Six Senses: Luxury resorts and spas approaching zero waste

As part of our #SpaWasteNotChallenge highlighting the concepts and benefits of A Circular Economy, our partner Stephanie Hodgson of MeetthefiveR’s has carried out a series of case studies with our trusted Brand and Spa Partners to find out more about the great efforts they go to to keep waste to a minimum, use responsible materials and keep waste from polluting our oceans and environment.

The second in this series of case studies is with Jeff Smith – VP of Sustainability for Six Senses

Usually I share stories about how local businesses are taking strides to becoming more sustainable or circular. Last month, though, I got to speak with Jeff Smith, Vice President of Sustainability of a rather large, rather global brand, Six Senses. I would never have guessed that this early on in my work with MeetthefiveRs that I would now be sat down for a one-to-one with a five star luxury resorts group. And not just because it’s a larger business, an impressive brand that I am really excited to write about given its fundamental approaches to doing business. 

Although it’s an international ‘franchise’ with locations spanning Asia and the Pacific, the Middle East and Africa, Europe and the Americas, interviewing Six Senses does make good sense for MeetthefiveRs because each resort is most definitely its own local entity. Each is a locally operated business, unique to the rest, each with its own sustainability funds (0.5% revenues + 100% soft toy sales and donations + 50% of house-bottled water sales) to be used locally on social or environmental projects.

I wanted to interview Jeff to learn more about Earth Lab–I’ll get to that–to see whether Six Senses would be interested in participating in the circular economy campaign I created for and have been developing with the Sustainable Spa Association. I’m ecstatic to say that over a dozen of their spas from around the globe have since signed up to that campaign!

More about the #SpaWasteNotChallenge here.

Earth Lab

Before our interview, I thought this case study was going to be all about Earth Lab. And it is! Well, sort of. Earth Lab is a hub that exists at each of their locations to help communicate that particular resort’s sustainability efforts as well as to engage the wider community in sustainable practices. They are about showcasing positive social or environmental initiatives both on and offsite as well as letting visitors experience its zero waste philosophy firsthand through various ‘life hacks’ workshops.

Want to know how to make your own natural insect repellent? Earth Lab has you covered. Thought about making your own toothpaste? There’s an Earth Lab workshop for that! Ever thought about making beeswax wraps? Two words: Earth Lab.

It must be incredibly inspiring to leave Six Senses with an experience making something with your own hands using natural ingredients sourced from the hotel gardens. People who maybe do not live and breathe sustainability must have some form of epiphany when shown that you can, for example, use citrus peels (i.e. waste) to make cleaning agents or used coffee grounds to make exfoliating soap.

I can really appreciate what Six Senses is doing with Earth Lab but these resorts and spas are doing so much more good than that. So moving on from the longest intro in the history of case studies, let’s now look at what Six Senses is doing with all of its ‘waste’.

Don’t waste my thyme

Food waste. Jeff says that Six Senses has achieved a 50% reduction in waste to landfill simply by getting all of their food and other organic waste onto compost heaps. That is a monumental reduction. Some of the hotels have compost machines which makes the process so much faster.

What I love about Six Senses is how creative they are with solutions and they have so many interesting ways to make other uses for some of their specific food waste streams. Coffee grounds, for example, can be composted, used for their coarse texture to make exfoliating soaps in the Earth Lab, and they can also be a key ingredient for facial or body scrubs in the Alchemy Bar. 

What’s the Alchemy Bar, you ask? Well, that is a whole other can of worms (good worms) but suffice to say for now that the Alchemy Bar is where you would go to make your own treatment scrub for your upcoming full body massage at the spa. (The feature image for this article is the Alchemy Bar at Six Senses Kaplankaya in Turkey.)

I mentioned it before, but as I enjoy writing, I’ll mention it again, Six Senses makes wide use of citrus peels. They make infused treatment oils, cleaning agents and insect repellents. All of these and more can be found on their dedicated YouTube channel.

Glass. Where local recycling facilities are not available, Six Senses will actually handle their own glass waste. The discarded bottles, jars and other glass items that have finished serving their purpose are crushed and then upcycled into things like flower pots, paving stones and light fixtures. Jeff also told me that Six Senses Zighy Bay in Oman has a specialised oven to make jewelry!

Textiles. Some Six Senses properties have onsite tailor shops. This is where used linens, ripped bedsheets and the like are remade into slightly smaller things like pillowcases. Similar to that, things like outdoor cushions that are maybe torn or stained and thus no longer usable are converted to table settings, or napkins to coasters. Jeff admits that it is not a totally uncommon thing for larger or more established resorts to have but I love it so I’m mentioning it!

Wood. Just as usable sections of fabric are reworked into new (and probably different) items for the resort, so too broken wooden items can be reworked at an onsite woodworking shop. Broken furniture and outdoor flooring worn out by rain and sun become material for new furniture or replacement pieces or anything else they might need them for. 

Plastic. Plastic pollution is a huge problem (understatement) and any transition away from this material is very complicated, to say the least. Six Senses is one of the very few businesses that is actively reinventing its relationship with plastic and I am genuinely impressed by its leadership on this front.

You know those dinky little shampoo and body wash bottles you get in your hotel bathroom? Well, Six Senses never supplied those, not even to begin with. So tick that box. A big step though was eliminating plastic water bottles from each of their locations all the way back in 2003. More than a decade later, when other single use plastic items were starting to really face glaring criticism, Six Senses again eliminated all plastic straws from each and every resort.

In 2018 alone, 5,150,000 plastic items were eliminated (including 1,122,248 coffee capsules, 52,316 plastic bags, 26,435 toothbrushes and 462,282 bits of packaging). And 1.8 million single-use plastic bottles were replaced group-wide in 2019.

Their current goal is to be plastic free by 2022. Erm, next year. This apparently was partially in response to the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative which Six Senses was one of the original signatories to. But setting such an ambitious goal is absolutely consistent with the values of this brand. I’m told something that I already know, that by continuing to make use of plastics for its day to day operations, Six Senses is continuing to support the plastics industry. 

I say that I already know this because it’s a personal principle I have been living by for many years now, that every dollar (or pound or renminbi) I spend is a vote and says something about the way I wish to see the world. Why should this be different for an ethically grounded business?

But, I object, what about sturdy, reusable plastics? Or recycled plastics? Jeff simply reminds me that it would still mean supporting the creation of more plastics. If we are concerned about plastic pollution, we should avoid plastic. Period. Here a couple anecdotes shared with me that speak volumes for how Six Senses is approaching this seemingly unsolvable conundrum. 

Suppliers, on notice

Supplier engagement is key, Jeff tells me. In 2018, Six Senses put their many (many!) suppliers “on notice”. A letter explaining their intention to shift to reusable packaging models (and why) asked, who’s with us? Do you already have any alternatives? Do you have any ideas to eliminate plastic packaging? Apparently, there were some big surprises! Some suppliers said they had been working on this problem, too.

One victory came from Six Senses Laamu in the Maldives. Obviously this tiny island nation in the heart of the Indian Ocean needs a lot shipped or flown in. That particular Six Senses resort worked together with its German distributor and packaging company to replace the typical single use styrofoam boxes that much of their food usually came in with something less horrible. 

They set up a sort of test case for boxes made from FSC-certified wood fibre. Actually it’s better than that. The material is a waste stream, saw dust, which is also excellent for compost. Browns, anyone? Quality was tracked and indeed the boxes were an excellent alternative.  

The last anecdote I will share for this case study is about what happened after their Vietnam purchasing team reached out to local fisherfolk (anyone have a better gender neutral term?) about all those single use styrofoam boxes that their seafood comes in. Six Senses simply said, we don’t want them, and literally gave them reusable coolers to use instead. 

Jeff acknowledges that there was some initial resistance but after one month, word got out. They realised there was money to be saved by not having to buy the single use boxes. Other local fisherfolk came knocking asking about the reusable boxes and in not too much time an entire local industry had changed. That location has been doing that for years now so you can see how one small change can really add up. 

It’s apparent to me that such transformations are much easier with local fisherfolk and farmers which these businesses trade with directly. Putting pressure on large distributors is necessary but success on that front takes much more time and probably coordination with other bodies.

With everything I learned about Six Senses, I suppose I am not totally surprised that they were so willing to participate in our #SpaWasteNotChallenge. I am looking forward to seeing what sorts of new and creative waste diversion solutions their spas come up with and how they might make yet more connections within their local community. Watch this space!

Credits to Stephanie Hodgson