In Conversation With Leigh Barrett, Sustainability Director At Marbella Club Hotel


From its earliest days, the Marbella Club Hotel in Andalusia has been guided by an appreciation of the interconnectedness of things: from treasuring family relationships and respecting the traditional way of life, to preserving its unique microclimate. Leigh Barrett, the Corporate Director of Sustainability for the MC Hotel Group (which includes the legendary Marbella Club Hotel), is the main driving force, who ensures that the hotel's operational impact on the local environment is as minimal as possible as well as maximising a positive impact on the local community.

Can you please tell us more about yourself and your background?

My name is Leigh Barrett and I am the Corporate Director of Sustainability for the MC Hotel Group. I am responsible for spearheading the development and implementation of the group's sustainability strategy across our portfolio of hotel properties, which include the Marbella Club Hotel, Puente Romano Beach Resort, Nobu Marbella, El Lodge and Nobu Hotel Ibiza Bay. I have a BSc. in Biology and Scientific Communication from Royal Holloway University of London, a Post Graduate Diploma in International Hospitality Management from Les Roches International School of Hotel Management and 9 years of hotel operational experience with the Marbella Club Hotel.

What brought you to sustainability?

Ever since I was a small child, I have always had a profound respect for the natural world and an instinctive desire to want to preserve it. I studied Biology with Science Communication at university with the intention of making wildlife documentaries that would encourage people to value and protect biodiversity. After graduating from university, I worked for the Film Unit of Europe's largest biodiversity conservation charity, the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, on a multi award-winning documentary called "Eagle Odyssey" which followed the story of the successful reintroduction of White-Tailed Eagles to Scotland after they had been driven to extinction in the UK in the late 19th century.

I then went to China with the intention of making an independent film to raise awareness of the plight of China's critically endangered Baiji River Dolphin and ended up co-founding an NGO called the Foundation instead with a private donor, members of the Wuhan IHB Baiji Research Group and IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group, having witnessed first-hand that very little was being done on the ground to promote the recovery of the species. I managed all of the Foundation's flagship conservation initiatives, including the 2006 Yangtze Freshwater Dolphin Expedition, which brought global attention to the fact that the Baiji River Dolphin had sadly become functionally extinct. My background in biodiversity conservation combined with my 9 years of hotel operational experience subsequently made me a good fit for the role of corporate director of sustainability for the MC Hotel Group.         

What is Marbella Club Hotel's approach to sustainability and what initiatives does it run?

As a family run hotel, with strong personal and emotional bonds to the local area, there has always been a deep sense of responsibility across the organisation towards having a positive impact on the local community, and now with Jennica Shamoon at the helm, there is an equally sharp focus on minimising our operational impact on the local environment and improving governance within the company. The Marbella Club's mission is to be best in class in every decision we take regarding future sustainable improvements to the operation and we are currently working towards achieving Positive Luxury's Butterfly Mark, which is an internationally recognised trust mark based on ESG criteria, awarded to luxury brands that have successfully embedded sustainability into every level of their business and demonstrated a clear commitment to the very highest sustainability standards.

In addition to having a workforce that comprises 95% of members of the local community, ensuring the most equitable possible working conditions for those employees, implementing sustainable procurement policies, supporting local producers and artisans to safeguard ancient traditions and practices, organising annual community Source to Sea Clean Up actions and supporting local charities for the homeless, we have three sustainable initiatives of which we are particularly proud.

The first is the creation of our new Net Zero Buildings Emissions Task Force, which consists of a team of specialised consultants who are dedicated full time to improving the hotel's energy and water consumption in line with industry standards and ensuring we take appropriate measures to reach Net Zero for Scope 1 and 2 by 2030.

The second is a local social development initative that we are working on in partnership with the GRUPO ANIDE (Analuz Integral de Dependencia) foundation - an association that works to reduce inequalities within the local community by providing the most marginilaised minors (refugees, minors recognized as having been abandoned, minors from the child protection system that cannot be easily adopted due to their age and minors with a high degree of disability who require specialised care) with comprehensive care that covers all of their basic and fundamental human needs including; a sense of belonging, decent housing, adequate food, the preservation of their health and wellbeing, the promotion and support of their education and training, and professional help to restore their mental health. In 2021 The Marbella Club Hotel held several fundraising events over the Christmas period to help purchase much needed items of inventory for GRUPO ANIDE's two local foster homes in Alhurin de la Torre which currently house 25 vulnerable minors. The funds were used to buy computers which will give the foster children access to online learning resources and allow them to fill in online job applications, and also fun educational toys and sports equipment that will help promote their mental and physical wellbeing. The remaining funds are going to be used to help make improvements to the two foster homes. In addition to making this financial donation, the Marbella Club invited the foster children to participate in a special Christmas activity day at our Kid's Club and our hotel staff also delivered Christmas presents to the foster homes during the Three Kings festivity to ensure each child was able to celebrate this holiday in the same way as their peers in the local community. The Marbella Club has also made a firm committment to send our employees to actively volunteer at the two ANIDE foster homes in 2022 and use their specialised skills to help improve the facilities further and impart useful life skills to the children through educational gardening, nutrition, wellness and fitness activities.

The third sustainable initiative is a local seagrass meadow restoration and native seashorse conservation project that we are running in partnership with local marine biodiversity NGO, Aula Del Mar. Seagrass meadows play a globally significant role in removing carbon from the atmosphere, soaking up 15 times more CO2 per equivalent hectare of terrestrial rainforest and they also provide a natural barrier against coastal erosion. These delicate shallow coastal ecosystems have been rapidly disappearing along the Mediterranean coast over the last few decades due to excessive coastal development and unintentional damage caused by destructive fishing gear. This in turn has reduced the region's capacity to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere and fight against coastal erosion caused by climate change. Spain's two "near threatened" native species of seahorses are highly dependent on these seagrass meadow ecosystems and their populations have been rapidly declining in line with the loss and degradation of this critical habitat. Seahorses are extremely sensitive to changes in ocean chemistry and ecology and this makes them an ideal umbrella species for monitoring the health of the seagrass meadow ecosystems and helping design long term habitat restoration strategies; as any action taken to protect seahorses will indirectly protect many other species at an ecosystem level. The goal of this collaborative initiative with Aula Del Mar is to take action to restore these vital blue carbon sequestering ecosystems along the Andalucian coast to help mitigate against the negative effects of climate change and reintroduce native Spanish seahorses to areas where they have been lost in recent decades. This four-year collaborative marine biodiversity conversation project consists of the following four key pillars:

- In Situ Research: Mapping native Spanish seahorse populations and their seagrass meadow habitat along the Andalucian coastline and assessing the threats they face in the wild. 

- Ex Sitú Research: Learning how to grow seagrass meadow seeds and breed native Spanish seahorses in an ex situ environment, with the intention of using both to help rewild the coast of Andalucia in the future. 

- Raising Awareness Amongst Local Stakeholders: communicating the importance of the role that seagrass meadows play in the fight against climate change and that seahorses play as bioindicator species of ocean health. 

- Building A Citizen Science Network: Encouraging members of the local community to get involved in helping restore Andalucia´s blue carbon network of seagrass meadows and take action to minimise the threats to seahorses in the wild.

How can your guests get involved in any of these initiatives?

The Marbella Club Kid's Club is a little naturalist's paradise and many of its activities are designed around raising consciousness about our connection to the natural world and the need to take care of it. One corner of the Kid's Club is also now home to the Ex-Situ Research component of the Aula Del Mar-Marbella Club seahorse conservation and seagrass restoration initiative and currently houses 9 breeding adults of the native seahorse species Hippocampus hippocampus and several trays of seagrass meadow seeds. Our mini guests can learn all about the role that seahorses and their habitat play in tackling climate change through this highly interactive aquarium exhibit and our fun "Seahorse Expedition" activity which takes them on an exciting journey of discovery from the classroom to the sea. Our adult guests can also engage with this important marine biodiversity conservation initiative by helping to raise further funds through the purchase of souvenirs from our bespoke line of seahorse inspired luxury beachwear which has been produced in partnership with the eco-conscious fashion company, Love Brand

In your opinion, which hotels are taking the lead in sustainable travel?

Six Senses is one of the brands that I would say is authentically leading the way when it comes to sustainable travel and is an inspirational role model for other hotels to follow. Sustainability is built into the brand's DNA and this is reflected throughout the specially crafted unique local guest experiences they offer in each location, the strength of the relationships they develop with local communities where they operate, the support they give to local biodiversity conservation initatives and the way in which their operations teams actively manage energy, waste, wáter and procurement. I recently visited the Six Senses in Douro Valley where I was fortunate enough to have a behind the scenes tour with various members of the senior management team and every person I spoke to genuinely lived and breathed Six Senses philosophy on sustainability and was actively searching for new innovative ways to make the operation even more sustainable.


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