Bougie, But Make It Sustainable

by Bashar Wali 

I was in Dubai recently—Vegas with a beach and arguably better food. We were trekking across the desert in a 4x4. The wind painted patterns in the sand, the scorching air tried hard to cook me, and the sky—a dusty, desert blue.

That afternoon on the sand dunes, we lived out our Instagrammable moments in real time. That is, until a gust of wind came through. A plastic water bottle flew out the car window.

I gasped, yelled to our driver to stop, and threw open the car door.

In a very un-Instagrammable moment, I went barreling across the desert, sweat dripping from my brow, linen kaftan drenched, to recover the rogue water bottle.

“It’s fiiine,” the guide called out. But I was long gone. Down a sand dune, up another. There it was. I got it.

I returned to the air-conditioned sanctuary of the 4x4.

“We’re from Oregon,” was all I offered by way of explanation.

As we made our way back to our hotel that evening, everything in Dubai felt more punctuated. The neon lights shined brighter. The tourists and vendors, more animated. All of it encased in a layer of smog, a visible stain across the glitz and glam.

I knew that Dubai was a manmade city built up from the desert—a bougie, better Vegas with some of the best hotels, dining, shopping, and nightlife in the world.

What I didn’t realize was that I’d have my own internal conflict about the cost of luxury.

After all, I like the finer things. We know that the finer things tend to focus on fashion at the expense of form or function. But don’t be fooled by the smog and mirrors. Big brands work hard to hide the price of fashion on the environment, people, and our planet.

It doesn’t have to be that way. One look at Tesla, and it’s clear that luxury doesn't have to come at the expense of environmental impact. I special ordered my Rivian, a fully electric rig at the intersection of sustainability and luxury, hitting the streets this summer.

Meanwhile in hotels, we were finally getting somewhere sustainable, pre-pandemic.

Plastic water bottles had been replaced with self-service water stations and glass, while teeny toiletries were washed away by full-size, built-in bottles. These efforts proved to be good for the environment and more economical in the long term.

We have people like Jessica Blotter making headway in our industry, building the first give and get hotel booking platform, Kind Traveler. We have people like Robin Staten re-imagining urban corridors with Tiny Urban Escapes, a smattering of luxury suites built from recycled shipping containers. Jessica and Robin continue to do good work, but what about the rest of us?

We’ve gone backwards in so many ways. The pandemic has forced our hands back to single use—ensuring guests can sleep well and rest assured that no one has handled their in-room coffee cups, water bottles, or toiletries.

But let’s be honest: hygiene theatre is a big piece of that story. We’re not making beds with single use sheets any time soon. We’re all resting our heads on the same pillows.

It’s the illusion of sanitation. It’s the ability to remove—at least psychologically—any possibility that a virus could be transmitted. But, we learned early on that objects cannot hold and transfer the virus. The virus is airborne. And yet, to this day, we struggle to enforce masks while relying on disposable products.

Come on, are you kidding me?

It’s time to move back to washing dishes and reusable bottles. It’s time to move back to practicing what we preach. Here in Oregon, recycling is table stakes. In Portland, our garbage service comes every other week, and our bins are half the size of the rest of the country’s. Our recycling bins? They’re twice as big as yours. It’s muscle memory around here to fish a chicken bone out of the garbage and toss it into the compost bin.

I’d been training for that Dubai desert sprint all my West coast life.

If we feel so strongly about protecting our own blocks and our own cities, we also need to take stock of our hotels, restaurants, and brands, and ensure that we’re making a positive impact on the many places we call home.

We used to relegate sustainable practices to a little card about reusing towels and bedsheets. Today, there’s an opportunity to say more. In fact, 70% of consumers are more likely to book a hotel that’s sustainable, whether or not they were looking for an eco-friendly option initially. It’s time to wave that sustainable flag from our roof tops.

In addition to saving you money, and reducing waste, sustainability is in fashion.

I often dream about the hotels of tomorrow. We’re not inventing a flying car, but we are in the feelings business. We’re creating experiences that stay with guests long after they’re gone. On the heels of that trip to Dubai, I can’t shake the idea of sustainable luxury—the Tesla of hotels.

Maybe that’s next for me.