How to Choose the Best Green and Sustainable Hotels

green and sustainable hotels
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One of the most important parts of thoughtful travel is selecting sustainable hotels and accommodation that’s both right for you and good for the destination. Here are all my tips and tricks to help you choose the greenest hotels and eco-friendly places to stay on your next trip.


It’s really hard to be perfect when you’re trying to travel in a more responsible way. One of the things that’s particularly tough is choosing where you stay. More often than not, you’ve got to find a balance between eco-friendly credentials, convenience and cost.

Having a bit of a framework to decide whether the hotel, guesthouse or hostel you’re looking at is truly committed to sustainability is really helpful. There’s definitely a bit of a trend these days for accommodations to slap an “eco-friendly” or “greenest hotel” slogan on their website, and sometimes it’s just not true.

In this guide, you’ll find out what’s actually important when you’re trying to make your travels more ethical. I’ll break down what a sustainable hotel actually looks like, and help you spot when greenwashing is at play.

There are lots of booking platforms that are already doing a great job of promoting sustainable properties, saving you loads of work. I’ve suggested some of the most popular options below.

So, read on to find out what makes a property a great sustainable option, how to spot greenwashing and where to find the greenest hotels and ethical accommodation.


A COMPLETE GUIDE TO CHOOSING THE GREENEST HOTELS AND SUSTAINABLE ACCOMMODATION


Why it’s important to choose sustainable and eco-friendly hotels

I think that most of us know that choosing environmentally-friendly accommodation options is important. We want to know that we’re not negatively impacting the planet as much as possible. Apart from that eco-friendly part, though, you might not be aware that where you stay can actually change lives.

The whole point of thoughtful travel, whether you call it green, responsible, sustainable, ethical, eco-friendly or environmentally friendly, is to consider the local community, culture and place that you’re visiting.

A property that’s really making an effort to be green won’t just be asking you to reuse your towels and turn off the lights. They’ll be actively helping you to contribute positively to the local economy whilst reducing your negative impact on the local and wider environment.

a bubble hotel in the middle of a mexican winery
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You’ll find this bubble hotel in Mexico

Sustainable accommodation initiatives will look different depending on where you’re visiting. There’s no one-size-fits-all option, and that’s what makes it difficult for the average traveller. What works in a jungle might not be practical in a desert. Sustainable hotels in a big city will look very different to boutique lodges in the wilderness.

Ultimately, choosing a sustainable accommodation option is important because the money you spend is either going to help the place you’re visiting or it’s not. There’s not really a middle ground.

What’s greenwashing?

This is probably a phrase that you’re familiar with these days. Greenwashing is when somebody makes claims that they’re doing good for the environment when, practically, they’re really not. In some cases, they might actually be causing a negative impact.

When it comes to accommodation, greenwashing is things like asking people to reuse their towels. It’s asking you not to request housekeeping. It’s letting you know that you can reuse the plastic bottles of water provided, and giving you a big bottle of soap instead of miniature toiletries.

The Milky Way rises over a sustainable hotel, Spitzkoppen Lodge in Namibia
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Spitzkoppen Lodge in Namibia
A girl in a hat walks down the hallway of Carleton County Gaol, a hostel in Ottawa Canada
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Carleton County Gaol hostel in Ottawa

It makes you feel like the property is making an effort, but actually, those things have absolutely nothing to do with being a green hotel. The big stuff that creates true, sustainable change is being ignored in favour of things that are easy to understand and look good on paper.

The truth is that when it comes to ethical accommodation practices, there’s so much more to consider.

What you should look for in a sustainable hotel

It would be lovely to think that all you need is to put “sustainable hotels in xyz” into google and you’d get a great list. The reality is that you’re going to have to do a little bit of your own research to find a truly green ethical property.

If you have to look further than the hotel’s own website to find this information then it’s probably not committing to best sustainability practices. In my experience, you can just scratch those off your list right away. The only exception is small, locally run properties that might not have a lot of information available online.

The hotel supports the local economy

This is probably the most important thing to consider. The property should have local people working in it and, ideally, be locally owned. You’re probably not going to be able to find out if they hired local builders during construction, but it’s easy to see that local products are being used.

Some of the best practices are training local people so that they can move into positions of management. This also gives them marketable skills that they can take with them if they want to move. Supporting local business is great, be that buying produce or helping fund local developments and projects.

a sustainable guesthouse in pioneertown
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An off grid house in Pioneertown

When the money that you spend gets put back into the place that you’re staying, you can be sure that it’s actually benefiting the people making your stay incredible. Profits going to some offshore organisation helps nobody but the shareholders overseas.

The hotel hires the right staff

In addition to hiring local, there are other groups that often get overlooked. It might surprise you to find out that a study from the UN World Tourism Organisation found that women make up over half of the tourism workforce worldwide. Unfortunately, they’re found in the lowest paid and lowest status jobs, often performing huge amounts of unpaid work.

A property that’s making sure they have gender equality in their hiring practices is great. Employing vulnerable groups and indigenous peoples will also greatly benefit the local community as well as the employees themselves.

The hotel is actually eco-friendly

I’ve already touched on this briefly, but what does an environmentally-friendly hotel do? Reducing the environmental impact of the products used in the property is one of the best things a property can do. Buying local produce for the kitchen reduces food miles, as does having a garden that supplies key ingredients for meals.

You should also look for local craftspeople being involved in construction, along with the use of local building techniques. This usually means that the build will have the smallest impact on the local environment since local people know best how to preserve the area.

Properties need to consider where they’re getting their water and energy since those can cause huge pressure on local infrastructure. Disposal of waste is another issue to consider, especially in places where getting rid of rubbish is a real challenge.

a green hotel in bali
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A sustainable property in Bali

Look for the use of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro or geothermal. Some of the best green hotels will generate their own water using desalination techniques or ensure that guests are aware of the pressures on local water supplies.

It can be really hard for hotels to be zero waste, but it’s easy to see when properties are making a real effort to reduce the waste generated not only by the hotel, but also their guests.

The hotel promotes the traditions of the home country

Have you ever stayed in a resort that could be in literally any country on Earth? Yeah, they’re not doing it right.

A truly green hotel will be showing off what makes the local heritage amazing. They’ll leave you wanting to know more about the traditions, culture and folklore of the place you’re staying. Ideally, they’ll also provide you with a place to find out.

Local community visits can be tricky – it can feel a little like people are being exploited in a kind of indigenous zoo for tourists. This is much less likely to happen if the local community is in charge of how the interactions happen. Obviously, you might not be able to work this out in advance, but you’ll definitely be able to work it out when you get there.

The hotel promotes out of season stays

This might seem a little strange, but consider what happens in highly seasonal destinations. Thousands of people descend on a place at the same time, putting massive demands on infrastructure and the local environment. Huge numbers of staff are needed to keep up with demand, water use skyrockets, sunscreen ends up in the ocean. You get the picture.

Then, just as quickly, everybody leaves. Businesses close for months. People can’t find work and leave the area. Huge amounts of money are needed to restore fragile ecosystems that have been trampled over the peak season. Just a few of the adverse impacts of seasonal tourism.

sustainable hotel in the atlas mountains
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Douar Samra in the high Atlas Mountains

Now consider a hotel that wants to entice people to stay year-round. There are a more manageable number of people year-round. Infrastructure can be gradually developed and upgraded to cope. The local economy benefits year-round and there’s always work. It’s simply better for everyone.

The hotel is transparent about what it does

Nobody’s perfect, especially not hotels! What you want to see is a clear and open approach to the hotel’s sustainability practices. Ideally, most of the above will be covered. It’s simply not enough to slap an “eco-friendly hotel” label on the business card.

If you have to search endlessly to find the answers to any of the above on the website of an established hotel chain, they’re not where you want to be staying. Equally, a small local or family-run property probably isn’t going to have a great site for you to explore. The very fact that they’re part of the local community however usually ticks a lot of the boxes.

So, now you’re armed with some information, where are good places to search for your next green hotel or sustainable property holiday stay?

Luxury eco-friendly green hotels and accommodation

So you’ve decided that you want to stay in a hotel. Why not make it one that you’ll never forget that’s also committed to a responsible travel ethos? Whenever I mention boutique hotels, people have a tendency to tell me that they can’t afford them.

Well, I have news for you, some of them definitely won’t break the bank!

If you want to stay in a treehouse in the Basque Country, an incredible Riad in Marrakech, or a monastery in Spain, then these are the best options for you. Although they may cost a little more than other accommodation in the area, it’ll be for the sake of a night (or nights!) you’ll never forget.

One of the things that I really like about boutique hotels is that they’re small, and tend to be locally owned with an emphasis on money staying in local communities. Although you might not get the benefits of the same points rewards as staying in a big chain, you can feel better about the way that you’re choosing to travel.

Here are some of my go-to sites to find boutique hotels:

Mr & Mrs Smith

This company only lists places that their team has visited and vetted. One of the things I love about these guys is their emphasis on finding out the eco-credentials of their properties. They also investigate whether their featured properties are involved in community efforts or employ local staff. Each year they award the Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Awards, which champion the most eco-friendly and community focused properties.

Perhaps you’re interested in the world’s sexiest bedrooms or hotels that actually give back to their local communities. Personally, I’d like to stay in every one of these properties that has a cookery school on site.

Amazing plant filled Airbnb in Auckland New Zealand
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Imagine staying in this amazing Airbnb in Auckland

Sawdays

Sad news if you’re not in Europe – that’s the only place that this family-owned business focuses on. The emphasis here is on hotels that champion all things local.

Every featured property has to commit to sourcing the food offered to guests from local, independent producers. It’s basically the responsible traveller’s dream. I genuinely believe that I am going to source my accommodation for my next European adventure entirely through their list of hidden gems or ethical places

i-Escape

i-Escape have a portfolio of about 1500 properties, with the majority being owner run. This is great because it means that your money will be staying in the community. I’m a big fan of the thorough reviews that they provide for every property.

Properties are categorised into recommended lists. I search the eco-properties first, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I also check adult only (because I like peace and quiet) and dog-friendly (because doggos). There’s something here for most budgets, and I’m just waiting for the opportunity to stay in this place in the Atlas mountains.

An aerial shot of the accommodation tents at Mhlumeni Mountain Camp in eSwatini
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Aerial views of eco-friendly Mhlumeni Mountain Camp

Chic Retreats

If you’re looking for boutique on a little bit more of a budget then this is the company I’d choose. They even have a feature list of more affordable properties that they recommend. It’s a little harder to establish the criteria they use to select their hotels, but the selection is a great place to start.

If you, like me, have dreamed of staying in a trulli in Puglia, then this may be the place for you. They’ve also got a pretty nice selection of castles to choose from, should you be so inclined.

Go Unusual

This is exactly what it sounds like – a company specialising in the most unusual hotels in the world. Although this is more of a search engine than a company specialising in the all-round experience, you can definitely find some unique experiences here!

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The incredible treehouse accommodation at Euskadi
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The incredible treehouse accommodation at Euskadi

Do you have a slight obsession with lighthouses? Go Unusual have you covered.  Did you know how many igloo hotels there were in the world? Me neither, but you can check those out here.

Paradoures & Posadas

This is one for anybody visiting Spain and Portugal. Spanish Paradores were established by the state and the first hotel opened in 1928. The hotels are often located in converted castles, fortresses, monasteries and other historic buildings. Buildings are maintained by the state and your room fee is used for the upkeep of the property. You’ll also be making a contribution to the local economy.

The Posadas are the Portuguese equivalent, although they are no longer state-owned.

Find sustainable accommodation with EcoBnB

Ecobnb is pretty tiny compared to the giant that is Airbnb, but they’re doing all the right things. They have 10 pillars of sustainability, and the property has to meet at least 5 to be accepted for listing on the site. Criteria range from recycling, renewable energy sources and local food to the property being accessible by public transport.

When you search a listing you’ll be taken to their home page which gives you loads of information to help you decide whether to stay. To find out how sustainable Ecobnb considers the property to be you look at the number of leaves they’ve been given. Don’t confuse this with a star rating!

The kitchen at Mhlumeni Mountain Camp in eSwatini
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The kitchen of eco-friendly Mhlumeni Mountain Camp

Also on the home page, you’ll find out how many of the 10 eco-sustainability criteria the property meets, along with a map, amenities and reviews. If there’s something listed here in an area that you’ll be visiting then I’d highly recommend supporting this platform for helping properties that are doing lots of the right things.

Find sustainable accommodation with Booking.com

I wish that I had perfect eco credentials, I really do, but sometimes I just want convenience. Assuming that EcoBnB and the boutique options don’t throw up anything that I fancy, this is the next place that I look.

Booking.com have a huge number of hotels and holiday rentals, and if you travel often then you can become a “Genius” which unlocks additional bonuses and discounts. They’ve recently introduced a “sustainable property” filter that you can use when you search.

I’ve always found the reviews to be pretty spot on – any property that receives more than 9/10 is usually outstanding. The site will show you popular properties, let you know what percentage of accommodation is already booked in the area (an incentive to hurry up and book if you’re an epic procrastinator like me), and also offers free cancellation for a lot of properties.

The site is easy to use, and they do offer options for flights, car rentals and airport taxis, although I’ve never used those features. 

Find sustainable accommodation with HostelWorld

I think that there’s this common misconception amongst travellers that all hostels are for young people who just want to party. Whilst there are definitely some that I would avoid, there’s a rise in boutique hostels. They’re really more like cheap boutique hotels, and if you take the time then you can find some absolute gems.

Carleton County Gaol, a hostel in Ottawa
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Hostelworld is a great place to start looking for amazing hostels to stay in. Their annual HOSCAR awards recognise the most amazing hostels around the world and are a great place to start looking for your next wallet-friendly stay. Again, determining whether these hostels operate under sustainability guidelines is a little difficult.

Finding responsible accommodation with AirBnB

Full disclosure; for all the problems around AirBnB, it’s usually one of my first stops when I’m looking for accommodation. I truly love it. Speaking of the problems though, we should probably talk about some of them up front, because I think that helps to clarify what you should and shouldn’t be looking for.

There are a host of issues – local people being priced out of their own property market, and large agencies purchasing multiple properties to rent to tourists.

READ THIS | Finding Sustainable Holiday Accommodation with AirBnB

Using AirBnB as originally intended is the most responsible way to find a place to stay. Find a local who has opened their own home to visitors to get an experience you never would otherwise. Consider using the platform to find experiences hosted by locals too!

The Easiest Way to Book Green Hotels and Ethical Accommodation

In my opinion platforms such as Airbnb, Ecobnb and boutique hotel websites with their filtering capabilities are the easiest ways to find out what options you have for eco-friendly accommodation in your destination.

Take your search offline with Lonely Planet, Bradt guides and Moon travel guides which are really great resources to see what’s available. I love annotating a physical book, and I’ve got battered guidebooks from around the world.

Word of Mouth

This is probably the most underrated method of them all! I try to find people who are experts in the area that I’d like to visit and then ask them where they’d recommend that I stay. Alternatively, find tours groups that have a focus on ethical travel and see where they stay.

Intrepid and G Adventures are both tour agencies with a real focus on supporting local. You’re unlikely to have the same networks and resources that they do, so use them to your benefit! See where they’re staying and then put your detective hat on and do some exploring.

Late afternoon sun over eSwatini from the deck of Shewula Mountain Camp
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Views from Shewula Mountain Camp in eSwatini

Google things like “community tourism + destination” or “locally run accommodation + destination” and see what pops up. The variety of places you can stay the night will surprise you!

One of my favourite memories of all time is sitting on top of a mountain at a community campsite in eSwatini and watching the sun set over this incredible view. It’s a place that I only found thanks to Carla at Blue Sky Society who incorporated it in one of her Journeys With Purpose in early 2019.

Hopefully, this helps you to get going with your mission to become a more sustainable traveller no matter what sort of accommodation you prefer! If you’ve got any helpful hints or tips for your fellow travellers then I’d love to hear about them. Drop a comment below or come and find me on my social channels.

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A woman wearing a hat walks along Byron beach, leaving footsteps in the sand
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