Exclusive: Airbnb says it’s saving our world with each rented room

July 31, 2014, 1:00 PM UTC
258507 09: UNDATED FILE PHOTO: Powerlines in Flagstaff, Arizona. (Photo by Paul S. Howell/Liaison)
Paul S. Howell/Liaison

Online room rental service Airbnb is touting itself and its customers as friends of the environment.

The company said on Thursday that its North American customers use 63% less energy per stay than their hotel-going counterparts while customers in Europe use 78% less.

It’s just some of the data points from an Airbnb survey of 8,000 guests and hosts about their environmental impact. The message the company is trying to send is that it’s a greener alternative to traditional hotels, which it portrays as far more wasteful when it comes to electricity, water and trash.

Of course, Airbnb’s report comes at a time when it is trying to curry favor with cities that are cracking down on its business. Many officials complain about the company’s failure to collect hotel occupancy taxes and about landlords illegally turning apartments into defacto guest houses.

Airbnb’s report, prepared with the help of Cleantech Group, a company that helps businesses be more sustainable, tries to measure the environmental impact of its users across a number of potential trouble spots. These answers were then compared with average impact of guests at Hilton and Marriott hotels, as described in public records and hotel reports.

“In one year alone, Airbnb guests in North America saved the equivalent of 270 Olympic-sized pools of water while avoiding the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 33,000 cars on North American roads,” according to the report. European Union customers, meanwhile, saved the equivalent of 1,100 pools and avoid emissions from 200,000 vehicles.

Airbnb described its estimates as being conservative. Whether its finding would withstand scientific scrutiny is another matter.

It also said that North American customers conserved enough electricity compared with staying at hotels to power 19,000 homes. European guests conserved the equivalent of 68,000 homes.

Airbnb’s study roughly coincides with a rebranding campaign that included a new logo and effort to appeal more to business travelers, who often need to report the cost of lodging in their expenses. But the company said it was entirely coincidental.

Anita Roth, Airbnb’s head of policy research, said that the report is just the first step in Airbnb’s effort to educate its hosts and guests about the environment. With the findings, its hoping to perform more outreach going forward. “There’s so much that we can do in this space,” she said. “We really wanted to make a first effort to quantify the impact.”

The numbers of guests who can be considered environmentally friendly, too, are also highlighted in the report. For instance, 83% of Airbnb hosts in North America have at least one energy efficient appliance (versus 52% of total households). For Europe, it’s 79% of Airbnb hosts versus 77% of the total population.

Michael Ellis, a partner at Cleantech Group, said that Airbnb’s interest in the environment is in line with the rest of the sharing economy, an emerging niche of companies that help individuals rent out rooms, cars and even clothes. These days, there’s a “real explosion in growth and demand” to become more environmentally accountable, he said.

Amid the report’s rosy recitations of Airbnb’s environmental consciousness, there was a potential shortcoming in one section. The report noted that Airbnb may actually promote individuals to take trips requiring air travel, cars, or other means of transportation that tend not to be energy efficient.

“Airbnb induces approximately 1% to 3% of guests to travel, and approximately 20% of guests to extend their trips due to the increased convenience and/or lower cost of Airbnb properties,” the report said. But even in these instances, the report claims that Airbnb’s guests tend to be more green-friendly than their hotel industry counterparts.