Carbon Emissions Series: Vacationers’ Diets

The hospitality industry is, by nature, one that encourages indulgence. I have seen this mindset manifested through many examples: travelers insisting on using a new towel every day, taking more than they can possibly eat at buffet lines, and drinking ungodly amounts of alcohol at hotel and restaurant bars. Today, tourists excuse themselves from their diets—and some, their environmental principles—when they go on vacation. They expect opulence and excess (a quick look at Las Vegas will confirm all of this). Firms that strive for sustainability are therefore in a hard spot, as they must meet the expectations of guests while providing products and services that do not degrade the environment.

This crude energy pyramid shows that only approximately 10% of energy is transferred between upward steps in the food chain. The higher up you eat, the more energy your diet requires.

I thought it appropriate to look at this paradox more in depth by explaining the findings of an interesting report that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released recently. Titled Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health, this study conducts life cycle analyses

on a set of commonly consumed foods and outlines their implications for the environment and for public health. This report holds relevance for the hospitality industry. EWG’s most important discovery focuses on the foods that cause the worst impacts on the environment and whose production releases the greatest carbon emissions. At the top of the list are lamb, beef, cheese, pork, farmed salmon, and turkey. To get a better picture of the gap between the worst and best, think about this: for every kilogram of lamb consumed, nearly 40 kg of emissions are produced. Lentils are the best of the analyzed set, producing only 0.9 kg of emissions for every one kilogram eaten.

Meat Eater’s Guide goes more in depth about the sources of emissions for each type of food (including livestock raising, slaughter, processing, transportation, packaging, transportation, and preparation). I’d highly recommend reading it, especially if you are genuinely concerned about your lifestyle’s environmental impacts. Above, I’ve included the energy consumption pyramid for foods—perhaps the simplest visual way of understanding why eating meat and animal products is so bad for the environment. In a nutshell, for every step you take up the food pyramid, one-tenth of the energy is lost.

What, then, are the implications for the hospitality industry and tourist behavior? I believe that the prevailing thought of vacationers can be summed up accurately in this statement: “When I’m on vacation, I get to do what I want.” I don’t think this is the mindset that environmentally-conscious tourists should have—to simply temporarily forsake their principles during a couple of weeks. At the risk of sounding too preachy, I’d say that environmental concern should be an overarching conviction that people do not dismiss during their moments of weakness.

Tourists must therefore be more conscious of what they eat. Numerous studies have shown that travelers eat more food—and more unhealthy food—when they’re on vacation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they tend to eat more meat when they’re traveling as well. Hotels and restaurants readily respond to this demand, so the pressure must come from consumers. Environmentally conscious travelers should voice their desire for foods that are less carbon-intensive. Demand more locally-produced food, better transparency in sourcing, and greater vegetarian options.

Responsibility for effecting change in the ways tourists eat and the ways that hospitality firms procure food will rest primarily on the shoulders of eco-tourism companies. From my studies at the Cornell Hotel School—and I believe that my fellow students will concur with me on this—I have seen the behavior of American big-box hotels and cannot expect them to take the first step. They are much too afraid of losing market share and taking risks in sustainability innovation. The movement must therefore start from international eco-resorts, and I look forward to the spread of such practices to the states.

8 thoughts on “Carbon Emissions Series: Vacationers’ Diets

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