We’ve all seen it – a coloured stamp that supposedly signifies a hotel is sustainable and that helps us feel good about booking it. But sustainability is not a logo, it is what you do – and in reality, many ‘certified’ hotels, resorts, cruise ships and other tourism companies are doing too little to earn their sustainability kudos. should we care?
With reportedly over 300 different Certification Bodies (CB) offering sustainability programs with certification out there, the practice has created confusion for travellers and hoteliers alike and made it easy for companies to ‘greenwash’ by making unsubstantiated or misleading claims so they appear more sustainable than they really are. Meanwhile, there are many wonderful properties big and small, luxury and basic that are doing genuinely brilliant things for people and the planet and aren’t bothering with certification at all.
If we as conscious travellers want to spend our money on places to stay that don’t greenwash and that are genuinely sustainable, then we need to demand accountability and transparency and independent proof. We can applaud those we know are doing the right thing, tell all our friends and family about them, and start to ask the right questions when choosing new hotels. But in a world where there is a huge crisis of trust, there’s a growing consensus that mandatory and reliable certification with independent audits may well be the most sustainable route forward for everyone.
Right now, sustainability certification is voluntary and unregulated, so many hotels either do nothing, lie or take the cheapest certification option available, often citing the lack of budgets, staff and bandwidth to do more. Many of the larger hotel groups such as Hilton, Accor and InterContinental have created their own Corporate Social Responsibility or sustainability programmes, but none of the schemes are certified by a certification body accredited by GSTC, and they do not offer CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) accredited carbon measurements, scientific benchmarking and independent audits.
To add to the confusion, only a handful of certification schemes actually measure, benchmark and audit their hotels’ sustainability credentials anyway. Many simply offer a checklist for a manager to tick, which means a hotel might have been given a sustainability stamp for having a set of electric bikes and using the right type of eco light bulbs, whilst in another part of the company it is treating their staff badly, using oodles of plastic water bottles and throwing away its rubbish on mismanaged landfill sites. Eco stamps awarded by popular websites such as Trip Advisor or Positive Luxury might sound powerful, but in reality, what they award is just not measurable or verified.
Hotels that get the cheapest sustainability stamp they can without accreditation and independent audits also miss the real purpose of certification (accountability and transparency to build trust) and the business benefits of becoming sustainable (proof of a return on their investment and the ongoing genuine savings to be made).
The Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s (GSTC) could be the solution to most of the confusion, but the much-needed simplification, clarity and regulated change is held back by differences in opinions and pending resolutions.
An independent and organisation, legally registered in the USA as a non-profit organisation, the GSTC has until now established and managed global sustainable standards using its own GSTC Criteria. Set up to recognize genuine practitioners of sustainable tourism, it awards sustainability certification bodies with (CB) a basic GSTC-Recognized status first just for recognizing the GSTC Criteria, with the goal for them to progress and add rigorous systems and become 100% GSTC Accredited.
In reality, most organisations at the lowest, GSTC-Recognized level have not bothered to attain any further accreditation, even after many years. There is little governance and quality control in place to audit all of them in the programme, and with the words ‘Recognized’, ‘Approved’ and ‘Accredited’ being hugely similar in meaning and easily interchangeable, travellers and the travel industry have only got more confused.
GSTC CEO, Randy Durband commented, ‘We acknowledge that the existence of the “Recognized” status intended for standards and not for certification schemes has caused some confusion. We are working to clarify what it means. My own personal view is that we should phase it out immediately for the hotel program based on the confusion in the marketplace over its meaning, but our technical team and board reached consensus to review the matter again at a later date after assessing the impacts of recent communications and planned activities.’
Most worryingly, the GSTC is now offering its own ‘GSTC mark’ at a cost for hotel operators who are prepared to pay to be members of the GSTC Certify programme. GSTC CEO, Randy Durband, says that ‘hotels have the option to pay for the use of the GSTC logo and training’, and says this new development is ‘for the educational benefit of all’. But international CBs that are members of GSTC say that this is a conflict of interest since GSTC competes for business with the very members that the GSTC certifies. This should be a huge concern since many hotels who don’t really care about sustainability will simply apply for the use of the GSTC mark, effectively bypassing creditable CBs and diminishing the independent reputation of the GSTC.
As Stewart Moore, Founder and CEO of EarthCheck and Managing Director of the APEC Co-operative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism, says: ‘The tourism industry recognizes that the GSTC can play an important role in establishing some base line standards for sustainability. Unfortunately, complete confusion reigns, because of the inconsistent certification terminology which is being used, and the fact that the GSTC is itself offering commercial and consulting services to market – which is surely hardly a role for the certifier of certifiers.’
Some hotel groups that are already planning to be GSTC-Certified has even indicated that they are doing so because GSTC is linked to the United Nations (UN) – an association that makes it, in their eyes, easier to explain to guests. GSTC was an organization formed in 2007 and named the “Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria” as a coalition of 32 partners, initiated by the Rainforest Alliance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Foundation, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). But it’s not part of the United Nations or linked to it, and whilst it certainly started life well-intended, the current confusions are taking it down a different track.
Be aware that only the GSTC-Accredited EarthCheck Certify scheme provides hotels with relationship managers for training and support, a cloud software platform for scientific measuring methods, benchmarking and annual independent audits. EarthCheck is used by travel and tourism organisations around the world, to validate their carbon claims and guide their sustainability initiatives. Some at GSTC-Recognized level are working to establish the process to qualify for accreditation, while others have expressed that they have no interest or feel the need to do so.
GSTC CEO, Randy Durband, noted ‘I have a high degree of respect for the scientific and rigorous foundation of EarthCheck’s schemes. It is an excellent program, but the marketplace has been unwilling to purchase that particular scheme in significant numbers. Most businesses opt instead for lesser-priced schemes. My own hope is that someday the awareness level and pickup of certification in general will allow for greater awareness and respect for EarthCheck’s full program that includes benchmarking.’
Lesser-priced certifications schemes may be cheaper and easier and require less bandwidth for hotel staff to manage, but it also delivers half measures and does not include the rigour, scientific measurements, benchmarking and ROI reports needed to prove to Hotel Owners the top reason why sustainability is also important – sustainability saves money.
At this most urgent of times for our vulnerable planet and its people, can a hotel call itself ‘sustainable’ when they only deliver half measures? Have they missed the real purpose of sustainability certifications?
Simplifying sustainability certification for the traveller is what is needed and ONE credible quality mark to accredit certification schemes worldwide that ensure the process is under control and regulated. It’s worth noting that GSTC’s new technical director, Andres Fellenberg Van der Molen, is reputed to be a no-nonsense, action-oriented professional auditor. He told NOW that the GSTC-Accredited status aims to be ‘the only quality mark’ to prove the process is under control.
Clearly though, we have a long way to go before the whole process is regulated and simplified, and there are more external issues at play that create confusion and that have limited the pickup of hotel certification.
We as conscious and empowered travellers with the wallet should start asking tough questions and demanding proof, and only support responsible businesses. For us, the major consideration to purchase is the ability to trust the brand to do what is right.