The verdict is in: sustainable travel continues to be a major trend for 2020. Overall, this is great news, but it also means businesses in the hospitality and tourism sector will be more incentivized than ever to take part in “greenwashing” — conveying a superficial commitment to eco-conscious products and services in order to capitalize on growing consumer interest in sustainable travel. The term greenwashing actually originated in the hospitality industry in the 1960s, when hotels began asking guests to reuse towels to “save the planet,”  a request more likely motivated by the benefit of lower laundry costs than a true concern for responsible water usage. 

Luckily, as more and more travelers  seek hotels whose practices align with their own sustainable ethics, new, more stringent standards and certifications are emerging to help travelers distinguish the good from the bad. As you begin planning your trips for the coming year, keep an eye out for these signs and certifications that demonstrate a genuine commitment to ethical and sustainable hospitality.

sustainability in tourism
Photo by Andrea Gucklhorn.

Certified B Corp

You may recognize the B Corp Certified distinction, the standard-bearer for ethical business practices that is starting to catch on in the travel industry with hospitality businesses like international tour operator, Intrepid Travel, United States-based Legacy Vacation Resorts, and alpine ski resort Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico earning its marks. 

And B Corp isn’t something a hotel or resort just writes a check to receive. “In general, it can take anywhere between four months and several years to achieve,” says Mark Frieden, Sr. Account Director for KindTraveler.com, a hotel booking platform that connects travelers to more eco-conscious hotels and facilitates charitable donations with each booking.

In addition to his role helping KindTraveler expand its network of hotels, Frieden serves as a B Corp certification consultant by guiding companies through the B Impact Assessment, which has 200 questions relating to a company’s governance, workers, community, environment and customers. KindTraveler hopes to achieve its own B Corp Certification in 2020.

Green Building Certification Projects

Another leader in certification and credentialing for green businesses is Green Building Certification Inc. (GBCI). Created to recognize the people and businesses working to build a more sustainable future, GBCI has created multiple certification programs to acknowledge the work of environmentally-friendly hotels and resorts, the most recognizable of which is likely its LEED Certification program for environmentally sound building design and construction. 

Yet GBCI continues to introduce new programs that break new ground in standardizing sustainable business. For instance, in 2019 GBCI awarded Chumash Casino and Resort its TRUE (Total Resource Use and Efficiency) Zero Waste certification, which calculates how waste is diverted from landfill, incineration and the environment to help drive a circular, closed-loop economy. Certified businesses must achieve more than 90% waste diversion. The Hyatt Regency in Maui and select Disney properties account for two big names in hospitality currently pursuing TRUE Zero Waste Certification, according to Sonja Trierweiler, Director of Digital Marketing for the U.S. Green Building Council.

sustainability in tourism
Photo by Andrea Gucklhorn.

“TRUE Zero Waste certification has proven to be successful for the hospitality industry as evidenced by the certification of the annual Greenbuild Conference,” says Trierweiler. “[The conference] showcases how very large hotels and convention centers can facilitate eco-conscious events and meetings.”

GBCI also administers the WELL Building Standard, the first standard to focus on how a building impacts the health and well-being of its occupants. Certification takes into account things like air and water purity, the nutritional value of food and beverage offerings, opportunities for fitness and more. This year The Inn at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, CA, earned WELL Certification at the highest level, Platinum, making it the first WELL-Certified building and hotel in the world. Other WELL Building projects in the works include the Keihan Kyoto Hotel in Japan and the Zem Wellness Retreat Altea in Spain.

Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)

In 2008, businessman Ted Turner, also a philanthropist and the man responsible for bringing us Captain Planet, worked with the United Nations to develop a standardized criteria for sustainable tourism, the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria. The GSTC Criteria was one of the first globally-recognized green business standards specific to the hospitality industry. 

These standards were developed in tandem with and informed by efforts at Turner’s own enterprises, Ted Turner Reserves, a collection of luxury wilderness retreats spread over more than one million acres of majestic New Mexico landscapes. The eco-conscious resorts help to fund a number of groundbreaking conservation projects for the Turner Endangered Species Fund. 

The GSTC Criteria are organized around themes including effective sustainability planning, maximizing social and economic benefits for the local community, enhancing cultural heritage and reducing negative impacts to the environment.

What if there is no certification?

While having a third-party verified certification is certainly helpful, getting one can be cost-prohibitive to many small hospitality businesses that are nevertheless setting an example in sustainable travel. Similarly, some hotels may still be in the process of achieving certification, or are simply prioritizing their time and resources elsewhere. In absence of an eco-friendly “stamp of approval,” here are a few other clues I often look for to determine whether a hotel really does have an environmentally sustainable business:

The hotel’s position on sustainability is easily recognizable

If a hotel is willing to link to information on its sustainability initiatives from its homepage, that’s a reliable indicator of their priorities.  For instance, you’ll find sustainability listed second on COMO Hotels & Resorts’ “About” index, where it showcases how the hotels seek to act as “custodians, rather than managers, of each destination.” Sustainability is right at the top of Six Senses’ home page, with the site offering plenty of details as to how each Six Senses’ property works to the benefit of its environment—including how funds from each property are used to support local social or environmental projects, also known as “Impact Tourism.” 

mountains
Photo by Keghan Crossland.

Speaking of impact tourism, these guys do it right  

Impact tourism is a term that pretty much encompasses any time tourism plays a direct role in positively impacting the local environment, including local communities and indigenous ecosystems. The role of Ted Turner Reserves in supporting the Turner Endangered Species Fund is a great example of this. Other examples include adventure tour outfitters Natural Habitat Adventures’ integrated conservation partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, or the EcoStation at luxury resort The Brando, a hub where environmental scientists can lead research into sustainable interdependence and which is open to guest visits as part of the resort’s “Green Tour” offering. 

Which leads me to my last point, education

Hospitality companies that are passionate about creating a sustainable future will likely also be passionate about educating both internal (employees) and external (guests) stakeholders about this mission. For instance, The Palms Hotel in Miami Beach has a dedicated “green team” with staff representatives from the front and back of house. This team is responsible for continuously educating the hotel at large as to how it can improve its sustainability efforts, as well as to help educate guests about how to get involved in what they do, perhaps by joining one of their  quarterly beach cleanups.

As consumers, we have the power to affect change simply by choosing businesses that meet higher standards for sustainability. The new year is a great time to set an intention to choose better travel partners in 2020. By looking for these signs and certifications, we can all do our part to continue pushing the hospitality industry toward a more earth-friendly future.

How do you choose sustainable tours and accommodations?

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Bonnie Culbertson
Bonnie Culbertson is an Ohio-based freelance writer focused on sustainable and ethical travel. Through her blog, Earth Regarded Travel, Culbertson seeks to empower people to make more eco-friendly choices while traveling, and help them feel more hopeful about the state of our planet by connecting them to the people and places across the globe working to create positive change. She received her bachelor's in strategic communications from Miami University.