Meet the Eco-Business A-Listers: Jeannie Kwok, hotel waste warrior

Jeannie Kwok, who led the phasing out of plastic bottles and straws within the first year of heading corporate responsibility at Hilton, believes food waste is the key issue sustainability chiefs should be focusing on in 2020.

jeannie kwok hilton
Jeannie Kwok, director of corporate responsibility at Hilton, has waged a war on plastic across the luxury hotel's Asia Pacific properties. Image: Tim Daubach, Eco-Business

If there’s one issue chief sustainability officers (CSOs) should focus on this year in a bid to cut their companies’ environmental footprint, it should be food waste, says Jeannie Kwok, Hilton’s Asia Pacific director of corporate responsibility, who clinched a place on Eco-Business’ inaugural A-List in December.

Kwok, who before Hilton spent seven years at Medtronic, a global medical device company, is already known by her colleagues for being tough on plastic, and she hasn’t been with the group for long.

In the one year since she took on the role at one of the world’s largest hospitality brands, she has waged war against plastic bottles of all sorts, banning plastic water bottles at events and replacing mini bottles of shampoo and soap with bulk dispensers.

However, she believes food waste is one of the most important issues that the industry has yet to tackle and an area where Hilton hopes to make major progress this year.

Food waste is tricky because it’s tied to culture. Having an abundance of food can be symbolic of success. In hotels like Hilton, how do you meet guests’ expectation in that regard? 

According to an article by Eco-Business in 2017, around one quarter of all food that passes through hotel kitchens is discarded as food waste, while 350 grams of food is usually thrown away per diner. Food waste can make up to half the total trash generated on hotel properties.

Hilton has a goal to cut food waste to landfill by half by 2030.

“Food waste issues can be quite tricky because it’s tied to culture. In many societies, having an abundance of food is symbolic of success, for example,” she said, noting that guests, especially those at luxury hotels, had high expectations.

Just as customers at five-star hotels consider take-home plastic bottles and disposable slippers as part of the luxury experience, buffets overflowing with food are typically assumed to be part of the package.

“That’s part of the price you’ve paid,” said Kwok on a panel at Sustainable Tourism Asia last year.

Nonetheless, she believes that despite difficulties in changing people’s mindsets and getting everyone on board in such a big company, collaboration within and across sectors will help limit environmental harm and turn the tide on climate change.

In this interview with Eco-Business, she shares the biggest questions CSOs should be asking themselves in 2020, and why robots will never replace sustainability professionals.

What’s the hardest thing about your job?

Getting our key stakeholders to the same speed that we want to go. Each time there is an initiative we want to push forward, it’s important for us to make sure that everyone has their insights well accounted for, before we continue to launch across the entire Asia Pacific region.

We’re a large company, so meeting the needs of our regional leaders before we go forth with our programs is probably the most difficult part.

What’s the most important thing you’ve done this year?

One of the most important things is our progress against single-use plastics, which is aligned to Hilton’s mission of cutting our environmental footprint by half and doubling our social impact by 2030.

In July, we introduced a ban on plastic straws across all our hotels, which is really the low-hanging fruit. Then we banned plastic bottles in all our meetings or events across all our properties in Asia Pacific. Next we are looking at our community, which includes our sponsors.

Our biggest concern now is hygiene and safety. We are continuing to look at that and ensure we make progress before we move forward with our initiatives that target waste.

What’s the biggest question CSOs should be asking themselves this year?

What is the largest impact that they could make going forward to the next 20, 50, 100 years? Not just looking at what is imminently in front us but thinking about the trends that need to set in place to ensure that climate change is a priority and that we are implementing initiatives related to that at all levels.  

If they are looking to focus on a specific issue, I think CSOs should be asking how they can reduce the amount of food waste. Food waste issues can be quite tricky because it’s also tied to culture. Having an abundance of food can be symbolic of success, for example. In hotels like Hilton, how do you meet guests’ expectation in that regard? 

What’s the most effective way to persuade your CEO to take sustainability seriously?

We’re lucky because our CEO is very much onboard. He’s always been a big proponent of sustainability and is supportive of rallying leadership around it. In the event that you don’t have a supportive CEO, then you have to build awareness on why these issues are important and the difference that the company can make.

Societies are increasingly looking to companies to do better or do good, so there’s a clear business case that CEOs can now consider.

If you could start your CSO role all over again, what would you do differently?

I would try to understand the perspectives outside of the hospitality industry. Initially, we tried understanding the costs borne by our peers and competitors, but it’s also important to look at the best practices of non-hospitality, consumer-based groups.

What is your unsustainable guilty pleasure?

Probably having a hamburger once in a while. I’ve been pretty good at not having a car. I take public transport most of the time.

Why will you never be replaced by a robot?

I think robots are good at doing what they’re told, but as a sustainability professional one has to think about things in a very different way and be more adaptable. The way you communicate with others depends on who you’re speaking to and who you’re trying to convince, especially if you want to forge those partnerships. That element of human interaction is something a robot can never replicate.

The IPCC said that with business-as-usual scenarios we would feel the worst impacts of climate change from 2030. Will we make it or are we doomed?

I think we will make it because now more attention is being paid to what should be done and what can be done. There’s a lot of potential for collaboration that will help us get there. 

Jeannie Kwok was one of nine sustainability executives selected for the EB A-List this year. Read our other interviews with the A-Listers here

Eco-Business will be calling for nominations for the 2020 A-List next September. Do you know a corporate sustainability leader who is really moved the needle for their business and industry? Bear them in mind for our next call for nominations.

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