LEEDing the Way

Spa Anjali at The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa at Beaver Creek Mountain (Avon, CO)As more and more spas recognize the importance of environmental responsibility, many are making an effort to employ green initiatives. Some are starting from the ground up with a commitment to build LEED-certified facilities that integrate advanced earth-friendly technologies, while others are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint by incorporating green practices. “Green building certifications make a statement of commitment to the environment, your people, and the community,” says Tara Grodjesk, president of Tara Spa Therapy and a founding board member of the Green Spa Network (GSN). In general, Grodjesk says four main areas play a significant role in how “green” a spa is: building or renovations; operations, including water and energy conservation and efficiencies, waste reduction and recycling programs, and the use of nontoxic supplies; selection of organic or high-level natural products; and social responsibility, from supporting the community to global causes related to the wellbeing of people and the planet. Big or small, every effort counts and contributes to a greener world.

Building Better

Fundamentally, “green design” is about making an effort to reduce the impact of our resource-consuming ways. Founded in 1993, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) aimed to promote sustainability in the building and construction industry. In March 2000, the organization established LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a green building points-based certification system. As the program gained momentum, LEED became a status symbol, with the desire to attain it trumping the difficulties of reaching it. LEED drives international green-building practices. To date, more than 72,000 projects are participating across 155 countries and territories worldwide.

“The hospitality industry consumes natural resources at a high rate, and it represents an enormous potential market for sustainable design,” says USGBC director of communications Marisa Long. “Over the last few years, sustainable practices have started to gain momentum in the hospitality industry. Green hotels and spas are catching on. Properties across the world are incorporating LEED and other green-building practices into their spaces, changing the way hotels and spas are designed, built, and operated. The hospitality industry is also noticing another trend: a change in consumer behavior. Consumers are requesting sustainable resources, evaluating the indoor environment for health concerns, and placing a preference on sustainable buildings.”Complexions Spa for Beauty & Wellness (Albany, NY)

Bardessono (Yountville), California’s first Platinum LEED-certified hotel and one of only a handful in the U.S., integrated some of the most advanced green technologies available when it was constructed in 2009. “At Bardessono, we have chosen to act on our environmental values,” says general manager Nanci Sherman. “Some of the initiatives are not obvious at first glance. An underground geothermal system heats and cools the guest rooms, the spa, and the domestic hot water supply. The 940 high-efficiency solar panels installed on the roof are a key part of the design, maximizing the available roof space for energy production. The solar array produces approximately one half of the electricity used by the hotel. Additionally, the property has a ground-source heat pump system for heating and cooling needs.”

When developer Philip Sherburne began working on Bardessono’s design, he wasn’t focused on obtaining LEED certification. “In all the projects that I have undertaken, I have endeavored to be environmentally responsible,” says Sherburne. “With Bardessono, I decided to implement as many environmental features as were financially practical. Identifying those features became a driving force within the design process. I wanted the project to be a model for other developers, and I also wanted to demonstrate that a ‘very green’ hotel could be beautiful and luxurious. I think what the LEED certification does is validate the extent of our attention to environmental matters. This helps to bring in business.” The design team decided that the central spa would be small and focused on services that didn’t work well in guest rooms. “We designed the guest rooms so that we could deliver a superlative spa experience in the privacy of the guest’s own room,” he says. “This is a case where the best choice from an environmental, cost, and guest perspective is the guest-room spa program.”

Built and opened in 2008, Complexions Spa for Beauty & Wellness (Albany, NY)—the first Gold LEED-certified spa in the country for new construction—utilized repurposed materials including recycled steel, cork flooring, and carpet and flooring made out of recycled tires. The spa purchases all of its energy based on its generation by renewable resources such as wind and hydro, and employs energy-efficient measures that save an estimated $10,600 annually in utility bills. “The LEED certification was a very big undertaking and a serious commitment, and I am proud to say we accomplished that,” says owner Denise Dubois. “It is proof of ‘greening’ efforts. Otherwise, anyone can say they are a green spa, just like a product can say it’s organic and natural. But if they aren’t eco-certified, then where is the proof?” Dubois believes the LEED stamp of approval has impacted the spa’s business, as well as the clients and staff it attracts. “I think there are very smart consumers out there, and they understand the commitment,” she says. “We have had guests and employees tell us that they choose Complexions due to that very fact. They appreciate the commitment to being green and understand how it impacts the environment and the people who come through our doors. It has become a unique differentiator between spas.”

Hyatt at Olive 8 (Seattle) received LEED Silver certification in 2009—it was the first mixed-use hotel and residential project to be LEED-certified in the Seattle area. “Washington State is known for being ‘green’ in many of our daily practices,” says spa director Serene Sanders. “Elaia Spa has a unique opportunity to procure local, organic products, offering our guests a luxury experience in a city environment that helps ensure long-term health and beauty. Elaia uses natural, organic, and biodynamic skincare products in all of our treatments. We are committed to eco-friendly practices with the goal of minimizing our impact on the Earth.”

Blu Spas, which consults with spas on design and wellness concepts, has faced certification hurdles and budget challenges. “More often than not, a commitment to LEED certification fizzles as the development budget is scrutinized and a series of compromises evolves,” says principal and cofounder Doug Chambers. “However, we’ve had the good fortune of working on a few projects that stay married to their commitment to LEED-certification ambitions or, in a recent instance, a Net Zero Energy Building standard. LEED focuses more on the materials used for the project, offering four levels of certification based upon an assessment of the environmental performance of the construction. By contrast, the Net Zero Energy Building standard’s goal is to minimize the amount of energy used by relying on energy-efficient products and a sustainable infrastructure, and is measured by an assessment of the amount of renewable energy over time.”

Other green-building ratings systems have emerged as competitors to LEED, including Green Globes, a certification administered by the Green Building Initiative (GBI), which claims to be more affordable and user-friendly. Additionally, Green Globes promises customized guidance in the design, construction, and operation of high-performance interiors and buildings. However, LEED dominates the marketplace, and it is widely considered to be the gold standard for green construction.


Many spas without green certifications have an equally strong commitment to the environment. “It’s important for spas to create a culture of sustainable wellness,” says Rianna Riego, executive director of wellness, brand, and communication at Two Bunch Palms Resort & Spa(Desert Hot Springs, CA). “LEED certification, just like any certification, is a checklist that gives you some type of recognition.” The resort opted to invest in select sustainable programs instead of the more costly LEED certification. “At Two Bunch, we created a solar farm that made us the first carbon-neutral resort in North America,” says Riego. There are many green properties like Two Bunch Palms Resort & Spa that haven’t met the requirements for the official LEED certification.

Some spas feel green certification isn’t necessary. “While it’s certainly a nice distinction, I think spas and resorts should be green out of principal, not because they want a certification,” says Charity Baxter, executive director of spa, recreation, and retail at Ranch Creek Spa at Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa (Tabernash, CO). The 18,000-square-foot spawas built using timber that had been forested from the pine-beetle epidemic that plagued the country 10 years ago, and the spa employs a number of eco-friendly measures. The 6,000-acre resort uses geothermal heating from its pond and has an onsite water sanitation and sand-filtration system. Solar panels reduce energy use, and multiple electric-car charge stations help curb carbon-dioxide emissions.

At The Umstead Spa at The Umstead Hotel and Spa (Cary, NC), recycling and limiting the number of disposable items used in the spa are paramount. “We use guest towels in our lavatories versus paper towels, and we recycle drinking cups, batteries, unusable paper, flourescent bulbs, and electronic items,” says spa director Carolyn Doe. The property donates all used soap and shampoo amenities, and donated more than 21,000 bars of soap in 2014. The hotel and spa use Aquanomic technology to launder with cold water, which saves up to 40 percent in water and energy. “We are always searching for proven, innovative ways to reduce waste and improve our sustainability,” she says.

It’s also important for spas to incentivize guests to think greener. At Silver LEED-certified Spa Anjali at The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa at Beaver Creek Mountain (Avon, CO), guests can participate in a “Green Check-In,” where they receive a $10 discount for coming down to their spa appointment in the robe provided in their guest room. Spas are also finding creative ways to cut down on unnecessary waste. “We are currently working on a Spa Anjali app so that we can reduce the amount of paper used to create our spa brochures,” says spa director Ingrid Middaugh. Beyond the spa’s walls, the property participates in the Adopt-a-Highway program and the Eagle River Cleanup project, in addition to the Clean the World program. “Our property has collected 6,426 pounds of used cleaning materials, which were then repurposed to make and distribute 13,533 bars of soap to Third World countries, and 2,917 pounds of personal care plastic was recycled to create hygiene kits that help save lives,” says general manager Gaye Steinke.

Eco Chic Products

When spas commit to going green, they make a conscientious effort to choose products that reflect environmental values. “Truly organic products play a large role in our selection, as we recognize our guests’ concern for their general health and desire to be treated with effective natural or organic products,” says Doe. “Our natural and organic lines, such as Red Flower, De La Terre Skincare, and La Bella Donna, are our most recognized organic and natural products.”

The term “natural” is often misleading on labeling and advertising for beauty products. In fact, the meaning of “natural” is currently under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), because companies have taken liberties with using the term on products that don’t adhere to most people’s assumed definition. “Ecocert and USDA—an agricultural certification for the organic ingredients in the formulation—are well respected, but you can have a product line that is even cleaner than Ecocert that is not certified,” says Grodjesk. “It is important to look for products that contain high percentages of certified organic ingredients or wildcrafted botanicals, and to look for formulations with minimal chemical-laden additives and preservatives. Green Spa Network provides an ingredient guide with basic criteria that is helpful for purchasing personal care products, both for professionals and consumers. Avoiding synthetic fragrance, artificial colors, and petroleum-derived ingredients are good starting points when evaluating products.” Grodjesk notes that certification isn’t the entire answer, because some lines have products that don’t fit under the umbrella definition of organic, therefore missing the cut by a few percentage points. Additionally, certification might be too expensive for smaller companies, even if their products meet the requisite standards. As she puts it, “There are many shades of green.”

Green spas also emphasize the importance of local sourcing whenever possible. “We use local sources for the herbs and oils used in almost all of our body treatments,” says Middaugh. “We also select all of our professional products and 90 percent of our boutique retail based on their sustainability practices, such as Éminence Organic Skin Care.” Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa went so far as to create its own organic products, which are produced in bulk and refilled in guest rooms. “I worked with Tara Spa Therapy to create a private-label spa line that is organic and clean,” says Baxter. “I also worked with them to implement an in-room amenity program. We were able to stop disposing of more than 20,000 small amenity bottles annually.”

Blu Spas encourages the selection of products and lines with green credentials—but it isn’t only what’s inside that counts. “We encourage consideration of the lines’ attention to sustainability practices beyond the ingredient deck, including its manufacturing process, packaging, and shipping implications,” says Chambers. “One of my pet peeves is the disappointing number of spas that continue cavalierly to use plastic water bottles and other needless uses of plastics in their operation. A concrete step spas can take is to pledge to aggressively reduce their use of plastics and to urge their vendors to reduce the use of plastics in packaging.” So while it’s important to scrutinize ingredients, it’s just as crucial to look beyond the label. Responsible decisions made today help future generations and contribute to the overall wellness of the planet.

President Obama signed and approved the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which bans the production of any new beauty products containing microbeads, in an effort to help protect our waters and sea life. While all products containing microbeads will be off shelves by 2018, spas can go green now by substituting microbead-free cleansers and exfoliants that are just as effective—without the plastic.