Hanover, 8 August 2017

Study on the re-use of hotel towels: Force of habit saves laundry and cuts pressure on the environment

  • Study asks what makes hotel guests re-use towels rather than have them replaced
  • Lower water and energy consumption means greener hotels

Who hasn’t seen those little signs in hotel bathrooms urging us to re-use our towels for the sake of the environment? The appeal tends to sound a bit threatening: “Every day tonnes of towels are washed in hotels around the world, consuming huge amounts of detergent that pollutes our water.” But the invitation to use the towel again often falls on deaf ears – in the experience of tourism group TUI. “Towels aren’t the only way, but they are one way tourists can play a role in protecting the environment,” observes TUI Benelux sustainability manager Melvin Mak. He has been visiting one of the company’s own-brand hotels to test better ways of winning guests over. His conclusion: emphasis on habits, rather than threats, helps to reduce laundry.

Melvin Mak performed an experiment for over a month at the 4-star hotel “TUI MAGIC LIFE” on the Canary island of Fuerteventura. The hotel has about 700 rooms for a total capacity of 1,800 guests, and in these rooms he placed a variety of signs in Spanish, English and German. Some of the guests were reminded in the usual rather threatening tone about the environmental impact of their towel use, while other texts played more on the force of habit: “Reuse me again tomorrow. Just like at home.”

The manager was pleased with the result: “We saw that more guests reduced their towel use when attention was drawn to their habits back home,” Mak summarises. The re-use rate for bath towels increased to 49.4 per cent, compared with 38.6 per cent in the threat scenario. Hand towels showed a re-use rate increase from 43.1 per cent to 56.3 per cent. Out of 100 towels, this means that an extra 11 bath towels and 13 hand towels no longer had to be washed. “At home people wash their towels every three or four days,” explains Mak. “When you remind them of that, they can accept it on holiday too, as part of everyday life and as normal, logical behaviour.”

At first glance, Melvin Mak’s calculations only suggest a slight rise in the re-use rate among holidaymakers, but the environmental impact is significant. If we extrapolate for a whole year at the hotel where the test was conducted, the results translate into 56,474 fewer big towels and 69,616 fewer small towels being washed. Every 10kg towel wash consumes at least 50 litres of water and 1.2 kilowatt-hours of electricity, so 3 per cent saves 129,000 litres of water, which means CO₂ emissions for the hotel can be cut by 1,676 kg.

The testers were surprised, however, by a finding on humour. They had also displayed humorous texts in bathrooms – and there the re-use rate actually fell substantially to 25.8 per cent, even lower than the rate of 36.7 per cent in bathrooms where there were no signs at all. “Perhaps our text wasn’t clear enough, and of course people’s sense of humour varies,” says Mak. That question needs further testing. But one conclusion is clear: “Habits help more than threats.” Melvin Mak is currently talking to his colleagues on the TUI Group sustainability team about whether more tests are needed in other regions and hotels – and how the findings can be used in future to design cards. A journal article with all the details of the study will be published in collaboration with Prof. Xavier Font of Surrey University, UK.

In 2015 TUI Group adopted its sustainability strategy “Better Holidays, Better World 2015-2020”. One goal is to deliver ten million greener and fairer holidays a year by 2020. TUI also intends to operate Europe’s most carbon-efficient airlines by 2020 and to reduce the CO2 intensity of its activities by 10% – and here the Group’s own portfolio of more than 300 hotels can make an important contribution, as Melvin Mak’s study demonstrates.