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Framings of Sustainability in the Hospitality Industry:

A Comparative Case Study using a Systems Perspective

This case study helps you to better understand the different framings of sustainability within the hospitality industry, comparing the approach of niche hotels and one of the world's leading hotel group.

Case study by Jessica Mouilah  



         The hospitality industry faces environmental and social challenges of the 20th century, defined by the Brundtland Report (1987) and the Agenda21 (World Conference on Environment and Development, 1992), with a greater responsibility, being one of the biggest industries in the world (Brown, 1996). Tourism and travel are highly valued in the today’s society, however, these activities have a significant environmental and social impact. Climate change conventions, such as the Paris Agreement (2015), and sustainable development goals (SDG), formulated by the United Nations (2015), add an extra pressure on private actors, even though they are not the primary target, compelling them to meet these principles and standards. Furthermore, the hospitality industry relies on providing for customers’ satisfaction and wellbeing. In the 21st century, the global mind-set and conscience is evolving, giving more value to environmental and social commitments. The hospitality industry, maybe more than any other, needs to take this shift into account and enable concrete strategies to ensure a sustainable management of their facilities (Sloan et al, 2013). Nonetheless, sustainable management could vary considerably depending on the institution and their understanding of Sustainability.

         In this article, I will compare two different framings of sustainability, one by an international hotel group and the other by an eco-friendly niche hotel group. I will analyze how the framing of Sustainability influences the responses of the two facilities towards policy and innovation.

         In the first section, I will introduce the concepts and theoretical approach to framing to establish the impact that framing has upon actors and the direction of their strategies.

In section two, I will apply these analytical tools to compare the framings of Sustainability by two different types of hotels, analyzing their agenda and how they conceptualise Sustainability. I will start with the Planet21-Acting Here Program by the AccorHotel Group which portrays a framing that reflects the influence of international models such as Triple Bottom Line principle, Agenda21 and SDG’ and analyze how it influences their policy and innovation. Then, I will reproduce the same framework on the eco-friendly niche hotel Under Canvas’ storyline and mission[1] that communicates a framing of Sustainability exclusively focused on environmental principles. Finally, I will compare and discuss the two cases’ framing and development strategies.

In the conclusion, I will try to connect those framings with academic theories and approaches of Sustainability and illustrate how the debate around the definition and understanding of Sustainability is as vibrant in the academic world as it is in a private sector such as hospitality.


Concepts and theoretical approach to framing


         Preliminary Remarks

         In this article, Sustainability will be approached as a dynamic notion that carries a great deal of complexity around the evolving understanding of the different concepts associated with it (Stirling, 1999). Leach, Schoones and Stilring (2010 : 37) affirm that it is one of the most debated and contested terms of recent times. Diverse sectors, for instance private business’, politicians, economists or environmentalists, apprehend Sustainability and sustainable development from a distinct angle leading to various responses and strategies to reach what they define as Sustainability (Leach et al, 2010). In that sense, framing plays a significant role in translating how an actor understands and defines Sustainability and the direction its policies and strategies take to achieve it. In other words, framing of Sustainability reveals subjective choices made by situated actors that originate from a particular institutional and political environment (Leach et al, 2007).


         Analytical tools and conceptual framework 

         Browsing through the literature on sustainable innovation politics and transitions using a systems perspective approach, the question of framing appears central in allowing the researchers to encompass the overall scope of the underlying assumptions made by the actor using the term Sustainability (Leach et al, 2007 ; Leach et al, 2010 ; Ely et al, 2013 ; Scoones, 2007 ; Smith, 2007 ; Stirling, 1999 ; Stirling, 2008). By a systems perspective approach I mean, relying on Leach et al’ (2010 : 43), that “Systems consist of social, institutional, ecological and technological elements interacting in dynamic ways… [They] need to be understood in relation to both their structures and their functions. Structures concern the ways in which the system and its boundaries are constituted, … [and]  system functions, on the other hand, concern things such as services, outputs and consequences.” In other words, the framing of Sustainability, in this setting, varies depending on the nature and components selected to define its scope and influence its outcomes.

Figure 1: Multiple framings: The outline of a complex system

Source: Leach et al, 2007


         Now that the systems perspective has been clarified I can establish a conceptual framework that allows me to identify and analyze the framing of Sustainability in the hospitality industry focusing on two distinct hotel groups.

The first step is to identify the actor, by which I mean the entity that sets the framing, and its “environment ”. The second step is to recognise the system, sustainability, to seize the given structures and functions that characterize its boundaries and outcomes, bearing in mind the influence of the context and the subjective assumptions (Leach et al, 2007). After outlining the settled boundaries and aspects that the hotel groups use to define Sustainability, I will focus on the functions that are prioritized by the actor. In other words, which dimensions are highlighted and which ones are excluded (step three). The contextualisation and assessment of the highlighted dimensions and objectives allows me to grasp the strategies behind the choices made to define the concept of Sustainability and how the actor is going to utilise it. The dynamic aspect of this framework brings the attention to the interactions within a particular sector and the networks that constitute certain framings and promote them (Leach et al, 2010). The fourth step is scrutinising the policies and innovations showcasted to achieve the set goals. At this stage the purpose of the framing and the strategy put in place by the actor become clearer. The final step is to recognise the articulated narrative built around the framing of Sustainability (Roe, 1994).

         In the next section, I will apply this conceptual framework to analyze the framing of Sustainability by the two hotel groups I chose to compare using the analytical tools developed in the last paragraph.


Case study : Accorhotel and Under Canvas - Confronting two different framings


         Sustainability in the hospitality industry

         The hospitality industry is the world’s biggest service industry and therefore holds its share of responsibility in the climate crisis (Sloan et al, 2013). Indeed, adding the environmental footprint of the tourism industry to the services offered by the hotels, which are mostly resource-intensive and generate negative externalities on the environment puts the sector under great pressure to regulate their activities (Bohdanowicz, 2005). Moreover, the hospitality industry relies heavily on natural environments and threatening the preservation of these environments directly impacts the hotels’ business opportunity (Bohdanowicz, 2005). Finally, in a world where ecofriendly and sustainable processes are more and more expected by customers, hotel management strategies should formulate eco-conscious measures and meet the expected standards. For the reasons stated above, the hospitality industry needs to react and seize the opportunity of incorporating sustainability in their management strategies.


         For my case study, I chose two very distinct types of hotel groups. On one hand,  one of the largest international hotel chains in the world running its activities around the globe for more than 50 years. On the other hand, a 10 year old glamping resort with 7 establishments exclusively in the US co-founded by a couple Sarah and Jacob Dusek. I am aware of the differences in terms of financial resources, branding pressures and the requirement for large companies to be transparent regarding the companies policies and their social and environmental commitments and achievements, resulting in more elaborated reports and performance reviews available online for Accorhotel. Even though the website of Accorhotel contains more in depth information regarding their performances and strategies, the information available on Under Canvas website is sufficient to grasp their framing of Sustainability and its outcomes. Furthermore, I am confident that this selection is relevant in this essay and will display two different framings of Sustainability and alternative policies and strategies.



         AccorHotel committing to planet21-acting here program

         Accorhotel group is one of the largest international hotel companies in the world. The group started its activities in 1967 with its first hotel and is now the owner of more than 5'000 establishments around the world.[2] The environment in which Accorhotel evolves is the hospitality industry of hospitality. This industry of services stands in a private sector that is highly competitive. As mentioned in the section above, hospitality is under the pressure of their clients to adapt and engage with sustainable responses to environmental and social challenges (Sloan et al, 2013).


         Planet21- Acting Here program defines Sustainability as sustainable development and corporate social responsibility “acting for the people and the planet”. The first insight on the framing appears directly in the name of the program: Planet21 in reference to the Agenda21. It shows the intention of taking part in the international trend in reducing and monitoring environmental and social impact. The boundaries of the system follow the Triple Bottom Line imperatives, coined in 1994 by John Elkington, which relies on the three P’s principle: People, Planet and Profit. They represent pillars of a conception of Sustainability, based on the axes of social equity, environment and economy (Sloan et al, 2013: 195). In other words, the triple bottom line approach takes into account not only the economic performance of a business but also the social and environmental performances.



Figure 2: The Triple Bottom Line









Source Adapted from Henriques & Richardson, 2004



         In its program Planet21- Acting Here, Accorhotel put the emphasis on the leitmotiv “acting for the people and the planet”.[3] Their agenda is built around 6 pillars labeled; Our people, Our customers, Our partners, Communities, Food and Our building.


Figure 3: 6 pillars of acting here Planet21




Source: Accor Planet21- Acting Here: Sustainable development and CSR, 2012


Taking a look at the whole program and the commitments showcased on their website, Accorhotels is setting people and environment oriented goals inspired by the SDG’s, for example, by enhancing the work conditions and CSR monitoring (SDG8). Moreover, they value and strive to reach gender equality among the general manager positions (SDG5). They are also active on the side of climate action (SDG13) with their Plant for the Planet program where 50% of the money saved by customers choosing not to wash their towels everyday is allocated to planting trees in the hotel’s host country.[4] The group also discuss water and energy consumption, waste management and their objective to ban single use plastic. Accorhotels are aware of their impact on the environment and the local communities that they intend to support through solidarity projects and donations to local organisations.[5]


         Concerning the policies, as mentioned above the hotel leaves the choice to the client regarding the daily washing of the towels. This policy is interesting in the sense that it emphasises the shared responsibility and the consequences of the customers’ behaviors. Along with this policy goes the Plant for the Planet program and its positive impact on the environment. Accorhotel wishes to develop urban vegetable gardens, this innovation in the hospitality sector creates new opportunities to reimagine space and serve organic vegetables to their clients.[6] Another innovation, released through the Planet21- Acting Here, is GAIA, a platform where the different establishments can “manage their sustainable approach and monitor their water and energy consumption as well as their waste production”.[7]


         Accorhotel with the Planet21-Acting Here program draws a narrative, which includes all three pillars of Sustainability, where their commitment and engagement mean not only enhancing workers conditions and experience but also raising awareness about the customers share of responsibility in their choices.


         Under Canvas promoting “intentional inconveniences”

         Under Canvas is a young company co-founded by the couple Sarah and Jacob Dusek in 2009. They are now the owners of 7 luxury glamping resorts across the US. This small hotel chain stands in the hospitality industry but attracts a smaller range of customers due to their very special offer. They have to fulfill their promise of symbiotic, still glamorous, stay within the nature. They promote the idea that customers will “foster environmental consciousness” by having the opportunity to connect with nature.  


         Sustainability is defined as “intentional inconveniences” and is based on 5 pillars. The choice of words intentional and inconveniences is really interesting in expressing directly that Sustainability is not about sustaining a way of thinking or doing but on the contrary changing our behavior and habits. As they explicitly express it on their website “These are small features and choices that go a long way toward preserving the environment. Here are some of the ways we reduce our impact and still deliver a luxurious experience.”[8] Moreover, it implies going through this process intentionally and that it might be inconvenient. The scope of Sustainability is exclusively driven towards environmental aspects and the connection of humans with natural outdoors.


         As mentioned previously, their conception of Sustainability relies on 5 pillars, which are: Landscape, Water, Electricity, Waste and Unplug. The feature landscape puts the emphasis on the high value of land preservation, meaning protecting the environment by leaving it “as untouched as possible”. [9] Regarding water, the glam camp’s infrastructures and innovations result in significantly low water consumption. The same mind-set of exercising the smallest footprint as possible applies to the energy consumption, with solar panels supplying energy whenever possible (two of the seven camps run exclusively with solar power). [10] Concerning waste, Under Canvas is proactive in removing single use plastic products and encourages their clients and employees to use refillable containers. They support these initiatives by choosing to collaborate with partners that share the same values, for example plant based zero waste bathroom products or recycled water containers.[11] Finally, the last pillar “unplug” is about disconnecting “from technology and reconnecting with those they love” and nature. [12]


         Under Canvas’ water infrastructure, “low-flow toilets, faucets that automatically shut off, and showers that activate only when guests pull a chain”[13], is innovative in the sense that it significantly reduces the environmental footprint of the camp without removing too much comfort for the clients. Their policy of using solar power as much as possible builds on their objective to reduce the environmental impact of their facilities. Finally, the decision of not offering a wifi connection to their guests is a policy that complies with the essence of the whole project  which is about building awareness around the benefits of connecting with nature. “We believe that nature is the best architect, family and friends are the best entertainment, and that a piece of every soul is hidden somewhere…outside. ”[14]


         The narrative of the founders of Under Canvas is constructed around the belief that by being owners of the lands where the camps are seasonally located they have a positive impact on protecting and preserving the environment. Through their “intentional inconveniences” they pass on an eco responsible conscious and the opportunity to truly reconnect with nature.


         Confronting two different framings

         This case study illustrates well how two actors evolving in the same industry and with the same inherent objective that is to satisfy their customers and be profitable, even though their significant differences, formulate very distinct framings of Sustainability.

Accorhotel promotes a holistic vision based on international principles such as the triple bottom line and the SDGs and tends to be more proactive on the social equity dimension. In this setting, we understand how it is easier for Accorhotel, through their financial resources and the pressure on the group to display a positive image, to implement policies on issues such as CSR, gender equality, workers wellbeing and health and engaging with local communities. However, concerning issues like water and energy consumption and waste management it is harder for the group to drastically improve their environmental footprint. We can see through the framing, the policies and the innovations how this powerful and established group is making efforts to adapt and slowly transform their way of operating. Under Canvas constructed their business around their conception of Sustainability, which is preserving the environment by limiting the environmental footprint and raising awareness about the virtue of connecting with your natural environment. Innovations like water and solar infrastructure came along to support their vision. Moreover, the company puts a high value on buying the land where the camps are located (Dusek, 2017). This priority reduces the financial resources that could be allocated to enhance workers rights and wellbeing and their engagement with the local communities. [15]


Concluding remarks


         In this article, I confronted two different framings of Sustainability applying a five steps conceptual framework inspired by systems perspective after Leach, Scoones and Stirling’s work for the STEPS centre (2007 & 2010). The results indicated that Accorhotel constructed their framing on the basis of international standards and principles and are more proactive on the social equity dimension, while Under Canvas rooted their definition of Sustainability in purely environmental scope and their design fits innovations that allows them to reduce their environmental footprint and reach their goal.

         In this conclusion I will make those two framings communicate with Naess’ article where he developed the concepts of shallow and deep ecology (1973). On one hand, shallow ecology approaches environmental challenges with a technocratic adaptative attitude, meaning that humans can adapt the environment to their needs. In other words, how can technology, innovations or policies help humans adapt to environmental shocks without changing their habits (Blewitt, 2018 : 45). On the other hand, deep ecology evaluates the impacts of human habits and behavior on the whole environment instead of focusing exclusively on the inconveniences for humans well-being (Naess, 1995). Translating Naess’ conceptual approach of ecology, Accorhotel vision of Sustainability derives from shallow ecology with a more human oriented strategy where the end goal is to adapt but in the meantime try to maintain an established business model. Whereas Under Canvas’ created their business model around an approach of sustainability that draws near deep ecology principles. Indeed, deep ecology promotes the recognition of the inherent bond between nature and human beings, with the aim of pushing forward more inclusive developments, in terms of including and preserving every living form (Devall & Sessions, 1985).



Accor. (2012). Planet21: Sustainable development and CSR. Paris: Accor.

Blewitt, J. (2018). Understanding Sustainable Development. Oxon: Routledge.

Bohdanowicz, P. (2005). European hoteliers' environmental attitudes: greening the business. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 188-204.

Brown, M. (1996). Environmental policy in the hotel sector: "green" strategy or stratagem. International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, 18-23.

Brundtland, G. H. (1987). Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Devall G. & Sessions B. (1985). Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith.

Dusek, S. (2017). Tents With Toilets: A Travel Company, Under Canvas, Takes 'Glamping' Mainstream. (S. Adams, Interviewer, & Forbes, Editor)

Ely, A. S. (2013). Innovation politics post-Rio+20: Hybrid pathways to sustainability. Environment and Planning S: Government and Policy, 1063-1081.

Henriques, A. &. Richardson, J. (2004). The triple Bottom Line, does it all add up? : Assessing the sustainability of business and CSR. London: Sterling.

Leach, M., Scoones, I. & Stirling, A. (2007). Pathways to Sustainability: an overview of the STEPS Centre approach. Brighton: STEPS Centre.

Leach, M., Scoones, I. & Stirling, A.  (2010). Pathways to Sustainability: Responding to Dynamic Contexts. In Leach, M., Scoones, I. & Stirling, A. Dynamic Sustainabilities, Technology, Environment, Social Justice (pp. 37-64). Brighton: STEPS Centre.

Naess, A. (1995). The Deep Ecology Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects. In G. Sessions, Deep Ecology for 21st Century (pp. 64-84). London: Shambhala.

Naess, A. (1973). The Shallow and the Deep, long-range Ecology Movement. Inquiry , 95-100.

Roe, E. (1994). Narrative Policy Analysis: Theory and Practice. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Scoones, I. (2007). Sustainability. Development in Practice , 589-596.

Sloan, P., Legrand, W. & Chen, J. S. (2013). Green marketing and branding. In P. L. Sloan, Sustainability in the Hospitality Industry: principles of sustainable operations (pp. 189-214). New York: Routledge.

Sloan, P., Legrand, W. & Chen, J. S. (2013). Sustainable development in the Hospitality Industry. In P. L. Sloan, Sustainability in the Hospitality Industry: Principles of sustainable operations (pp. 13-38). New York: Routledge.

Sloan, P., Legrand, W. & Chen, J. S. (2013). The rationale for sustainable development: The environment, the people, the economy. In P. L. Sloan, Sustainability in the Hospitality Industry: Principles of sustainable operations (pp. 1-12). New York: Routledge.

Smith, A. (2007). Translating Sustainabilities between green niches and socio-technical regimes. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management, 427-450.

Stirling, A. (1999). The appraisal of sustainability: Some problems and possible responses. Local Environment, 111-135.





[1] I contacted Under Canvas Hotel group, asking for a full report on their sustainable development strategy to have a similar document as for the Accor Group and unfortunately got a negative answer saying that those documents were confidential see email in annex. The information on the Planet21-Acting Here program were available on their website of course since it is on of the largest international hotel group the marketing and communication budget are incomparable with Under Canvas hotels.



























[15] In her interview in Forbes Sarah Dusek mentioned the company’s policy of employing overseas students on short term contracts (Dusek, 2017)

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