Even in casual conversation, Alan Benjamin comes off as an honest man, trustworthy and straight-shooting—traits essential to leading a company that handles hundreds of millions of dollars each year. As the founder and president of Benjamin West, a major furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FF&E) and operating supplies and equipment (OS&E) purchasing firm for the hospitality industry, Benjamin won’t even use the company postage meter. He keeps his personal stamps in a desk drawer, conveying the message to employees that even the price of 44-cent first-class postage matters. And what else would you expect from someone whose core business concepts are accuracy, integrity, and reliability?
It’s perhaps Benjamin’s hard-line dedication that is most impressive. Based in one of the greenest cities in America, Boulder, Colorado, he and his firm have been conscious of sustainability since day one, and when company-wide green initiatives were put in place several years ago, one of the first actions was to eliminate the use of plastic water bottles in the office—it worked out well for employees but became problematic when clients visited. “Clients were flying in from all over to take a meeting in our office,” Benjamin says. “They were spending millions of dollars, and we couldn’t even offer them a water bottle. It didn’t make any sense. It seemed very emblematic of the issues surrounding sustainability, which is that many initiatives are nice in theory, but they’re not necessarily practical.” It reminded Benjamin to keep the needs of the client in mind first and then strive to provide the most sustainable options possible. His solution: he offered clients the greenest water bottles on the market while still keeping the water-bottle rule in place for employees.
It’s this desire for a middle ground with clients that led Benjamin to work with JoAnna Abrams, founder and CEO of MindClick SGM, a sustainable growth-management firm for companies in the hospitality industry. Benjamin, who describes Abrams as “wicked smart,” is one of the founding members of her Hospitality Sustainable Purchasing Consortium (HSPC), which aims to provide the industry with a unified approach to greening its global supply chain by creating a Hospitality Sustainable Purchasing Index (HSPI). In the same way other indexes gauge suppliers on design, quality, price, availability, and service, the HSPI will evaluate them on their overall sustainability. Launched in June 2011, the consortium is the first of its kind, and MindClick’s existing Sustainability Performance Index will be the basis of the HSPI.
The consortium is on track to have a beta version of the index ready by early 2012, leading up to a formal launch in 2013. Essentially, it will be a Web-based industry-wide purchasing database that comprehensively measures and reports information in the categories of corporate social responsibility, environmental impact (in terms of energy and water consumption and carbon and waste output), and product sustainability. Subscribers to HSPI will be able to see performance ratings in each category for each supplier, accompanied by detailed explanations for the scores given. “It will be a win-win for businesses, the environment, and, ultimately, consumers,” Abrams says. “Sustainable products can offer comfort and positive health impacts for hotel guests. Plus, guests feel good about making a choice that has an environmental and social benefit.”
According to Benjamin, both the consortium and the index also address a major problem in the hospitality industry, which is that the core and shell of hotels are being built sustainably while interior furnishings are given significantly less thought. “It doesn’t make any sense not to measure the impact of the furnishings,” Benjamin says. “If the building is LEED-certified but the furnishings are absolutely evil for the planet, how does that equal out? This is why what JoAnna is doing is so important. She’s putting a group of vendors in place and asking them to think critically about what should be measured and how it should be measured—because what many fail to realize is that sustainability isn’t black and white.”
A SUSTAINABLE SHOWROOM
With the initial Velocity program, Benjamin West turned the FF&E process upside down and created a hospitality furnishings package that reduced time and cost while increasing quality. Now, the program has been upgraded to Velocity 2.0G, which uses environmentally friendly materials.
LIGHTING. The scheme uses CFLs and is Title 24 compliant.
VANITIES. Frames have rapidly renewable bamboo and CARB-compliant EV 1 plywood.
WALL VINYL. This is Greenguard certified for low emissions and made from 10% post-consumer recycled content.
CARPET PAD. Made from 100% recycled material, the carpet pad is CRI Green Label certified.
BEDDING. The pillow insert is made with 100% post-consumer recycled polyester fill. The natural-down throw has 100% renewable wool content.
ACCENT TABLES. Frames are 25–30% recycled steel powder, recycled during the powder-coat process.
Greenwashing, the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products are environmentally friendly, is something Benjamin believes is dangerous and lacking in common sense. Take a typical hotel-bathroom vanity. Using a water-based finish is supposed to be better for the environment, but on average such a vanity may only last about three years before it looks unattractive enough that it must be replaced. Using a standard finish, however, will result in a vanity that lasts more than 10 years.“The cost-over-life analysis is critical, and with the greenwashing of our industry, this is something that’s being considered less and less,” Benjamin says. “The shelf life of a hotel room is 24 hours, and if you get too cute with your green endeavors and it becomes necessary to constantly replace furnishings, you can’t get that revenue back for missing just one day of service with that room. In certain situations, what may look like the most sustainable choice on paper is not better for the environment overall. The expected life cycle is more important, and it’s obviously smarter business-wise and green-wise to spend $500 on a vanity that will last over 10 years than it is to spend $300 on a vanity that will last three years.”
These are sentiments echoed by Abrams, who is firm in her belief that, unlike other approaches to sustainability, the consortium will create a solution grounded in business, and it will drive the kind of real change that can only occur when purchasers are able to obtain products that meet all of their needs, not just their “green desires.” “Because of the franchised nature of hospitality and the resulting manner in which purchasing is done, it requires an industry-wide solution,” Abrams says. “With transparency and a clear set of guidelines that suppliers help to create, the industry can achieve real progress.”
In addition to Benjamin West, the consortium was also founded by Valley Forge Fabrics, Audit Logistics, Delta Faucet Company, InnVision, InterfaceFLOR, PE International Inc., RTKL, SERA Architects, and Marriott International, the last of which has been quietly focusing on sustainability for more than 20 years. Marriott’s FF&E procurement group makes more than $200 million in purchases annually, and according to Dave Lippert, the company’s vice president of procurement, MindClick’s consortium will provide Marriott with the opportunity to focus its efforts in an efficient manner while leveraging Abrams’ technical expertise and tools. Lippert says participating suppliers will now have a solid roadmap, allowing them to focus their efforts in a way that has a larger and more beneficial impact on sustainability.
Despite these major strides, there is still a great deal of work to be done. Benjamin West has offices in London and Hong Kong and is handling hotel projects in more than 15 countries. Benjamin has seen firsthand how advanced Europe and some emerging parts of Asia are, and in many ways they’re exceeding accomplishments in the United States. In his own company, whose revenue increased 45-fold from 1998 to 2008, Benjamin can only personally do so much. He makes sure to hire the best and then “trains them, trusts them,” and gets out of their way. He’s confident that he’s doing his part to foster sustainability in his own company but contends that the true mark of progress will be when sustainability is no longer used as a selling point for an individual hotel.
“We’ll know we’ve won when this is no longer a news topic,” Benjamin says. “No one says, ‘Come stay at our fire-code-compliant hotel.’ You just assume that’s in place. The end goal should be that people will no longer have to tout their hotel as ‘sustainable’; it will just be a given. If and when this happens, the HSPI and its work will still be necessary, as new products, technologies, and systems will continue being introduced and will need evaluating.”