Science and storytelling: How Iberostar is engaging staff and guests with ocean issues beyond plastics

EXCLUSIVE: In the wake of 'Blue Planet 2', hospitality and leisure companies found themselves at the sharp end of the so-called war on plastics. But now that the sector's plastic phase-out is underway, how can it use its many touch-points to drive engagement across a broader range of environmental issues?

Science and storytelling: How Iberostar is engaging staff and guests with ocean issues beyond plastics

Dr Megan Morikawa (left) at Iberostar's first coral nursery. A second nursery is due to open this year.

That is what edie asked Iberostar’s sustainability director Dr Megan Morikawa shortly after the launch of the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative. Co-founded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Tourism Organisation and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Initiative aims to join up plastics pledges and actions across the tourism sector over the next five years.  

Iberostar has signed onto the Initiative along with the likes of Accor, TUI and Radisson Hotel Group but, unlike many of the signatories, already had time-bound numerical targets around reducing plastics in its own operations. Specifically, the hotelier is aiming to eliminate all single-use plastics from its hotels by the end of 2020. To date, 500 tonnes of plastic waste has been mitigated by the hotelier, mainly through switching products offered in guests rooms. Plastics in common areas and across the supply chain have proven slower to change, Morikawa explained.

For Morikawa, it’s crucial that the plastics target exists not in isolation, but as part of Iberostar’s wider ocean conservation and restoration initiative, Wave of Change. The three-pronged initiative also sets Iberostar a 2025 deadline to achieve 100% responsibly sourced seafood and a 2030 ambition to improve ecosystem health surrounding all properties – the majority of which are coastal.

These targets were all set in 2017 but, according to Morikawa, cover issues which have been important “for four generations” to Iberostar’s owners – the Majorca-based Fluxa family – and translate the family’s interests into “outward-facing leadership”.

“This movement is around much more than what happens in our properties… it goes outside of the hotel experience itself and into the ecosystems that surround our properties; into our supply chain; into the education and the behaviours of communities, employees and clients,” she said.

Holidaymaker messaging

To that end, Morikawa said, as much – if not more – importance rested on the development of processes to engage staff, suppliers, visitors and other stakeholders with the targets as the targets themselves.

The goals themselves, she explained, had to be “ambitious” but “very much within the realm of what we see as feasible”. They also had to be time-bound, science-based and quantitative, to ensure progress could be tracked easily and the necessary sense of urgency was felt, she added.

Public engagement, unlike factors such as waste, emissions or the procurement of certified products, is not quantitative by nature. But Iberostar is seeking to overcome that challenge by developing metrics to track whether – as it is hoping – 90% of guests recognise Wave of Change by 2023 and 60% view the initiative as a key differentiator from other hoteliers by 2025.

“Our hotel teams are working very closely alongside the sustainability and science office, to help ensure that we talk with about the problems facing our oceans in a practical and fact-based way with guests, while still remaining positive,” Morikawa said. Waves of Change’s online and in-hotel communications notably feature imagery of thriving ocean ecosystems rather than of nature degradation, and information regarding the positive actions Iberostar has taken and is planning to take, rather than around the scale of the climate, biodiversity and plastics crises.

Mindful of the fact that most people take holidays not to re factual information or be forced to change behaviours, but to take part in new experiences, Iberostar utilizes choice editing and interactive activities alongside written communications.

On the former, single-use plastic bin liners, pens, laundry bags, shoe bags, ID wristbands and toiletry packaging have all been replaced with bio-based or reusable alternatives. Single-use plastic bottles have also been removed from hotel rooms across properties in North and South America and replaced with water fountains and refillable bottles and cups.

When asked why Iberostar had not simply opted for water in cans or cartons, Morikawa said the hotelier wanted to make a “bigger and bolder” move “beyond single-use more generally”, particularly given that some alternative materials have a higher life-cycle carbon footprint than plastics.

As for interactive features, the most prominent are a coral nursery and lab in the Dominican Republic, and four pilot mangrove nurseries. These facilities are used for research by the science and sustainability teams but regularly open to hotel guests and families from local communities.

Staff and supplier journey

Of course, there is little point to engaging guests with sustainability pledges if staff and suppliers have not been supported to change processes and models in order to deliver tangible progress towards them. The Wave of Change website itself states: “Actions, not words”.

All Iberostar staff have received Wave-of-Change-related training tailored to their role in the past year, Morikawa said. Cleaning staff, for example, have received guidance on hygienically refilling toiletries and properly segregating recyclable and bio-based items, while restaurant staff have been provided with information around seafood sourcing.

Key to the success of this training, Morikawa explained, is framing requirements not as additional new jobs, but as a chance for staff to make a positive difference through their core day-to-day tasks. A further core element of training is a two-way aspect – staff can also submit ideas for more ambitious targets or further actions towards existing targets to their employer.

On supplier engagement, Iberostar was mindful to “bring suppliers it has been working with for years into the movement” rather than switching to firms which were already operating in line with the Wave of Change goals.  This approach was taken in order to create additionality, or further progress, outside of its direct operations.

The hotelier asked suppliers of plastic packaging to make “several points of innovation” to avoid material wastage and minimise costs, removing secondary logistics packaging in the first instance, before changing materials for primary packaging, then finally shifting to larger formats.

Seafood suppliers, meanwhile, were asked to switch from common to scientific animal names, requiring them to collect more robust data on catches due to be sent to Iberostar and elsewhere, and urged to apply for third-party sustainability certifications. 60% of Iberostar’s seafood consumption in 2019 was certified. In order to increase this amount, suppliers will need to be supported to collect and disclose data around catch method and waste, Morikawa told edie.

Iberostar does not technically have a supply chain for its ecosystem health work. Rather, it partners with community groups and NGOs to deliver against this goal. Morikawa explains that while such partnerships were previously the sole responsibility of the hotelier’s CSR and charity professionals, its science team – founded in 2018 – now works on these initiatives too, as does its finance team, to allocate necessary funding.

“Our first step is to find local partners that are already making an impact and find ways to complement and amplify their work,” Morikawa summarised.

“We want to lift up the work they’re doing, rather than keeping this within our operations… [collaboration] should consistently raise the bar and showcase what the private sector’s contribution to environmental issues could be.”

Morikawa’s comments come at a time when many businesses will be re-assessing what their contribution should be, in light of either the IPCC’s 2019 landmark reports; net-zero legislation and new requirements around biodiversity and disclosure; mounting pressure from investors or consumers, or a combination of these factors.

Sarah George

Catch up on edie’s Mission Possible Plastics Week 

last month, edie hosted Mission Possible Plastics Week – a five-day camapgin packed with exclusive interviews, podcasts, reports, blogs, webinars and in-depth feature articles – all dedicated to turning the tide on single-use plastics. This campaign was hosted in association with Nestle. 

You can catch up with all of the content, including webinars on-demand, by clicking here


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