Two moustached men in white uniforms and matching red turbans smile at you as they open the gilded doors of the ITC Grand Chola hotel in Chennai. Past the sweeping staircase, into the lift and back in the comfort of your room, you expect reminders to save water through reusing towels, or to turn up the air-conditioning to save energy – which many would probably ignore anyway, sadly.

There are none. It is not because this 600-room, five-star property has assumed indifference. In fact, it is said to be the world’s largest hotel to receive a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (Leed) platinum rating by the US Green Building Council. Regarded by many as the international benchmark for eco-friendly buildings, the council’s platinum rating is the highest honour given based on five categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.

Not only does the ITC Grand Chola hotel have its own wind turbines to convert wind’s kinetic energy into electrical power, it also has rooftop solar panels that power 25 per cent of hot water on the property.

Sceptics may dismiss this as an exercise to draw the cool set. After all, glamorous celebrities flock to such eco-friendly establishments. But the reality is far less charming and owner ITC Hotels has a greater plan: to save India, one hotel at a time.

All sheets are washed with water recycled through the hotel’s in-house water-filtration system.
All sheets are washed with water recycled through the hotel’s in-house water-filtration system.

The Green Tide
This is despite the fact that going green doesn’t come cheap. Building an eco-friendly property reportedly costs 10 to 12 per cent more. But “(practising sustainability) is no longer an option”, says Niranjan Khatri, general manager of ITC Hotels’ green-initiatives department. “It is a must.” The current situation is not pretty. India’s rising consumption is generating increasing volumes of waste. According to The World Bank, environmental degradation costs the subcontinent $13.3 billion annually and causes 23 per cent of the nation’s child mortality.

As landfills reach full capacity, solid refuse is dumped on roadsides and rivers. Less than 20 per cent of the nearly 40,000 million litres of sewage produced daily by Indian cities is treated. The rest flows into its rivers, killing marine life and causing waterborne diseases.

The Taj Mahal hasn’t been spared. Air pollution is turning its pristine white marble walls yellow.

All this has not escaped the public’s attention. “Today, consumers are demonstrating increased awareness of and commitment to responsible business practices, and looking to contribute by endorsing luxury brands that are environmentally friendly,” Nakul Anand, executive director of ITC Limited, told Indian magazine Hotelier India. “They are paying extra for organic produce or for brands like The Body Shop, Tiffany, Burberry, Montblanc, because they have responsible practices embedded in them.”

Khatri tells The Peak: “Resources are not endless and we live in an over-populated world. We must act now to secure a future for the next generation.”

Despite ITC Hotels’ eco-friendly ethos, it does not skimp on luxury trimmings – from your favourite wine labels to a personal butler service.
Despite ITC Hotels’ eco-friendly ethos, it does not skimp on luxury trimmings – from your favourite wine labels to a personal butler service.

Savings and Investments
Every ITC Hotels property has been retrofitted and houses fixtures like water-filtration systems, intelligent design to maximise daylight, and insulated glass to keep heat out so air-conditioning is reduced. Old pumps have been upgraded to energy-efficient systems, solar-powered water heaters have been installed and lighting is by way of compact fluorescent technology which reportedly uses 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescent light bulbs.

Such effort and investments are not limited due to the makeup of individual properties but stretches across the supply chain. Last August, for example, the group sunk in $64 million to set up a 48MW wind-energy plant in eastern state Andhra Pradesh to supplement the existing 70MW-capacity wind-energy plants in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. One MW is said to be able to power 250 four-room HDB flats.

Today, nearly 40 per cent of the entire conglomerate’s operations run on renewable energy, a figure that’s set to increase to 50 per cent with these recent investments. All water used in its hotels is recycled on site and 99 per cent of generated waste – be it leftover food from the hotel’s restaurants to sludge from its paper factories – is sent to external agencies for sorting and recycling.

The environment is not the only one being saved. Energy conservation has led to lower operating costs. When ITC Sonar Kolkata opened in 2005, its electricity bill was a hefty $1.5 million. A year after the renovations, that figure was slashed by an impressive 20 per cent.

Today, all 11 of its premium luxury hotels boast Leed certification, nine of which are platinum. Only 11 other hotels elsewhere in the world have received this honour.

What’s more encouraging is that other players in India are beginning to follow ITC Hotels’ footsteps. According to the latest figures by the US Green Building Council, India has the world’s second most number of Leed-certified properties, at 1,657. Canada, which topped the list, has 4,068, while China is second with 1,638.

The Way Forward
ITC Hotels is not stopping there. It is building more eco-friendly luxury hotels, the latest of which is the sprawling 1.2 sq km golf resort ITC Grand Bharat in New Delhi, which opened in November last year. That same month, construction began on ITC Colombo One, a 350-room hotel in Sri Lanka’s capital.

The group has also committed itself to help clean its hotels’ surrounding neighbourhoods, as part of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five-year-long Clean India campaign, which kicked off last October. In this programme, people from all walks of life – from civil servants to students – are encouraged to take part and clean streets, while his government overhauls sanitary systems and ramps up waste treatment.

Indeed, while ITC Hotels’ efforts at minimising its environmental footprint are commendable, the task of reversing India’s pollution requires nothing less than the entire nation’s effort.

For beyond profits, Anand says it best: “It is simply the right thing to do.”

Read more about other Leed-certified green properties around the world here.