The words “Las Vegas” and “sustainability” aren’t quite synonymous yet. But if Yalmaz Siddiqui has his way, that will all change in the near future. Siddiqui is the vice president of corporate sustainability at MGM Resorts International, meaning he has the all-important job of making sure the company’s 30 hotel and destination gaming offerings around the globe are taking the necessary steps to leave as small a carbon footprint as possible.
“When they think about sustainability, most people think about the environment,” said Siddiqui, who was a part of a stellar panel on wellness and sustainability during Verified, The Forbes Travel Guide Luxury Summit, held at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star ARIA Resort & Casino in February. “But if you go back to the initial definition of the term, and the creation of the concept, it is really about being better to the planet and to people in general.”
Siddiqui talked with Forbes Travel Guide about the moves MGM is making to keep Vegas vibrant, and he also shared some sensible tips you can apply during your next stay on the Strip.
What exactly does the vice president of sustainability do?
It’s a new job in the world. Ten years ago, there weren’t vice presidents of sustainability in corporate life and now there are many. There are many new chief sustainability officers. I report to one. So, really, what the role is in my view is to help organizations prioritize what they work on, either from a tight environmental sustainability standpoint or broadly on issues that matter in terms of the social and environmental benefits that the company can bring to the world.
Prioritization has kind of encapsulated it into the new framing of our work in corporate responsibility at MGM to be focused on what matters. One of the tasks is to clarify what matters from an environmental standpoint and if you’re focused on environmental sustainability in your role. If what matters [is] from a diversity standpoint, you can focus on diversity in your role. What matters from a philanthropy or community standpoint if your focus on community and philanthropy roles.
I put all of those ultimately under the umbrella of this area. But once you prioritize, then our task is to initiate, integrate and communicate. Let me expand on each of those. Initiate new things that reduce the environmental impact of the organization or result in some benefits to environment or society that wouldn’t have occurred without this team’s existence.
Then, it’s to integrate those initiatives so that, over time, they become part of organizational life. So, if you’ve got a waste reduction program, it’s not just done for a couple of months; it actually lives and breathes forever. If you buy things differently, ensure it’s not just a one-off [occurrence], but it’s integrated into the way purchasing is done or it’s integrated in the way finance thinks of opportunities.
And then finally, communicate. Work with partners in marketing, communications, branding and ensure the message around our programs is understood [and] it’s accurate.
What are some of MGM’s initiatives that you’re most excited about?
The things that I think are really impactful, meaningful and, in a way, perhaps, game-changing for hospitality include our sustainable design and construction efforts. A lot of the environmental footprint of a building begins way before it’s built. Choose to invest in more environmentally mindful materials or technology choices. ARIA is one of the largest LEED Gold-certified buildings in the world, and it helped us become significantly more energy efficient, water efficient and significantly less waste associated. [I’m] proud of the focus our company has had since 2007 on designing and constructing hotels or resorts in a very environmentally sustainable way.
The next, I think, would be our food waste programs. A lot of waste in the hospitality industry is actually not what you and I think of as recycling, like pop bottles, cans and paper. Yes, that’s a part of it but a much more significant volume is food waste. And unlike the perception of Las Vegas as a food waste capital, we’re actually one of the cities with the best programs in terms of managing food waste in a couple ways — donating it to people in need, sending it to farms so it becomes feed for animals, sending oil to become biofuel. This is a really big part of our materials management program here at MGM and in Las Vegas. I think that’s what we really need.
And finally, people don’t know that we’re a leader in this area, not a laggard, which is interesting. We’re doing a lot of work on sustainable events, helping clients who are interested in sustainability. Maybe in their own home offices. Maybe they have a team that is focused on environmental sustainability in their company. But historically, when they come for an event, they don’t necessarily follow the same methods or same approaches as they have philosophically in their home office. But that’s now emerging and there is more interest in corporate clients bringing their sustainability ethos to the event. I think we’re leading the charge on that.
And if I could have a fourth, we’re about to break ground on an enormous solar array, 100 megawatts. It’s a utility scale array, not the sort of thing that a hotel company would normally commission. But we commissioned it to really significantly help reduce our company’s carbon footprint and I think that’s really something of note and pride, because of the scale and significance in terms of carbon emissions reduction for our company.
When you look across the high-end hotel industry, how would you grade it up to this point in how it’s dealing with environmental issues?
I’d probably give it a B-. I think we’re on the path. But if I compare us to some other industries, such as luxury fashion [like] LVMH [Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy] or compare us to consumer goods with Procter & Gamble and Unilever, I’d say those industries are a little bit ahead of us in their sophistication and strategic approach to this area.
As an industry, we’re on the path to recognizing these societal megatrends and deepening our interest in these social and environmental sustainability topics. We’re moving fast now but we are a little later in the game than many other industries.
Is some of that slowness because people still have a misconception that luxury and sustainability can’t go hand in hand?
I believe so. I also think that, maybe, in the past there hasn’t necessarily been the marketplace offerings in the luxury space that would allow modern hoteliers to enable a luxury experience while having a lower environmental footprint or knowingly helping improve people’s lives in the supply chain. There’s also been an evolution in the marketplace to allow these things, so it’s definitely a little bit of a give and take here.
What are a few things that travelers can do while on property, or when they get back home, to help out in these environmental efforts?
A couple of big megatrends that they could tap into both during the stay and when they go back home is focus on food waste. No over ordering. If you go to the buffet, no over-stacking and then wasting. If you are at an event in the buffet line, the same. [We need a] strong rise and focus in food and food waste because there are so many implications down the supply chain of all that food needing to be produced and then, if it gets wasted, it’s significant. I think that’s a really important thing that they can definitely bring home.
Another megatrend is probably plastics. In a way, there is a tendency, even in Las Vegas, to provide water in plastic bottles. That’s changing in our company and in the world, slowly. Bringing reusable water bottles and refilling them [will help]. Reducing our plastic footprints is something that can be brought home. The food-waste footprint and plastic footprint are both easy, daily things that guests can bring to their lives.