The purpose of consumer facing certification is presumably to assure the guest or client that the hotel they are planning to stay in, or the operator they plan to travel through, meets a given sustainability standard. But there are problems:
- Certification is opaque. No certification scheme permits a customer to identify the hotel or lodge with the lowest water consumption per bed night, the lowest carbon emissions or the best employment practices in the destination they plan to travel to.
- There is such a plethora of schemes that it is all but impossible to understand what they mean. How is a purchaser to understand the GST-Member; GSTC-Approved; GSTC Accredited? What are the differences between them? What assurance does the label provide?
- The labels are process driven – none of them report what has been achieved by a hotel or tour operator in reducing negative impacts or increasing positive impacts.
- One size does not fit all. Water conservation is a bigger issue in Dubai or Kenya – priorities vary locally between and within countries. How the travel industry ‘greenwashes’ its eco credentials.
- A consumer cannot recover damages from a hotel which fails to deliver against its certificate.
Each time a traveller or holidaymaker checks into a certified hotel and goes to the room to find the thermostat set at 15C, all the lights and the TV on, and a bit of card stuck in the key card light switch, more damage is done to certification. When you turn the thermostat up or off, switch off all the lights and the TV, and put the towels back on the rail as you leave in the morning only to find, on returning to your room, the aircon back on, a freezing room with lights blazing and fresh towels, consumer confidence in certification is undermined.
The consumer has no effective redress. The hotel does not award itself the certificate and makes no particular sustainability claim. The consumer has no contractual relationship with the certification agency. The consumer has been miss-sold but has no redress.
Rahman, Park & Chi of Washington State University have published a paper in the Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management on the Consequences of ‘Greenwashing:’ Consumers’ Reactions to Hotels’ Green Initiatives, concluding that “hotels need to be watchful so that consumers do not become sceptical. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that managers do everything possible to give customers no room for doubt.”
The A card imploring clients to save the planet by not having their towels washed every day juxtaposed to plastic bottles of shampoo, the air conditioning down at 15C and it taking 5 minutes for the shower to run warm , speak loudly of the hotel management’s real motivation. It undermines the hotel’s green credentials revealing that it is just about cost saving. When it happens in a certified hotel it undermines the certificate too.
“I can count on half of one hand the number of hotels that have actually paid attention to the location of my towel. I’ve seen countless housekeepers dump the contents of in-room recycling bins into their trash bags. I don’t have any expectations at motels, but when it comes to boutique, “eco-friendly”, or high-end properties making these claims, I find it infuriating.” Laurel Miller goes on to provide a checklist to help identify those hotels which are not greenwashing: How to tell if a hotel is greenwashing. I share Laurel Miller’s experience. Rarely are the towels I put back on the rack there after the housekeepers have been in.
Consumers have long been sceptical of carbon offsets, the cheat neutral video explains why – if you haven’t watched it, watch it now. It will make you smile. Now the EU has published a review of carbon offsets, 85% of the offset projects used by the EU under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) failed to reduce emissions.
More and more consumers have some environmental knowledge, from their education and their experience, many have fitted eco shower heads at home, they’ve thought about solar. They can spot the brown stuff behind the green labels. Rarely do we see hotels or operators making false or exaggerated claims – they know that what they say is contractual and that there can be penalties for misrepresentation.
As Justin Francis has pointed out: “When you buy organic certified food you know no pesticides have been used. When you buy Fair Trade coffee you know the farmer has been paid a little extra. When you book a sustainable tourism-certified hotel under existing schemes, you don’t know whether they use a ‘reasonable’ or ‘sustainable’ amount of water or energy; in fact figures are rarely even made available.”
What could be done?
Certificates are awarded for effort rather than achievement. I am less concerned about how a hotel reduces its energy consumption per bed night than that it reduces the consumption. Wouldn’t it be amazing if certificates were awarded for achieving an acceptable level of water and energy consumption per bed night, for paying wages above minimum wage levels and meeting a minimum set of labour standards.
Responsible Tourism encourages stakeholders to address the issues which matter locally, to address local priorities – water consumption matters more in some places than in others. Standards need to recognise the local priorities, global standards can’t do that.
The international Blue Flag label rightly describes itself as “a world-renowned eco-label trusted by millions around the globe.” It is because the consumer knows what standard the beach management delivers. The certificate has real meaning.
Wouldn’t it been even more amazing if hotels and operators published their operational performance against the standard, and the certifiers audited that performance and signed off on the evidence; thereby taking real responsibility for their certificates. Metered electricity consumption would quickly reveal the real performance of the hotel – and whether or not the room key light switches were being overridden. We need to know what the business has achieved that makes them worthy of the certification and we need to know how they compare with others. Then when travelling to a water scarce region I could choose to stay in one of the hotels with the lowest water usage per bed night or the one with the best employment conditions. Then certification would carry real meaning.
It would be even more amazing if the auditors could be held to account for their technical skills and their integrity.
In this year’s WTM Responsible Tourism Awards we’ll see examples of businesses and tourism organisations able to report transparently on what they are achieving against the SDGs. Encourage people to apply.