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Green traveling: How to navigate sustainability certifications?

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By Galit Palzur

· 7 min read

According to’s 2023 Sustainable Travel Report, a staggering 80% of the travelers surveyed confirmed that traveling more sustainably is essential to them. Having said that, the report also touches on the dilemma travelers encounter when balancing sustainability with increasing expenses, with 49% expressing concerns that more sustainable travel options are too costly. The report also asked travelers whether they trust that the options that label themselves as sustainable are genuinely sustainable. In this regard, 39% of travelers do not trust that the sustainable travel options labeled are more sustainable. Countless hotels and resorts showcase their sustainability efforts on their websites, including using eco-friendly products, recycling initiatives, and measures to conserve water and energy. While these practices are effective marketing strategies, genuine credibility often requires third-party validation. This underscores the necessity for established standards and verifiable practices to combat greenwashing within the accommodation industry.

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Accreditation: Unmasking greenwashing

Several prominent sustainability-related standards and certification programs exist in the tourism or accommodation sectors. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) established global baseline standards for sustainable travel and tourism, which are used to assess the sustainability of hotel and resort operations. Their criteria cover sustainability management, social and economic impacts, environmental impacts, and cultural heritage preservation. Several use practices today align their certification programs and standards to the GSTC requirements

One of the most widely recognized sustainability certification programs for the hospitality sector is the Green Globe Certification, which is used in over 90 countries and is aligned with the GSTC criteria. The program assesses hotels and resorts on over 40 criteria related to sustainability, including responsibility, waste management, and energy consumption. There is also ISO 21401, which provides requirements for sustainability management systems in accommodation establishments. Another widely recognized program is Green Key Global. This Canadian-based initiative grants an eco-label to hotels, lodging facilities, and leisure establishments meeting specific water conservation, waste management, and energy efficiency criteria.

The geographic scope and popularity of these programs vary. Some programs, like the GreenSign, have a more robust regional or national focus. In contrast, others, like Green Globe and GSTC-Recognized standards, are more globally applicable. The GreenSign certification is widely used in Europe to evaluate and document the ecological, social, and economic aspects of hotel operations and management by utilizing 100 requirements across eight core areas as the certification criteria. As the Oak Ridge National Laboratory explains, several of the field's practices were developed in North America. The LEED rating systems, established by the U.S. Green Building Council, offer impartial validation that buildings, including accommodations, were constructed with strategies focused on enhancing performance in crucial aspects of human and environmental well-being. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star for Hospitality initiative is a voluntary program in the hospitality sector to enhance energy management practices. The Green Seal Standard for Lodging Properties (GS-33) also focuses on the U.S. market and verifies hotels' environmental performance. 

Navigating certification dilemmas

All these are nice, but these standards are not enough. A few weeks ago, I was faced with this issue when trying to choose an accommodation in Dubai. I was thrilled to find out that there are many accommodations in Dubai labeled green, eco-friendly, and sustainable, and many of them have also obtained a verified eco-label, GSTC-aligned certification. I was left puzzled because the current practices in Dubai and elsewhere in the world need to allow travelers to compare accommodations according to their sustainable performance. The fact that there are so many standards or certification programs makes it difficult to compare accommodations that use different methodologies. 

How can one compare, for instance, 4 Green Keys according to the Green Key Global with the Gold Member status according to the Green Globe certification program? Each certification program has its own set of standards and requirements for evaluating the sustainability performance of accommodations, which varies in scope, focus areas, and scoring metrics. Suppose sustainability is an essential factor for travelers, as the survey suggests. In that case, the breakdown of the environmental, carbon, or sustainability footprint of accommodations is important, and being able to understand comparatively which hotel or property performs better than its peers needs to be developed. 

The Cornell Hotel Sustainability Benchmarking Index (CHSB) sounds promising in this regard, as it provides a standardized framework for evaluating and measuring hotel sustainability across over 25,000 properties tracked on greenhouse gas emissions and water and energy usage. The CHSB benchmarks hotels in different categories: carbon footprint per room, carbon footprint per occupied room, Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions per occupied room, energy usage per occupied room, energy usage per square meter, percentage of total energy from renewable sources, water usage per occupied room, water usage per square meter, waste generated per occupied room, and waste per square meter. Unfortunately, the CHSB data has not been developed to be widely utilized by the public; rather, it is used by governments, businesses, and organizations. It primarily allows hotels to compare their performance against other hotel properties. Nor has a third-party provider independently verified all the data to ensure accuracy. Travelers would benefit from a modified version of such an index, allowing comparison between sustainable accommodation options from a consumer point of view. 

Toward a consumer-oriented sustainability index

Going back to the current standards and certifications showcased by hotels to consumers, instead of providing a checklist covering various sustainable practices such as waste management, carbon footprint, energy, and water efficiency, etc., a single index score that combines all these factors would be more practical and beneficial for travelers. It would allow conscious travelers like me to evaluate lodging choices, especially in destinations where hotels adhere to varying standards or certification programs. When imaging how such an index would be created and what it would include, like some aspects of the CHSB, I suggest starting perhaps by averaging the critical performance indicators of the accommodation in the three years before the publication, where the measurement unit would be a value per person, per room, per night. The CHSB does not consider the difference between an occupied room and room occupancy. As a frequent solo traveler, I want to know my sustainability footprint, which differs from that of a room with two or three guests. 

Though tests on such a proposition should be conducted to check the potential of such a tool (I haven’t done so), it seems that this type of measurement unit would allow solo travelers, couples, and families to see how well a potential accommodation manages its sustainable practices in general according to their composition, in all the accommodation’s rooms, facilities, and operations while addressing how well they use their resources per person, per room, per night. Such an index would consider variations due to limited operations in low-peak seasons or accommodations, which are partially open or open only in certain months. Moreover, factoring in the past three years in the index would account for the typical seasonal and annual variations inherent in the travel industry, particularly in specific regions across the globe. Another possibility is to create different indices for different types of accommodations - comparing the sustainability score of a resort with that of an urban-situated hotel might be a problem, as each property's characteristics and purposes differ. 

Given the fact that disclosures like the ISSB, the European Commission's Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), and the SEC's climate rules require many corporations to disclose climate-related information and that several of these frameworks are becoming mandatory in many places around the world, corporations (especially those who own or manage hotel chains) should regardless know what their scope emissions and climate risks are. Therefore, the data needed for creating such an index - for those accommodations that honestly want a sustainable reputation - wouldn’t be a burden. It would burden small- to medium-sized, family-run hotels that cannot spread fixed costs or administrative, marketing, and branding costs among several assets. This is where national tourism ministries or local authorities should lend a helping hand (and open their wallets). Tourism ministries should know that in a world where travelers are environmentally conscious, the accommodations in their countries might miss out on potential visitors and tourism-related revenues because of the lack of public support. 

The path forward: Industry action

Nevertheless, it's evident that the industry recognizes the pressing need for these measures. The introduction of a consumer-oriented index, perhaps led by travel industry giants like Booking Holdings, Expedia Group, Inc., Airbnb, TripAdvisor, and others, is imminent. Such a collaborative effort would not only empower travelers to make more informed and sustainable choices but also signal a significant step forward in addressing the growing demand for transparency and accountability in the accommodation sector.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Galit Palzur is an economist and a board member at Forum Dvorah, the Israeli Energy Forum and Kessler Projects for the World. She specializes in risk management of natural disasters, sustainability and climate change, and climate finance. She was the Director of the Economics Division of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Chair of the Bureau of the OECD Working Party on Climate, Investment and Development. Galit also mentors cleantech startups.

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