For Sonu Shivdasani, sustainability is not something he jumped on as it became trendy. It was formed from a love of the environment – and something he and his wife Eva have embedded into every facet of their business.
“I first visited the Maldives with Eva in 1987 and fell in love with the place. I had never seen anything quite like it. Eva, who had been coming to the Maldives for modeling shoots since the late 1980s, loved the untouched, simple way of life,” Shivdasani tells The CEO Magazine.
It was this love of place and simple living that led the pair to found Soneva, an award-winning sustainable luxury resort operator in the Maldives and Thailand.
“We decided we wanted to open a resort like no other, while ensuring we protect the environment,” he explains. “We bought an abandoned resort on the far-flung 100-acre [40 hectare] island of Kunfunadhoo in the Baa Atoll and set about creating our dream.
“After considerable effort and some good luck, our first resort, Soneva Fushi, opened in 1995. We were the first luxury resort in the Maldives, which at the time was a diver’s paradise, and the few hotels that were there had very low rates.”
Since these humble beginnings, Soneva has grown to now include four different locations for guests to stay, relax and bask in luxury. These include Soneva Fushi, Soneva Jani, Soneva Kiri and Soneva in Aqua, a luxurious two-cabin yacht.
But as the resort operator grew, it never lost sight of its original inspiration – the environment in which it is located.
“Both Eva and I consider ourselves guardians, not owners, of these precious environments that we are privileged to look after during our lifetimes,” Shivdasani reveals.
“We have pledged to protect the biodiversity and habitats on and around our resorts. To do so, we have always used nature as an inspiration for our innovation and we have always endeavored to be sustainable pioneers in the hospitality industry.”
Unique environmental initiatives
As a part of this mission to be a sustainability pioneer, Soneva has developed innovative, and sometimes unconventional, strategies for combating its environmental impact.
In 2008, the couple realized that Soneva’s current approach to measuring carbon emissions was limited to only Scopes 1 and 2 (direct and indirect emissions), which is not uncommon for businesses. However, this meant that Scope 3, which covers external factors such as guests flying into the resorts or supplies being delivered, was not accounted for in this calculation.
“We have always endeavored to be a pioneer in the hospitality industry and are very proud to have been 100 percent carbon neutral since 2012.”
“Operating in remote locations requires our guests to travel long distances. On average, a guest’s round trip will result in emissions of around one metric ton of CO2. Our guests have little choice but to fly to reach our remote locations. We thus decided to measure Scope 3 too,” Shivdasani explains.
“To our great surprise, we discovered that 85 percent of the CO2 emissions from Soneva Fushi come from Scope 3, which the industry, in general, does not measure. So, we took the simple step of adding a mandatory two percent environmental levy to our guests’ bills to offset all our emissions.
“It was a small change, and a relatively small charge, which we found our guests more than happy to accept. And the rewards have been great.”
This small levy, which is based on the cost of the villa guests are staying in, goes toward the Soneva Foundation, where it is then invested into projects that have a positive environmental impact and offset the carbon footprint of guest flights and other resort activities.
“We have always endeavored to be a pioneer in the hospitality industry and are very proud to have been 100 percent carbon neutral since 2012. We still continually strive to pioneer initiatives that protect our natural environment and precious resource,” Shivdasani says.
Creating a blueprint for change
The Soneva Foundation, using funds collected via the levy, conducts work in areas such as climate change, restoration of ocean and terrestrial biodiversity, as well as safe drinking water. In addition, it also focuses on social issues such as malnutrition and foster care in its local community.
“I am committed to leading the fight against climate change within the hospitality sector. I set up the Soneva Foundation with my wife to support the environmental initiatives of Soneva and to influence on a global scale,” Shivdasani says.
Some of the Foundation’s key projects include the Myanmar Stoves Campaign, which to date has produced a social value of US$28 million; the Soneva Forest Restoration Project, which has mitigated 255,000 metric tons of CO2; and the Soneva Wind Turbine Project, which during its 20-year life span will produce 80,000-kilowatt-hours of clean energy and mitigate the production of 70,000 metric tons of CO2.
“Our ambition is to create a blueprint for empowered zero-waste communities in the Maldives, centered around the three core components of Reduce, Recycle and Inspire.”
Separately to the Foundation is Soneva Namoona, which was founded in 2019 by Soneva, Maalhos Island Council, Dharavandhoo Island Council and Kihaadhoo Island Council. It aims to solve a problem that has bedeviled the Maldives for a generation: how to properly dispose of waste.
“Our ambition is to create a blueprint for empowered zero-waste communities in the Maldives, centered around the three core components of Reduce, Recycle and Inspire, and grounded in the reality of the challenges and opportunities that are unique to local islands,” he points out.
Having a clear purpose and intention
Recently, Shivdasani was honored as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to tourism, sustainability and charity in the King’s New Year Honours 2023 Overseas and International List.
“Receiving an OBE is an incredible honor and I share it with all of Soneva’s friends and family. This award is a reflection of the incredible contributions and positive impact that each and every member of the Soneva family has on a daily basis,” he says.
As more and more businesses rush to create ESG strategies and prove to consumers that they too care about sustainability, it can be difficult for leaders to know where to even start. Shivdasani has some simple advice: be intentional in your actions.
“Eva and I founded Soneva on the premise of sustainability in 1995 long before it was a common term in business. We strived to instill this messaging and belief system in every Sonevian, partner, vendor and Soneva guest,” he confirms.
“This purpose must be clear and intentional and woven into the very fabric of your company culture, not merely your company operations. When the company culture encourages and educates the team, you will be surprised to see the passion and accountability that arise.”
“When the company culture encourages and educates the team, you will be surprised to see the passion and accountability that arise.”
Soneva’s ability to fully implement this set of values is also assisted by its ‘One Owner, One Operator, One Philosophy’ mantra, whereby it is both the owner and operator of its hotels – meaning that no compromises ever have to be made.
And having a focus on sustainability does not mean losing sight of providing a luxury experience to customers, Shivdasani insists.
“For us at Soneva, luxury, wellness and sustainability are not opposites, they are triplets that work together in perfect harmony and complement each other,” he explains.
“A visit to a Soneva resort will clearly show how different we are from any other luxury experience that exists in the markets where we operate. We are able to differentiate, evolve and innovate to an extent and at a rate that other hotels which have different owners from the operator cannot.”