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Do Labels Matter in Sustainability?

By Sarah Loftus

Call it what you will – green, eco, responsible or sustainable travel – we want to know that everything we’re doing, where we’re staying and what we’re eating is not having a detrimental impact on the beautiful places we’re visiting. We also want to know that our time spent in the destination will contribute directly to the local economy and benefit its communities.

So how do we find such beacons of sustainability? How can hotels, restaurants, activity and transport providers demonstrate their eco-credentials and commitment to their place? Ideally, what we’re looking for is a definitive symbol of commitment towards sustainable best practice; something that demonstrates that they really are ‘walking the talk’.

Over the past 30 years, sustainable tourism certification has become increasingly significant in the hospitality industry, with the aim of helping consumers make informed decisions about the tourism experiences they choose. In fact, we could say there’s now an abundance of such schemes and labels.

But what are they, and how do they work?

Fairtrade is probably the best known example of a product certification – something we see every day in our food shopping. You’re probably familiar with the Rainforest Alliance seal too. But here we take a look at some of the more well established schemes that are operating within the tourism and hospitability industry.

International Tourism Certification

About: A global accommodation sustainability certification body, Travelife is a wholly owned subsidiary of ABTA, the UK travel association. For hotels only, Travelife was designed by the tourism industry for the tourism industry. 

Where: Around 1,500 certified hotels in 50 countries, with a large representation across Europe, growing in the Americas, Africa and Indian Ocean, and Asia-Pacific.

Focus: Six steps to Gold Certification focus on emissions, biodiversity, human rights, fair labour, child safeguarding and animal welfare, based on the Global Sustainable Tourism Council criteria.

Verification: Independent audits undertaken by trained Travelife auditors.

Green Key

About: Developed from a national tourism initiative in Denmark to become an international eco-label, managed by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE*), Green Key is recognised by the UN World Tourism Organization and UNEP.

Where: In 65+ countries with over 4800 accommodations, attractions, restaurants and conference centres. Widely used in Europe (especially France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, Denmark, Finland), as well as Mexico.

Focus: All aspects of environmental management as well as staff involvement, guest information and Corporate Social Responsibility.

Verification: On-site audits conducted by Green Key auditors and third party verification.

*FEE also operates the international Blue Flag scheme!

Green Globe

About: Based in California with partners in the Americas, South Africa, Middle East, the Caribbean and Europe, the Green Globe certification brand is owned by Green Globe Ltd UK.

Where: Over 600 members in 80 countries, including attractions, meeting venues, accommodations, restaurants, golf courses, spa and health centres, transport companies, cruise ships and supply chain businesses. Countries with large memberships include France, Germany, Netherlands, the Maldives and Caribbean.

Focus: Saving resources and improving business for guests, staff and the community. The Standard has 44 criteria in four groups: environmental, sustainable management, social economic, cultural heritage.

Verification: 120 auditors globally provide third-party, independent on-site audits, as well as consulting services supporting implementation of the standard.

Earth Check

About: An Australian benchmarking certification and advisory group for destinations and tourism organisations, running several programmes such as EarthCheck ECO for eco-tourism operators, EarthCheck Destination and EarthCheck Design for tourism building projects.

Where: Over 800 certified tourism businesses in over 80 countries, from accommodations, destinations, events and governments to developers and building designers, land and marine parks. A large proportion of members are in Australia, Mexico, across the Caribbean and Spain, growing in China and across Europe.

Focus: Environmental protection, local employment, purchasing local products and services and minimising carbon footprint.

Verification: The entry level programme is a self-guided assessment. Destinations are visited by EarthCheck independent auditors.

Business in General

A few alternatives to the tourism specific certification schemes that you can look out for:

ISO: The International Organization for Standardization has developed over 25,122 management standards. Thankfully, those used in the hospitability industry can be narrowed down to three:

  • ISO14001 – the world’s most popular environmental management system with more than 500,000 certifications in over 180 countries
  • ISO 20121 for Sustainable Events
  • ISO 21401:2018 for tourism and related services – a sustainability management system for accommodation

EU Ecolabel: A European-wide environmental label, managed by the EU Commission, used by any type of service and product, including hotels and campsites. Around 500 accommodations carry the label, with the greatest number being in Austria, France, Spain, Italy and Slovenia.

B Corp: Founded in the USA, B Lab puts companies through a rigorous assessment of their impacts on the environment, their workers, customers, suppliers and community, ensuring they meet high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability, with the aim of balancing profit and purpose. The B Corp seal of approval is gaining ground in the hospitality industry. Tourism businesses that have achieved B Corp status have joined forces to form ‘Travel by BCorp’ to share best practice.

Sustainable Buildings

BREEAM and LEED are two certification systems focusing on the performance of buildings, evaluating all aspects of a building’s sustainability from initial siting and design to how they’re used. BREEAM originated as a British certificate whilst LEED is designed specifically for buildings in the USA. They can be applied to individual buildings, multi-use developments and whole neighbourhoods. More than 200 British and international hotels have registered for a BREEAM assessment whilst there are over 3,650 LEED‐certified and registered lodgings and hotel projects, predominately in the USA.

Country Specific Eco-Labels and Certification Schemes

With so many individual schemes operating at a country level, we could write another article. They are to be found in just about every country in the world, from France, Germany and Italy to Botswana, Malaysia, Costa Rica and every part of the Caribbean.  Here are a few to be getting on with:

Audubon International runs several certification schemes including the Green Lodging Program and Green Hospitality Program in the USA. This was the first organisation to work extensively with golf courses and, of their nearly 900 members, the majority are golf clubs and resorts.

Ekokompass Finland is an independent environmental system based on ISO 14001, owned by Finland’s most influential environmental organisation – the Finnish Nature Conservation Union. Over 500 Finnish businesses are certified.

The Green Tourism Business Scheme (GTBS) is the best known certification scheme in the UK, with over 3000 members. There’s also the David Bellamy Blooming Marvellous Pledge for Nature for camping sites and holiday parks, and the Greener Camping Club.

The Nordic Swan Ecolabel is a Nordic joint organisation run by five local organisations in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. It is considered one of the worlds toughest environmental certifications. It applies to all products and services, with specific criteria devised for hotels and other accommodation.

A Final Note

Membership of certification schemes is voluntary, so of course there are tourism businesses that choose not to implement a standard or label. This doesn’t mean to say they are not mindful of their impacts. It’s just worth noting that eco-certification is not a failsafe way of identifying eco-minded businesses.

A big concern is the potential for greenwashing, i.e. making misleading claims about environmental and social performance for marketing purposes, whilst not making any real sustainable efforts. It brings into question how rigorous the standards for awarding a certification might be. For example, relying on self-certification without independent verification might allow a company to claim sustainable practices without actually implementing meaningful changes. It is therefore worth identifying certifications that have a thorough evaluation process.

Certifications vary in their specific focus, criteria and geographic reach, but all share a common goal of promoting sustainable best practice. They are instrumental in guiding hotels towards greater environmental and social responsibility, and enhancing their reputation. And it’s worth remembering that those working with a credible certification scheme are investing a lot of time and effort in the process. The resources required for ongoing audits, reporting and investigations are significant and, ultimately, demonstrate the large commitment they are making. As such, they could help you make an informed travel choice!

Still confused? Well Sustainable Journeys can help navigate this minefield and help make better holiday choices with sustainability baked in.