“This is the way it should be” – YHA New Zealand’s Kate Ufton on weaving sustainability into operations
Founded in 1932 by Cora Wilding in Canterbury, YHA New Zealand was the first Southern Hemisphere hostel ever. Nowadays it hosts over ¼ million guests each year and inspires them to explore and discover New Zealand. After many years of sustainable projects, their great effort to safeguard our environment was recognised with the victory at this year’s Global Youth Travel Awards in the Best Green Accommodation Initiative category.
WYSE Travel Confederation talked with Kate Ufton, HR & Quality Coordinator at YHA New Zealand about their green policies and future projects.
Please tell us about YHA New Zealand’s green policies.
YHA New Zealand’s heritage is one of connecting New Zealanders and international travellers with the environment. Its original mission was to have YHA hostels within walking distance of each other across the entire country. Of course, that was in the days when cars and road travel were not as ubiquitous as today. We still have a “low carbon traveller” offer that rewards travellers who do either walk or cycle their way around New Zealand. Over twenty years ago YHA New Zealand was one of the first to sign up to Hostelling International’s Environmental Charter.
From such a background, YHA has developed a strong affinity with our connection to the environment and we have developed a range of policies that root us to the fundamental principle of having the least impact on our environment as we possibly can, even before it became fashionable to do so.
We focus on the large and small actions. Large actions such as solar panel installations and working with energy companies that utilise renewable energy to small impact actions like having switch off labels on our light switches. We also take the opportunity to educate our guests about environmental responsibility through our recycling facilities and environmental education boards that each hostel maintains.
Sustainability practices are woven into our standard operational procedures so it has become an everyday normality rather than anything special – this is the way it should be.
Last year you came in second in the same category and this year you won. What does this recognition mean to you and does it encourage you in doing better?
We are delighted to receive this award and have our efforts recognised by the industry. The reward is an important way to recognise the efforts of our staff and show them that what they do every day is important and is applauded. It also helps shine a light on what we are doing and we hope offers others the incentive to follow our lead. We’re always looking to improve and we actually want all accommodation providers to do the same.
Considering climate change, green initiatives are more and more important, yet they are a minority in the travel industry. What do you think could encourage other industry colleagues to go greener?
I think the market will start to demand environmentally sustainable practices as a minimum standard and organisations are starting to see this and respond accordingly. The younger travellers have grown up in a period of significant climatic change and have a clearer understanding and acceptance of the fact that we need to change our ways if we are going to slow down the march of some of these dramatic changes that are coming. For others a demonstration of the financial benefits of renewable energy and sustainable practices is what will motive change. So both the market lead demand and the operational lead savings will drive the smarter businesses to change more quickly. In order to survive, the other less enlightened companies will follow these leaders in time.
You speak of financial benefits, but how expensive is it to go green before investments start paying back? How many years does it take to start seeing those benefits?
On a purely commercial level these projects make absolute sense. Payback varies per hostel but renewable energy and energy efficiency installations offer a 5-8 years return on investment. Brand equity is strengthened particularly for our socially and environmentally conscious market. There’s also a strong sense of staff pride in YHA and while that is hard to quantify, any astute business knows that an engaged workforce translates to a positive return on the bottom line. Warmer, drier, efficiently run hostels make for a great visitor experience. Being environmentally friendly does not degrade the experience rather it improves it. That means more satisfied customers, better reviews and greater acceptance of premium pricing.
Would you like to briefly share something about YHA New Zealand’s other initiatives or projects for the future?
YHA has been measuring its carbon emissions since 2004 and has recently become a carboNZero certified organisation. This is an externally audited carbon emissions program that gives us an independent view of our energy usage and measurements and a subsequent investment in a certified carbon credit programme to offset carbon emissions. Our new solar installations also give us extremely accurate measurements of energy usage. Our goal is to reduce our emissions so these information systems direct our spend and efforts to target high energy usage plant and areas of high energy usage. We are committed to implementing more renewable energy solutions over the coming years.
Find out more about YHA New Zealand’s green policies here.