Can the small, everyday actions of businesses and citizens dent the footprint of mankind in any meaningful way? Could the road to redemption begin with hotel guests curbing their enthusiasm for the sort of freshly laundered towels you just don't get at home and following those annoying signs in hotel bathrooms?
Absolutely not, suggested the environmentalist Jay Westerveld. In the 1980s he suspected that hotel chains were actually more interested in saving money on laundry bills than in saving the earth. In an excoriating attack on the emergence of "Reuse your towel. Save a penguin" signs, he coined the term greenwash. Yes, the word now used to describe spurious eco-lite behaviour was inspired by towel rage.
Today hotel companies take a more holistic approach that is less easily dismissed. By now they should have quantified the impact of major waste streams, including food waste and energy use, and be working actively on shrinking their footprint. Research suggests producing and laundering textiles for hotels creates an energy burden second only to that of food, so I say reusing towels is a good thing.
UK hotels claim that fewer than 5% of guests reuse their towels. Why so few? Research by Noah Goldstein at the University of California suggests that arbitrary "Save the earth" signs aren't motivating. But rates improved among guests by 10% when the placard played on our need to keep up with the Joneses (even if they're in room 214 and we've never really met them). Signs reading "Join in with our other guests and reuse your towel" produced better results. But it's game over if the staff can't even be bothered to heed your instructions. This is to do with training, and some hotels need to look again at this area.