Sunday, October 10, 2010
Can luxury and greenery mix after all?
When you arrive at Soneva Fushi, one of the world’s most exclusive – and expensive – resorts, they take away your shoes: you are expected to go barefoot throughout your stay on this beautiful, wild island in the Maldives. When you leave, you get your loafers back, but are charged extra to cover your holiday’s carbon footprint.
Guests pay two per cent on top of their already hefty bills – room rates normally range from $1,000 to $8,000 a night – in a carbon tax believed to be the only one of its kind in the world. It is highly and explicitly visible on the account, but no-one has ever objected to stumping up. That’s a surprise – for although they can well afford the levy, the super rich can be notoriously tight-fisted.
Maybe it's because the money – $1.7 million raised so far from this and two similar Soneva resorts in the Maldives and Thailand – is used transparently to reduce carbon emissions. It funds a community project – which originated in the Somerset village of Chew Magna – to replace coal-fired power stations with wind turbines in southern India.
But perhaps, too, it is because the philosophy of the resort – which aims to take people "luxuriously back to nature" by creating "innovative and enriching experiences in a sustainable environment" – seeps into visitors as they collect their suntans. It is part of a growing move to reconcile luxury with greenery – a sharp counterpoint to the hair-shirt environmentalism promoted by some of the (at times wealthy) founders of the green movement.
Just three weeks ago, Paris staged a four-day Ethical Fashion Show with top designers parading skirts of recycled bottletops, dresses made from old photo negatives and gowns made of cast-off shirts. In Italy, Giorgio Armani has begun working with recycled polyester, and Fendi has produced a line of bags made from reused tyres.
Louis Vuitton has scrapped plastic wrapping for deliveries. The hybrid Toyota Prius quickly became the wheels of choice for high-rolling Hollywood stars. And this summer, Alistair Callender, a young British designer, unveiled plans for a guilt-free gin palace – a £40 million, 58 foot super-yacht powered by solar energy – at boat shows in Monaco and Abu Dhabi.
"Luxury and sustainable development are compatible", says Sylvie Bernard, head of environment at the LVMH group whose brands include Moët Hennessy and Dior. Sonu Shivdasani – who created Fushi Soneva with his wife Eva – not only concurs, but is this weekend hosting a conference at the resort addressed by leading environmentalist and tourism experts – including Jonathon Porritt and Prof Geoffrey Lipman, a former President of the World Travel and Tourism Council – in the hope of persuading other top hoteliers to go green.
The growing movement is in direct conflict with the many environmentalists who have long insisted that people in developed countries must lower their standards of living for the sake of the planet. But Shivdasani – a contemporary of David Cameron at Eton and Oxford – believes this is both unrealistic and wrongheaded.
"People are not just going to give things up", he says. "Instead we must help change habits while delivering the same luxury in a sustainable way, demonstrating an intelligent alternative."
His remote resort, beloved by celebrities such as Madonna and Paul McCartney seeking a place not to be seen, naturally – in both senses of the word – provides top-flight hospitality, while eschewing carbon-soaked conspicuous consumption. Guests are provided with ancient bikes with which to negotiate the resort's dirt tracks. Floors in public areas are sand, buildings are thatched in local materials, and the vegetables come from the organic garden.
Plastics are banned, waste is recycled at a special facility on site, and no bottled water can be brought in: the hotel desalinates its own, charges for it and gives the profits to charities, so far providing clean water for more than 250,000 people. Some celebrities have apparently objected that they only drink a particular brand, but accepted when told they cannot have it. A solar power station is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70 per cent next year – on the way to the resort becoming zero carbon.
It seems to work for Shivdasani: half his customers return and his business, Six Senses, is growing fast and constantly opening new resorts. He now wants to spread the word: anyone could adopt his eco-friendly practices, he says, not least because they are cheaper than the conventional alternatives.
But he'll need to try again. Only one other company is attending the conference – following some late cancellations. What a shame the potential barefoot hoteliers got cold feet.