e-learning environmental modules. We have made significant improvements across a number of areas last year – energy usage, waste, carbon reduction, low carbon construction etc – and our challenge is to continue that positive momentum, drive and influence and meet our stretching public targets to make a real difference in our industry.

What do you think 2013 has in store for the green economy?

2013 will be an insightful and fascinating year for the green economy. An interesting debate that has only recently emerged – and I think will get only more profile – is around “fracking”. So far we have seen the government and energy companies get behind fracking in a big way and the key challenge for the green economy is keeping the pressure on to ensure what is achievable through this new energy source. At the same time ensuring the process is safe, doesn’t pollute our vital water supply and compliments a renewable energy generation mix strategy, not replace it.

The UK needs to radically reshape and invest in our aging energy system. We need to save energy to match growing demand and producing greener energy to clean up our supply and look at innovative new ways to deal with and halt the effects of climate change.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

It’s a difficult question but I would say I am most proud of all of our accomplishments in reducing waste over the past year. We ended the year diverting 93% of our waste from landfill from all of our directly managed hotels and restaurants. That’s a significant achievement in its own right but it puts us in a strong position to achieve our target of sending no waste to landfill by 2017 and turning waste into a positive resource.

Being awarded the Carbon Trust Re-certification Standard for carbon (second time round) and the new Carbon Trust Water Standard in recognition of our monitoring, efficiency commitments and management actions is a great testament for our internal environmental team. I’m also very proud of their passion and creativity to do the right thing for our business, people and planet.

What’s your top tip for employee engagement?

With over 40,000 team members serving over 22 million people a month Whitbread has a great opportunity to engage not only employees but customers too.

This year we launched an online e-learning training module to assist our team members to understand our new multi-stream waste recycling system and ways to recycle and reduce waste. This module teaches team member the issues behind waste management such as the benefits of recycling over landfill, the methods that we can use to increase recycling rates and what can and cannot be recovered. It’s had a real impact on waste reduction and the feedback from our colleagues has been first rate. At the end of the training, employees completed a fun quiz with some great prizes.

My top tip would be to make sure people know that they can individually make a difference, both at home and in the workplace. We have over 665 Premier Inn hotels and 380 restaurants across the country and small individual actions at those locations add up to be a big savings figure overall.

What’s been your biggest win (environmentally)?

Whitbread is expanding all of its brands rapidly in the face of strong customer demand. Last year, for example, we opened over 4,200 new Premier Inn bedrooms and 9 new restaurants as well as 320 new Costa Coffee shops.

As a business we have a target to cut our carbon emissions and water use by 25% (relative to sales against a 2009 baseline). To hit that target we need to reduce by a minimum average amount of 3% every year whilst opening more sites and serving more guests. In 2012/13 our carbon efficiency improved by 3.71% and we now stand at a 22% reduction in carbon against our baseline year. That’s good going, especially so given the rapid expansion of the business, albeit there’s a lot more to be done and we need to look further afield for new green and grow solutions.

What do you say to the climate change sceptics?

Read the research, judge the impact then make up your own mind. All I will say is when I was growing up, summers were summers and winters were winters, now the weather is so unpredictable and extreme we need to adapt accordingly, ensuring we give care and consideration for the way we live now to ensure future generations enjoy a good, similar standing of living and positive well-being.

What do you like most about your job?

My overarching goal is to make Whitbread a more sustainable and responsible business and lead our industry in the green agenda. That’s a huge opportunity in itself and it enabled me to work across all of our brands to deliver some great results and new ways of working. Making environmental issues relevant to a vast majority of people and making sure the message is understood and tailored in an interesting and fun way makes everything worthwhile and empowering.

What’s the best advice you have ever received?

“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” – advice given at a sustainability breakfast hosted meeting as well as don’t drink the coffee, it’s not Costa.

If there was one word you could remove from the English language what would it be?

Impossible. It’s corny to say but anything can be achieved. Believe and all things are possible.

Books or kindle?

I know they’re more sustainable so I should say kindle, but you cannot beat the feel of a good old book.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

I have the opportunity to bring about positive innovative change in a progressive and growing blue chip FTSE100 company. My job is always developing, rewarding, and nearly always enjoyable and exciting.

What state do you see the planet in 30 years?

Hopefully in a good state of play where we have all learnt to live within our means, consume less and respect each other and the environment. It’s not about saving the planet as it’s been around for four billion years; it’s about saving and improving our lives.

What period of time would you visit if you had access to a time machine?

I’d like to go 30 years in the future and see how we faired to the question above.

What tips or advice would you give to newly appointed sustainability professionals?

My advice would be to get out there, build a network, engage people and share best in class advice. Every challenge and scenario you face in sustainability is different and however good you are, you are never going to be an expert in every technology and management process. The more knowledgeable people you have to draw on the more effective you will be.

Be transparent, well-informed, dedicated and ensure your environmental strategy aligns to your core business strategy.

If you could go back in time who would you like to meet?

Have to do a “Bill & Ted” adventure and go and meet history’s greatest figures and understand their interpretation of what things meant – imagine having a beer and talking science with Einstein!

What is the worst aspect of your job?

All the external legislation reporting and compliance form filling.

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