Avoiding greenwashing

Responsible Tourism recognises, encourages and celebrates diversity. The Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism in Destinations recognised that ‘the transparent and auditable reporting of progress towards achieving responsible tourism targets and benchmarking is essential to the integrity and credibility of our work, to the ability of all stakeholders to assess progress and to enable consumers to exercise effective choice.’ Ten years on Responsible Tourism is increasingly being used as green wash, as Fiona Jeffery, Chair of World Travel Market, pointed out in November 2012 increasing numbers of people are using the language, but they are not all being responsible.|

‘Every year, more people jump aboard the responsible tourism ‘wagon’, but the challenge for the industry is to ensure that those companies and destinations who claim to be responsible – are just that. … As an industry, we need honest, transparent information about what they’re doing and what they’ve achieved – and so do customers.’

It is clear that if progress is to be made it is necessary to know what works and what doesn’t and we need to be able to reliably ascertain how much progress is being made. Businesses want to know how well they and their staff are doing in delivering against the company’s targets, to be able to report to the board and to their shareholders; and to be able to reward those staff delivering on their sustainability targets. Businesses also want to know how well other businesses are doing, in part to benchmark their own performance, but also to inform their purchasing decisions in their supply chain. Consumers may want to know how well a particular business is doing to inform their purchasing decisions. Councillors, local government officers, national park managers and donors want to know what progress has been made in reducing carbon pollution, water consumption, the reduction and management of waste, increasing local procurement and managing congestion – amongst a host of other things, at least to determine whether or not to fund such initiatives.

These different stakeholder groups are likely to want different information; although they will all want it to be reliable. There are broadly two complementary or competing responses to the need to monitor and report progress: certification and sustainability reporting, although as we shall see these approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Certification has been championed internationally by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, they have developed criteria which are the ‘guiding principles and minimum requirements that any tourism business or destination should aspire to reach in order to protect and sustain the world’s natural and cultural resources’ ; although the minimum requirements are not clear. The GSTC has had significant funding, for the two calendar years 2009-2010 its income was USD 986,000 and it spent USD 823,000 , USD 591,000 on management, the website, marketing and PR and travel expenses. This level of funding is unlikely to be sustained and the profile of the GSTC is therefore likely to be lower in future. One of the world’s most successful tourism certification programmes, Green Tourism Business Scheme, is not a member of the GSTC. The GTBS has 2,352 members and is planning to begin to report on the success of its work with individual businesses in reducing negative environmental impacts by providing some of the metrics on for example, water, energy, waste and local sourcing. Travelife is an international certification scheme developed by the industry and with the advantages of being used by the operators to inform purchasing and recognised and promoted to consumers through the tour operators. It now has 700+ hotels engaged, 450+ having achieved an award.

Certification has been influential in some industries in driving sustainability, particularly where there are clear deliverables, for example Blue Flag beaches, or strong consumer resonance, as there is with fair trade labelling. Kuoni has applied the principles of fair trade labelling to holidays in South Africa. Tourism presents some particular challenges. First, a holiday is a complex product and it is a service industry, when I buy a fair trade coffee on the high street it is only the beans which are certified, not the coffee shop or the transport. Second, tourism takes place in diverse destinations in many different natural and cultural environments; the issues which arise vary considerably from one destination to another. Unlike coffee, timber or chocolate tourism is not a commodity. Third, tourism is consumed at the point of production in the destination; the consumers themselves have a significant impact on the sustainability of the activity depending on what they do and how they behave in the destination. In these significant ways tourism differs from other certified products.

There are a number of criticisms of certification as applied to tourism

• The sustainability issues which matter vary from place to place, reflecting the diversity of the world geographically and culturally, and different issues have prominence in different consuming cultures. Most of the sustainability impacts of tourism are local, only carbon pollution has a global impact; even water is not an issue everywhere. As we have seen South Africa has defined its own Responsible Tourism Standard and Brazil has a Sustainable Tourism Standard.

• The range of criteria which can be applied in assessing the sustainability of tourism is large. The challenge is to determine which criteria are most important in a particular places, they are not all equally important everywhere. With a large number of criteria it may be possible for a business to do a good many things and be graded highly, without addressing the most important local sustainability issues. There is also an issue about who defines locally significant issues, should it be the industry, NGOs or local government on behalf of communities?

• Certification is generally opaque because the consumer does not know what the business is doing to address any particular issue or what the level of achievement is on water conservation, water re-use, animal welfare or local sourcing. The guest experience cannot be enhanced by certification in the same way that eating a New Forest breakfast, enhances the holiday experience, creates a memory and a reason to return or encourage a friend to stay there.

• Anything which is advertised by the business, any sustainability claim which encourages someone to visit a particular business forms part of the contract and can be enforced, the client can seek compensation if the claim is false or the expected service is not delivered. The purchaser has no contract with the certifier and no remedy can be sought if a business does not live up to the way it is presented by the certifier. Certifiers are not liable to the consumer for the claims they make, the claims are in any case unclear.|

• This gives rise to a second difficulty with certification. Given that neither the end consumer nor the purchasing business has any means of seeking recompense for a wrongly certified business what mechanism is available to ensure that the certifier does not bend or break the rules? The GTBS only allow employed staff to certify, most other schemes use self-employed sub-contractors to certify and charge for the training they provide. It is not clear to the purchaser how robust the processes used by the certifying agency are to check the work of these independent certifiers. Third party certification is favoured by those who may secure the work, but it leaves open the question of how the work of those certifiers is supervised and how standards are enforced. Some third party certification processes are overseen by professional bodies, with disciplinary processes in place, where the loss of membership is itself a significant penalty and one which secures compliance with professional standards most of the time. There are, as yet, no such professional licensing schemes in place for tourism certifiers.

• Concern is sometimes expressed about the churn, the number of businesses which do not remain with the schemes, initial membership has often been subsidised. Businesses essentially get two related but very distinct benefits from the certification schemes: environmental management advice and marketing based on the certification. The quality of both services varies from one scheme to another. The businesses receive advice about how to reduce the negative environmental impacts of their activities and to reduce costs, and about how they might improve their economic and social impacts. Certification and grading is often claimed to have marketing value. At renewal those businesses which have found market advantage are more likely to renew, those who have received good advice may have a programme of change which is on-going and for which they need no more advice. They are likely to leave the scheme creating the churn; the churn may not be a bad thing as it may represent no more than a judgment on the marketing value of the label. Those businesses which leave may well continue to implement the advice provided by the certification scheme, having not need of further advice until the first programme of work has been completed.

The certification process is distinct for the sustainability management advice. There are two elements to certification – the selection of issues which are monitored and the integrity of the grading or reporting. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) , the International Standards Organisation (ISO) and other international and national bodies are developing processes which more or less robustly enforce professional standards on the certifiers and the way that the grading procedures are applied. Some certifiers will be members of professional bodies able effectively to police the standards and performance of their members, but few of those engaged in certifying tourism businesses are supervised in this way. Some schemes use employed staff whose work is supervised; others carefully assess the certifiers’ written reports and oversee the decision on grading. However there is a wide range of practice in the supervision and quality control of the work undertaken by certifiers, in my view too much variation to permit one scheme safely to recognise the certificates issued by another.
Reporting is more transparent in that the consumer is able to see what the business claims to be doing on particular issues, judge for themselves how much progress they are making and compare one business with another on those issues which particularly matter to the purchaser.

These claims are the responsibility of the business which reports its approach to sustainability and its achievements, the purchaser can potentially demand recompense if false claims are made. Sustainability reporting is becoming increasingly common with businesses being required to report on carbon emissions, consumers are becoming increasingly familiar with energy labelling. The Global Reporting Initiative, the Carbon Disclosure Project and international standards like ISO 14001 are establishing reporting standards which offer an addition or alternative to certification, and they are pressing for external assurance and/or verification to increase the reliability of the data. There is no incompatibility between the two approaches, companies like TUI use certification, GRI based reporting and ISO 14001. It may be that as with GTBS the next stage is for certification to go beyond grading and add verified reporting of progress towards particular sustainability targets.

Because tourists travel to the destination to consume the product the impacts of the consumers need to be managed, sustainable tourism cannot at the destination level be reduced to the certification of businesses. At the destination level the council will want to manage congestion, parking and litter, as will the national park manager. Both will also want in a water scarce area to reduce water consumption; and waste and carbon emissions at the destination level. Those who provide certification schemes are likely to come under increasing pressure from donors and policy makers to report the impact of their work on water and energy consumption per bed night or local sourcing rather than the number of businesses being graded. Responsible Tourism Reporting is building on the success which the Responsible Tourism Awards have been having in securing date from those in the running for an award, large and small businesses are now demonstrating that they are able to collect and report data on their impacts and verification systems are being developed.

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Harold Goodwin