Let’s simplify sustainability certification

Let’s simplify sustainability certification
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“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 transparency and independent proof.”

There are over 300 different programmes offering sustainability certifications schemes in the world, but only four are in the process of full accreditation by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. Should we care?

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.

With reportedly over 300 different programmes offering certification schemes 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, many wonderful hotels that are doing genuinely brilliant things for people and the planet 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 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 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 being audited also miss the real purpose of certification (sustainability for people and planet so that we all thrive) 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 neutral 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, its GSTC Integrity Programme awards organisations first with a basic, GSTC-Recognized status, with the idea that they then progress to GSTC-Approved status and work up to 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 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 USD100 per hotel for the use of the GSTC logo and training’, and says this new development is ‘for the educational benefit of all’. But companies that run GSTC’s own international certification body programmes say this is a conflict of interest with the very members that the GSTC certifies, and the industry is concerned that many hotels who don’t really care about sustainability will simply apply for the use of the GSTC mark, effectively bypassing creditable certification bodies 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 are already planning to be GSTC-Certified, and one has even indicated that they are doing so because GSTC is linked to the UN – an association that makes it, in their eyes, easier to explain to guests. GSTC represent a diverse and global membership, including UN agencies, and it was funded by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation from its birth in 2007 until 2013. But it’s not part of the UN, and whilst it certainly started life well-intended, the current confusions are taking it down a different track.

There are only four certification schemes from the defunct GSTC-Approved level that are in the process of receiving full GSTC accreditation in the next few months – EarthCheck, Eco-Tourism Australia, Control Union and Rainforest Alliance – so ask about and look out for these. Be aware that only the 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. And at the GSTC-Recognized level, only Green Key and Travelife are working to establish the process to qualify for accreditation, while Green Globe had expressed to the GSTC that they do not expect to apply for it at this time.

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. Check out these questions to ask hotels before you book in NOW’s upcoming Issue No 4, The Hotel Issue and watch this space for the NOW Force for Good Alliance’s resource of genuinely sustainable hotels that don’t greenwash and are credibly proven to be sustainable.

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  • Profile photo of Richard Shepard

    There is an emphasis – too much in my opinion – on hotel certification. First, full disclosure: our organization is a member of GSTC.
    We run a program that uses GSTC criteria but applies it to an entire rural community (our programmatic mission). The GSTC criteria are a useful benchmark, but where we work the idea that people would pay the high prices that the hotels and resorts pay is problematic. We do not believe that sustainability is certifiable one hotel at a time.
    Rather, our approach is long-term and involves community consensus and planning on what can be accomplish at different stages. This is extremely hard, but your article implies that the “diploma” of certification is important. It is not when applied to communities as a whole and its utility for the types of hotels and resorts that are usually certified is not independently verifiable nor is there any consideration of the impact these certifications have on surrounding communities.
    Our approach is to use the criteria and guide local communities – who must willingly agree – to the gradual adoption and implementation of criteria according to their own methodology and resources.
    We applaud the efforts of GSTC and especially of organizations like EarthCheck which provides truly important training and guidance. But the prices are beyond the reach of anyone except those hotels and resorts that want to hang the certification on the lobby wall or their website.
    There needs to be system established that is willing to take a very long-term view of whole community systems in various national environments. Our program continues to do so in whole rural communities.

    Do you care about sustainability? Please leave a reply here or on NOW Forum.