Are Sustainability Certifications Worth It?

Thinking about getting your sustainable operation certified? Here are the key questions to ask yourself.

by | May 30, 2019

You’ve likely heard that travelers, especially millennial-aged and younger Generation Z travelers, are increasingly motivated by brands that promote sustainable tourism.

While research regarding environmental travel often yields conflicting results (some travelers say they care about sustainability but just end up booking the cheapest option), Randy Durband, CEO of Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), an organization that creates and manages a global baseline sustainability criteria for the travel industry, says most travelers do care about environmentalism when they arrive in a destination.

Whether they be inspired by the natural beauty of a place, or experience poor air quality, overdevelopment, animal or human suffering or plastic garbage clogging scenic tourist attractions, most travelers do not want to be associated with the degradation of local ecosystems and communities.

There is a clear business opportunity for tour operators to please travelers who care about sustainability a little—and to earn new customers from the passionate travelers who care about sustainability a lot.

Sustainability certifications are one way to communicate your sustainable practices and values. But, as with anything else, it is an investment of time and money. So are they worth it? Arival talked with sustainability experts across the travel industry to help you understand the important questions to consider.

1. Is greenwashing prevalent in the region where you work?

Unfortunately, many popular tourist destinations lay victim to greenwashing, a term for deceptive marketing used to promote a business’s products as responsible when in reality, they aren’t. “Greenwashing is extensive in travel and tourism. Most of it by exaggeration, much of it by boasting about doing one or two things right but ignoring others and some by blatant obfuscation,” says Durband. “Certifications are not the only way, but they are the most reliable way to prevent it.”

GSTC’s Criteria, specifically designed for tour operators, serve as the minimum operators should aspire to reach, such as regularly reporting sustainability performance, favoring recyclable and reusable materials and minimizing energy use. Much of the criteria is also centered on adhering to local laws and regional tourism guidelines, like leaving nationally protected endangered animals in the wild and complying with land and water rights.

Certifications can help prove your company’s sustainable practices, and offer assurance to wary customers that you are doing what you say you do.

2. Do you need sustainability guidance?

Certifications can also serve as internal roadmaps or guidelines for tour operators to understand where they’re currently at in terms of sustainability and responsibility, and how they can improve.

Liz Manning, responsible business manager for the Intrepid Group, says getting certified by the internationally recognized B Corporation, a responsible business certification organization, made sense. The Intrepid Group had already been carbon neutral since 2010 by offsetting carbon emissions through the purchase of carbon credits, which involves investing in wind farms, biomass energy, reforestation initiatives and more. But B Corporation (often referred to as B Corp) has enabled Manning to have a more comprehensive look into Intrepid’s sustainable operations.

B Corp focuses on assessing and certifying the companies behind the products for their transparency, accountability and the benefit they deliver to their workers, communities, customers and the environment,” she says. “We committed to B Corp because we fundamentally believe that business can be a force for good and we wanted to be part of the global push to consider the impact of business activity on all stakeholders of a business—not just the shareholders.”

Monitoring operations is a vital component of B Corp standards, and Intrepid Group adheres by publishing their findings in an annual report. Manning says it’s important for this report to be public for all to see. It demonstrates to their employees, their customers and their partners that Intrepid walks the environmental talk.

3. Do you partner with DMCs or other tour operators?

Although consumer travel publications such as Condé Nast Traveler have encouraged readers to seek out GSTC members, Durband notes that generally, consumers don’t recognize certification seals as an indicator of a sustainable operation—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider employing them in your operation.

The real opportunity in standards like GSTC, says Durband, could be on the B2B side of the travel business. Increasingly, travel trade partners and resellers such as global tour operators and destination management companies (DMCs) give preference to local tour and activity operators that meet sustainability standards. Certifications offer reseller partners the verification that their practices are truly sustainable.

Having a sustainability certification from Travelife—a standard that integrates criteria from seven global sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) guidelines including the criteria from GSTC, is one of the reasons tour operators choose to work with DMC Khiri Travel, which works across eight countries including Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. “There are many other factors, of course, but the certification helps us to prove that we really are sustainable. Travelife involves a strict and lengthy process,” says Herman Hoven, CEO of Khiri Travel. “It gives us recognition to other tour operators and their clients who think sustainability is important.”

Hoven adds that the Travelife certification provides a sustainability framework for Khiri Travel on how to run a business according to tried and true environmental and socially responsible standards. This helps the DMC evolve, grow and improve. “We have operating guidelines for environmental and social issues, how to respect our staff, how to interact with regional cultures, how we interact with the destination we work in and more,” says Hoven. “It’s the way everyone should be doing business going forward in the future.”

4. Are you a small tour operator who works very locally?

If you work in just one town, city or county, perhaps there’s another way to tell your sustainability story without getting certified.

Miranda Peterson, owner of the Asheville, North Carolina-based Namaste in Nature, which leads travelers on hikes to take outdoor-based yoga classes, decided not to pursue a sustainability certification.

She did look into it. But as a small business, the certification seemed too pricey to have a significant return on investment. “I think certification can be a good idea for bigger businesses or for those who have a larger global presence, but for small, locally based businesses it is expensive,” says Peterson. “I don’t think it would affect my bookings in a meaningful way.”

That said, environmental conservation is extremely important to her and her operation. So Peterson chooses to highlight her sustainable actions by getting involved in issues that are significant to her customers and to her community. Namaste in Nature tours are conducted, well, in nature. So Peterson donates a portion of sales to the reforestation organization One Tree Planted, which helps communities around the world plant trees for one dollar per plant. The idea, according to the nonprofit, is to sequester greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to help slow climate change.

Additionally, Peterson and her team are quick to volunteer on local trail building projects in recreation areas, such as the 10,000-acre Dupont Forest, where they host their tours.

“I really want sustainable travel certifications to be successful because they get companies involved at a higher level. But companies can promote and show the proof of their sustainable initiatives through storytelling, collaborating with local nonprofit organizations and sharing these stories with your guests and on social media, too,” says Peterson. “Sustainability starts at a grassroots level. People are more inclined to support initiatives that impact them personally.”

So, is it worth it to get certified?

Well, it’s complicated. And it depends.

Chances are that most travelers aren’t going to seek out businesses specifically because they feature a sustainability certification on their website. And it probably won’t help increase your bookings in the short term. But certifications do provide transparency into your business operations, which is essential in a world where poor practices are easily unearthed.

For instance, partly in response to a scathing 2017 article published in National Geographic investigating animal abuse in wildlife tourism, the social media platform Instagram unveiled a feature that alerts users of potential animal exploitation when searching for hashtags such as #slothselfie, #elephantride and hundreds more. Is your operation geotagged in a post after such a warning? Did one of National Geographic’s 6.5 million monthly readers (many of whom likely enjoy traveling) decide not to visit your area due to bad press? Are you unknowingly missing out on business?

These are important questions, and it behooves tour operators to take an honest look at the impact their practices have on the environment and make incremental improvements—even if it’s as small as withholding plastic straws from the beverages you offer customers.

“Increased transparency leads to better decision-making, which helps build and maintain trust in businesses and governments,” says the Intrepid Group’s Liz Manning. “Ignoring sustainability, environmental health and safety, climate change risks and stakeholder concerns around these issues is no longer an option.”

Interested in learning more about the ins and outs of sustainable travel? Join us at Arival in Bangkok, Thailand 24-26 June 2019 to hear from three socially-driven businesses talking about the essentials of responsible tourism. 

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