Should sustainable tourism certification for businesses be encouraged?Jun 15, 2022
As sustainability rises on the agenda of Destination Management Organisations (DMOs) around the world, so too does the call for standards, measurements and reporting.
More and more, we are seeing policy makers and DMOs suggest or advise that tourism businesses pursue third party certification in order to build their sustainability credentials. A main driver of this is the belief that independent verification of the business activities will provide reassurance to visitors and clients.
One such example is Visit Scotland’s new national Green Certification Scheme for businesses, part of its overall national strategy Outlook 2030: Responsible Tourism for a Sustainable Future. The scheme provides grant funding to 3 certification providers (Green Tourism, EarthCheck and Green Key) to support businesses in becoming members of their certification programme.
Benefits of certification
Certification can deliver some clear benefits to businesses seeking to begin or deepen their sustainability journey, the main ones being:
1. A framework for action
To get certified, a business must demonstrate that they meet a defined set of criteria. The scheme criteria effectively become a roadmap for the actions the business should take.
2. Templates, tools and training
Most (not all) certification labels provide templates, tools and supporting training to help members achieve their label.
Having a deadline for submission of evidence or a date for an auditor visit provides a level of focus and discipline that it is hard to self-impose.
4. Independent verification of good practice in the area of sustainability
Certification labels define standards, define what needs to be done to achieve them and, in some way, review evidence that allows them verify that these standards have actually been achieved by the business. This can act as an independent reassurance to clients and trade partners.
Is certification the only credible option then?
It’s easy to see why encouraging businesses to follow this route is appealing to DMOs. In fact, a default belief is that external audit and certification is the only truly credible endorsement of sustainability practices. It also has the advantage of outsourcing the load of managing and verifying standards while minimising the risk of internal conflicts of interest. For many, it’s simply the no-brainer option.
Yet, at the same time, we see a number of national tourism bodies who have opted not to go down the independent label route and have instead created their own national tourism standard for sustainability. Examples are New Zealand’s Tourism Sustainability Commitment, Finland’s Sustainable Travel Finland Programme, Iceland’s Vakinn programme and Slovenia’s Green Scheme for Sustainable Tourism. In these cases, the DMOs have opted not to recommend independent certification and have taken on the responsibility of setting and managing the standard themselves.
In my early days in tourism, I worked with a much smaller destination to support businesses in adopting and implementing sustainable tourism standards. Over 3 years, I worked with more than 100 businesses to achieve one of 5 different certification options. Through this process, we realised that the ‘no-brainer’ option actually had some pretty significant caveats to be considered. We too came to the conclusion that creating our own locally-relevant standards, aligned to the global standards, was the best option. I’ll share some overarching observations here from that time that apply to destinations in general
Caveats around certification
1. Fees are significant.
This explains why businesses may be subsidised to start the journey. Like Scotland, there are many destinations who have opted to go this route. The challenge arises when it comes to renewing certification and the business faces the full cost.
2. Time and headspace requirement is significant.
Certification is a detailed, disciplined process and there is a long road to travel between getting started and getting certified. Staying the course can be a challenge, particularly for small and micro businesses.
3. The market visibility of certification is low.
Booking.com’s 2022 Sustainability research revealed that 62 % of respondents don’t actively look for the sustainability efforts of a property before they book. Of those respondents who didn’t stay in a sustainable accommodation over the past year, 27% said they didn’t know they existed and 26% said they still didn’t know how to find them. A 2015 study showed that 15,000 tourism businesses in Europe were certified and that, between them, they had a market share of just 1% (Source: Is Sustainable Tourism a trend in Europe, Herbert Hamele, EU)
4. Certification bodies do standards, not marketing.
Businesses can become disillusioned when they realise that the resources of the label generally go (rightly) to managing the standard and not to engaging in consumer marketing. Once it comes to paying an annual renewal fee or a hefty audit fee, businesses need to see real marketing benefit and a tangible commercial return on investment. This is not always apparent.
5. Independent certification labels are private commercial enterprises.
As privately-owned, commercial and for-profit enterprises, there exists the risk of the business ceasing operations at any time. This is a high risk factor for a business that invests significantly in achieving certification. STEP is an example of a certification body that simply ceased trading.
6. An enormous range of green labels exist, covering different standards to different levels.
In 2015, there were 80 standards and certificates for sustainable tourism in Europe! (Source: Is Sustainable Tourism a trend in Europe, Herbert Hamele, EU). There is no doubt that there are many more since then. Some schemes certify businesses, others certify experiences while others certify processes. Some require an on-site audit each time certification renews, others only require this once at the beginning and some don’t require it at all. Many schemes allow certification in tiered phases e.g. Member, Bronze, Gold, Silver. The badges look very similar and it’s really hard to differentiate the high achievers from the new entrants. Green training programmes offer 'Certificates' of Achievement or Attendance, and may have has much marketing value as the more rigorous certification process. The challenge here is that businesses and trade become disillusioned if those that do the extra work and achieve the higher standards do not reap an extra advantage. Most detrimentally, it undermines any drive to get a cohesive and consistent level of good practice across a nation or smaller destination. It works against businesses gaining trust in each other’s standards.
What for the future?
To me, the greatest challenge of them all is that there is no clear standard that tells international visitors what they should expect in terms of sustainability and who has achieved it. It results in a lack of transparency for the visitor and also for the business. In an ideal world, we would radically reduce the number of standards out there. What would be wonderful in the future would be if there were a single global certification standard for tourism and hospitality enterprises.
At present, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) manages a set of global standards for sustainable travel and tourism and provides international accreditation for sustainable tourism certification bodies. It’s like a certification body for certification bodies. However, there’s no obligation on any certification body to be part of it and many choose not to be. In addition, much like the certification bodies themselves, there are some semantics involved e.g. a certification body can be GSTC accredited (an actual quality mark based on processes) or GSTC recognized (simply a statement that the certifier's criteria align with GSTC criteria). For the person who is not committed to studying this distinction, it’s very hard to tell the difference.
The best model I can think of is the Blue Flag Beach standard that exists and has been widely adopted internationally. The standard has tailored criteria for 3 different categories : beach, marinas and tourism boats, but there is just one standard.
So there isn’t a light blue flag and a dark blue flag. There is no I’m-just-getting-started Blue Flag, followed by Bronze Blue Flag, Silver Blue Flag, Gold Blue Flag and Platinum Blue Flag. There is just one flag, one logo, one set of criteria – you either meet them or you don't and there is full transparency around this. With visibility now in nearly 50 countries and spreading, it speaks an international language. As a result, all involved, most importantly the consumer, can be genuinely reassured by the certification. The flag attests to standards and, because of its credibility and transparency, has true marketing value and can differentiate those who have it from those who don’t.
These are advantages that need to be built up within the tourism and hospitality sector.
Addendum June 2023:
If you have come to this page as a result of the article published by Maurice Bergin, Managing Director of GreenHospitality.ie, on 9th June 2023 (which is a formal response to the article above), you can find Maurice's article and Tina's responses HERE
Tina is a facilitator, mentor and coach specialising in tourism. She has extensive experience in sustainable tourism, regenerative tourism, food tourism, networks, clusters and collaborations. Check out her other blog articles on the topic of sustainability and sustainable tourism here.
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