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A seaweed treatment at the Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Pacific Rim.

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In today’s anxious world, where worries about issues such as climate change are causing collective panic attacks, escaping reality for an afternoon can be therapeutic. But what happens when your preferred way to relax is part of the problem?

Despite its innumerable restorative benefits, going to the spa can also be a minefield of unnecessary waste – from single-use plastics and disposable items such as slippers and hair nets to excessive use of towels. With spas taking steps toward sustainable operations, however, it is possible to self-indulge without being overindulgent of resources, with change coming from both spa guests and operators alike.

Last spring, I visited two Fairmont hotel properties in British Columbia to experience how they’ve incorporated unique local offerings into the spa menus.

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At the Fairmont Pacific Rim in downtown Vancouver, my Fountain of Youth treatment included raw ocean ingredients such as locally harvested seaweed with Canadian glacial clay. At the Fairmont Empress in Victoria, the Salish Sea Vitality Treatment used products by local line Seaflora along with fresh seaweed harvested from the nearby Salish Sea.

All Fairmont properties are owned by Accor Hotels, a hospitality group that, globally, plays host to roughly half a million guests every day. For the brand, operating what effectively amounts to a small city comes with social and environmental responsibility, and they’ve outlined their commitments in their official Planet 21 guidelines.

With me in B.C. was Rona Berg, an American spa and wellness expert, journalist and the editor-in-chief of Organic Spa magazine. A self-professed lifelong “closet greenie,” Berg was one of the first to report on the environmental impact of the beauty industry when she wrote about chemical hazards in salons for The New York Times back in 1993.

From her home base in New York, Berg travels the world to review the top destination spas, telling me about a recent visit to Stanglwirt, a next-level wellness resort and organic farm nestled in the Austrian Alps that uses a biomass power plant powered with bark waste from local sawmills.

The Salish Sea Vitality Treatment, at Victoria’s Fairmont Empress hotel, uses products by local skin-care line Seaflora, along with fresh seaweed harvested from the nearby Salish Sea.

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Despite great strides being made, such as using renewable energy sources, the five-star experience is easily ruined for Berg. “So many times, I go to some beautiful beachfront property, some gorgeous spa. And I’m sitting there at the restaurant and I order a drink and they come and they plunk a plastic straw in it. And I’m looking out at the ocean and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, this straw is going to choke a turtle, a fish. That’s where it’s going to end up.’”

Over all, Berg says the spa industry is an early adopter of sustainable operations and is leading the charge for other industries to follow. “Spas are moving away from that frivolous model of pampering,” she says. “Pampering is great – I have nothing against pampering – but they’re shifting more into wellness. When you think about wellness treatments, wellness cuisine, things that are healthier for the mind, the body, the spirit, then you’re not going to be thinking about being as wasteful.”

“The pampering can still happen, I don’t want to take away from the pampering,” echoes Daryll Naidu, operations manager at Dermalogica Canada. “We need to maintain our health and wellness in a mindful way where we’re thinking of the environment.” The skin-care line has been used in professional spas since 1986 and is making considerable strides toward sustainability in all aspects of its business, from product formulation to the treatment protocols followed by skin therapists, to making 90 per cent of packaging recyclable or bio-degradable by 2020.

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It’s a logical step for Naidu, who points out that sustainability goes hand-in-hand with wellness. “Those two can’t operate independently of each other,” he says. While offering a sense of luxury and reducing waste can be a balancing act, it’s important to keep in mind that part of the problem is consumer behaviour. Naidu points to the temptation to overindulge in towels, with spa guests using as many as three to go from pool to shower, as an example. “People do this unconsciously,” he says.

If spa sustainability is on your wellness agenda, it’s worth spending a few minutes online to research your destination before booking an appointment to ensure that it meets your personal standards. Do they have a proper waste-management program in place, such as that offered by Green Circle Salons to help hair salons properly deal with tons of waste? Are they free of single-use plastic, like California’s Ojai Valley Inn and Spa? Are their products sourced responsibly, like the Fairmont’s biodegradable seaweed?

And before you leave the house, make sure to pack your own refillable water bottle, because small gestures can make a big difference.

The writer travelled as a guest of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. It did not review or approve this article.

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