Sunday, October 17, 2010

Should Taking Hotel Toiletries Work You Into a Lather?

Several years ago, an editor of a daily newspaper and I were talking about the types of everyday ethical questions with which people might be wrestling. At the top of his list? Whether it's OK for guests to take toiletries supplied by hotels.

It's a question that's come up regularly over the years, but one that I haven't tackled in the column since there seemed to be bigger fish to fry. Yet it's precisely these everyday types of questions that cause readers to second-guess their actions, even if on a seemingly small scale.

A reader from Columbus was the most recent person posing the toiletry question to me.

"I travel a lot for my company," she wrote. "I have often seen the suggestion that one take the little shampoo bottles and soaps from the hotel room to donate to a homeless shelter."

But my reader points out that she always travels with her own shampoo because she's "picky about shampoo." It seems to her, she wrote, that it was "inappropriate" to take the unused toiletries from her hotel if she didn't use them as intended.

"If the hotel would use them for the next guest in the room, then liberating them for the homeless seems something akin to stealing."

So, she asked, which action is more ethical: leaving them in the room for the next guest or taking them home to give to those in need?

I've heard of similar appeals from charitable organizations that encourage travelers to gather up hotel toiletries and donate them to worthy causes.

Toiletries fall into a different category than the bathrobes, linens and other items that are clearly intended for guest use while on hotel property and not for transport home.

Since the toiletries are placed in the room for guests, I do not see any issue with taking whatever's left over home. But those trying to heed the call of charities by grabbing a few extra bottles of shampoo or bars of soap from the supply carts that often crowd hotel corridors in the morning cross the line. The right thing is to take home what was intended for your consumption, but to refrain from raiding someone else's coffers to support your cause.

Partly used shampoo bottles or soap bars may represent a lost opportunity if they are left behind and disposed by hotels.

Recognizing the need for disinfectants in developing nations, a handful of not-for-profit groups such as Clean the World ( and the Global Soap Project ( have established relationships with hotels to donate and recycle shampoos and soaps. The groups have also set up ways for travelers to donate their unused toiletries.

If travelers know that the hotel they're staying in has such a relationship with one of these organizations, it gives them an option to donate goods that might otherwise go unused. If not, and they want to bring home whatever was intended for their personal consumption so they can donate to whatever cause they choose, they should do so with a clean conscience.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to
(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Anonymous said...

My Gosh, aren't we working ourselves into a lather over something that isn't worth the time and worry? I think it is commonly accepted by both hotels and patrons that toiletries, soaps, shampoos, etc., (everything but towels!) are free for the taking after use! Besides, I would think that from a cleanliness standpoint, it would not be smart for hotels to leave shampoo bottles, for next patrons to use, after the original patron has checked out. I vote for feeling free to take these types of supplies when you leave the hotel.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Bill Jacobson said...

This is an easy call, Jeffrey. It is ethical for you to donate what is yours. It is not ethical for you to misappropriate what is not yours even to donate to a good cause. The soaps, shampoos, lotions, etc. fall squarely into the former.

The disposable toiletries provided by hotels are provided for the customers' use and their cost is factored into the cost of the room. One you have agreed to pay for the room, the toiletries are yours to do with as you please, including donating them to charity. What would otherwise happen to your toiletries if you were not to take them should not factor into the ethical equation but it is nice of you to consider the hotel's expenses.

I agree that asking for or acquiring extra toiletries that have not been factored into the cost of your room with the express purpose of donating them crosses an ethical line but all in all this is a relatively straight forward ethical analysis.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA