In many ways, ethical consumerism can seem like an oxymoron.
Though fair trade-certified coffee sounds nice, purchasing it ultimately does little to dismantle the rampant exploitation which made it necessary in the first place. As phrased by researcher Jo Littler, ethical purchases can often serve as a “panacea for middle-class guilt” – a status symbol, and means of reassuring oneself that even though the coffee industry as a whole is fraught with issues of child labor and deforestation, at least *I’m* not contributing to the problem.
In the tourism sector, such contradictions come into even sharper relief. What does it mean when the staff at my five-star eco-resort is guaranteed a “livable” wage but the workers themselves can’t afford to stay there? Alternatively, without these more sustainable offerings, wouldn’t the hospitality industry otherwise be irretrievably worse? After all, global tourism is responsible for about 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. Pair that with concerns of overtourism, land degradation, gentrification and more – surely doing anything is better than doing nothing at all, right?
It is within this tense proving ground that Eaton has chosen to cement itself. Since opening in 2018 in Washington, D.C. – a place once known as “Chocolate City” for its majority Black population and the site of the highest intensity of gentrification of any city in the nation – the Eaton Hotel has been the subject of much criticism and debate, both vilified and valorized for its progressive values, and above all, uniquely scrutinized for its desire to reinvent what it means to be a good host and neighbor in an increasingly unequal world – whilst, of course, remaining a boutique, for-profit enterprise.
Rather than shrink from or ignore these contradictions, however, Eaton has strived to navigate such delicate questions with humility, collaboration and accountability.
Founded by Asian American hotelier Katherine Lo, Eaton takes its inspiration from the concepts of “Another World is Possible” and “The Third Place,” as well as the rich and complicated history of D.C. itself. As Lo states herself in the property’s media kit, “My vision with Eaton Workshop is to reimagine hospitality as a way to create a better world, by turning our physical and digital spaces into platforms for creativity and social and environmental impact.”
Amid the dry, corporate environs of D.C.’s K Street, home to the city’s lobbying groups, law firms and their requisite Chipotles and Sweetgreens, Eaton offers a home away from home for both visitors and local creatives alike. Tropical plants, Himalayan salt lamps and curated vinyl records add warmth and a sense of nostalgia to the otherwise industrially-styled, ten story brick building, which served as a printing press in the 1940s and then a bus station in the 1960s. Throughout the property, guests will find progressive books and artwork, such as the Alice in Wonderland-inspired mural of Ruby Bridges facing the jabberwocky in the hotel’s speakeasy, Allegory. Finally, for the sustainability-minded, Eaton’s bronze and gold-cast retro lighting fixtures are energy-efficient and the building is LEED Gold Certified, while a rainwater harvesting system and aerobic digester for food waste further work to reduce the property’s environmental footprint.
Beyond its surface embellishments, Eaton actively works to uplift and celebrate its local DMV (that is, the greater area of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) community. Challenging the tourism industry’s sordid legacy of displacing locals, Eaton offers DMV residents up to 20% off their stays. The hotel also works closely with DC’s hospitality union, Local 25, to ensure that all of its salaried and tipped employees make a living wage.
Perhaps most valuable, however, are Eaton’s community-focused programming and coworking spaces. Built around the pillars of Wellness, Culture, Impact, Wellness and Media, Eaton serves as both host to and conduit for DC’s vibrant creative scene. With each Pillar director explicitly hired for their deep community relationships, these initiatives can take the form of anything from Eaton’s on-site broadcast radio station showcasing local and grassroots DJs, to offering Eaton’s various spaces free of use to local organizers to host their events, meetings, workshops and more.
In exchange for sponsored membership, Eaton asks that its community members design two pieces of programming for the hotel’s event calendar, which they can do with support from the Pillar directors, who, in addition to their community connections, were also chosen for their expertise as professional curators and event planners. In this way, Eaton is able to connect grassroots and underfunded organizers who may not have otherwise had access to such resources with the sleek, state of the art planning and hosting facilities that only Eaton can provide.
“I think early on, there was some criticism or critique around this sense of, ‘These community groups that you proclaim to care about don’t need something so fancy or bougie,” Petitt elaborates, “And I think the response is that we all deserve beauty, we all deserve nice things.”
“The care and intention Katherine and [Eaton’s Global Head of Purpose, Sheldon Scott] put into the aesthetic allows us to question who gets luxury and why, and how can we shift that answer to demonstrate that everyone deserves abundance and greatness. It might sound trivial, but having community groups do events in a space that looks like Eaton allows them to level up and feel great and look great. It actually does have a lot of value.”
Still, despite its best efforts, Eaton is no stranger to the tensions of the economic system in which it operates. Though its rooms start at $259 a night, such rates are ultimately what afford Eaton the resources to give back to the community through its outreach efforts and sliding scale discounts for locals. The key to not losing sight of its core mission, Petitt says, is constant curiosity, constant listening and constant humility.
When asked about her vision for the next four years of Eaton’s evolution and beyond, Petitt shares, “I think right now we’re very, we’re still very much in our infancy and startup phase. And as we get older and as we hit a stride, I do want it to be smoother. But I also want us to keep our curiosity and our kind experimental attitude. Like, well, what if we did this? What if we tried this thing and why do we do that?”
As the sustainability industry continues to grow, and as the intersectional crises of environment, economy and social unrest continue to converge, Eaton’s triple bottom line approach for people, planet and profit is likely to face even more difficult challenges and conundrums. And while it remains to be seen whether truly transformative and systemic change can ever exist under a capitalist system, there is undeniable value in being brave enough to just try.