Accor’s Chief Sustainability Officer: “Do we have to wait for the next desaster?”

Accor’s Chief Sustainability Officer: “Do we have to wait for the next desaster?”

“For the first time, we’ve reached real momentum, a sweet spot, as it were, on sustainability. And for the first time, all stakeholders are paying attention: Pressure now comes from all directions, simultaneously.” The apparently depressing environmental situation is a huge motivation for Brune Poirson. As of May of this year, she has been Chief Sustainability Officer at Europe’s largest hotel group, Accor. “And this is exactly the right time to make serious changes to business towards sustainability,” she says, trying to motivate the hospitality industry. She herself is one of the politically relevant personalities in Paris on the subject of sustainability.

Brune Poirson has always been committed to sustainable development and has dual experience in the private and public sectors. Within the French government, she lobbied for the anti-waste law that addressed plastic pollution, among other issues, and was a member of important organisations both in France and internationally. Until recently, Brune Poirson was a member of the French Parliament and was secretary of State for “Environmental Transition” for three years. She was the first French woman to be elected Vice President of the United Nations Environment Assembly.

Brune began her career in London at NESTA, the UK’s innovation foundation, then moved to the French Development Agency and the Veolia Group in India before working for a green start-up incubator in Boston. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, Sciences Po Aix, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

The 38-year-old enters the meeting room at the Pullman Hotel Berlin full of verve to chat with hospitalityInside. She lives her passion, in gestures, facial expressions and clear language. In light of her possible great career in politics, our first question is:

What made you decide to work in the hospitality industry?

“First, the people. I just didn’t want to work for a company that only makes big refrigerators,” she answers figuratively, “but also because of the crisis. This, for me, is a great challenge to do things differently.” And ultimately, she was convinced by Sébastien Bazin – “one of the great CEOs of France. Working for him directly was a great opportunity.”

Brune Poirson: ex-politician, ex-secretary of state, now Chief Sustainability Officer of Accor. / Photo: Bruno Levy

How does Brune Poirson assess the state of sustainability development in Europe?

“The main driver is still regulation, closely followed by investors. Investments are always about risk mitigation and management. A flood like the one in Germany last summer or rising sea levels – all of these are major risks. Will insurance companies still take on board risky hotels? And don’t investors now also look at hotels from an environmental perspective? Finally, on the day of stricter government regulation, the property could already be a ‘stranded asset’…”.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November 2021 showed that governments are more serious than ever about negotiating and enforcing climate action – in a way that no one can escape, she explained.

Why should hotels get into sustainability now and not wait? After all, most entrepreneurs bear enormous financial burdens from the pandemic and there is also the horrendous impact of the war in Ukraine, from inflation, energy and wage costs?

“Paradoxically, as we move forward with Ukraine and inflation, we need to invest faster and more heavily in energy efficiency than before,” insists Brune Poirson. Especially energy, which is produced from gas, is very expensive, she said. If you want to have cheaper energy and not be dependent on geopolitical factors, today’s investments would lead to financial savings later. “So it makes more sense to invest now!” In some European countries, there are government subsidies for hospitality companies. Such offers should prompt everyone to better organise themselves to access these subsidies, the CSO advises companies and the industry.

Sébastien Bazin had reported in an interview with us in May that Accor’s energy costs alone amount to €600 million and that the first thing they would probably do is help the owners to get into renewable energies (see link below).

Accor is striving for further, concrete solutions – also in financing. Brune Poirson: “We have access to some green funding mechanisms. How are we doing this? We are currently designing very specifically a building score card that shows the impact of CO2 per hotel. This will help us identify exactly what we need to do to reduce emissions.” One of these solutions is called “Green Finance” – in cooperation with energy service providers offering “Energy as a service”: Companies invest and receive payback from energy and financing savings.

Why are government regulations and things that protect the environment now closely related to corporate social responsibility, the “S” (Social) in ESG?

“Here, the push from colleagues working in operations is what drives me the most. After all, retaining employees and attracting new ones is part of business performance,” explains the sustainability expert, who has to keep an eye on all ESG criteria. But of course there is much more at stake: salaries, improved working conditions, training and equal opportunities for people.

“My CEO gives me food for thought: If we want to operate in a safe business environment, we need to address social inequality. We all knew there would be social problems after Covid-19…” Wherever people do not understand things, silent and loud protests arise; France has experienced the latter through the sometimes violent demos of the “yellow vests”. This is another reason, she said, why the hospitality industry needs to be part of the equal opportunity movement to solve social problems. “It sounds like a big issue, but it’s very concrete. If we don’t play a role here, our business will suffer. We have a responsibility that goes beyond hospitality.”

And she goes straight to the industry’s sore point: “If people don’t understand how important all of this is to the industry, then they won’t want to work in it. Sorry, maybe I’m being super blonde? The reality is this: Did we treat people well? If so, they would have stayed during the pandemic. Employees could have been treated better in the 30 years prior to corona…”

Brune Poirson sees the industry with the sober eye of an outsider. And she shakes her head in the face of all the industry discussions. “Do we have to wait for the next flood?” she asks, “or the next regulation that makes your hotel CO2-free?” ESG has many (competitive) advantages, even in HR: Those who have the best employees provide the best service and become the most attractive company.

Can hoteliers work cooperatively across the value chain? Is that possible?

Brune Poirson reacts in amazement: “It’s not a matter of it being possible. It is the only way forward. What do we do as a multinational company? We are cutting costs, we are standardising, and we are trying to be as global as possible. The difficult thing about ESG is that you have to do just the opposite: It is more costly, more resource, personnel and finance intensive. That is the hard truth. And that means we all have to question our business model!”

She reminds us here of the importance of digitisation. “With that, we had to change all of our processes. We knew that then, too. Then came Airbnb – a big shock for our industry, but at the same time a big evolution. Do we want to experience the same now with sustainability or simply accept sustainability? Don’t we want to find new ways to profit and let things go that no longer work?”

She keeps her feet on the ground when she speaks again and again from everyday life: There’s a whole lot of low-hanging fruit which take us forward on sustainablity: Does an air conditioner in the kitchen have to run day and night? She is convinced: If you give people tools to act more sustainably and also train them, then the road is not as rocky as you think. Technology and digitisation will strongly support the change to more sustainability. “There is no sustainability solution without a digital solution,” Brune Poirson knows.

She herself is fully convinced of this: Everyone can contribute. But it takes leaders to communicate it. Brune Poirson is one of them. Accor’s Chief Sustainability Officer makes this abundantly clear in her latest video. You can watch the impressive statement in full length on!