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STEP Into Sustainability

There is no shortage of criticism and debate surrounding the issue of tourism certification and the recent launch of the

Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC) and impending global accreditation. The idea of a globally recognized set of criteria to help regulate certification in the tourism industry has ruffled the feathers of many—supporters and opponents alike. We want to take a moment to consider a few of the main arguments in the debate, and then debunk some of the myths.

Accreditation and Criteria, in a Nutshell
The GSTC, among other things, through considerable and transparent public input, has helped to determine minimum components of what it is to be “green”. It is a starting point from which the travel and tourism industry can work toward sustainability. Standards used in sustainable tourism certification are being developed from this baseline, in many cases in a transparent and inclusive process. Furthermore, the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council (the STSC is the proposed accreditation body, the GSTC is the baseline criteria) is an impending initiative whose primary purpose is to ensure that certifiers are accredited to certify travel and tourism businesses—an important piece because in many cases, certifiers are not verifying criteria on-site or thoroughly checking documentation. With a globally recognized set of criteria establishing a baseline and an independent third party helping to guide the process, certification should become more comprehensive, measurable, consistent, and effective, with greater emphasis on accountability.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All
A common argument against a global standard is that it is a one-size-fits-all approach that can’t possibly suit the unique needs of a given destination, culture, or region. More specifically, the GSTC is being called a “top down approach”—a generic tick-list of criteria that won’t have local relevance in every destination. The individual needs, issues, and complexities of each destination cannot be downplayed and it is important to recognize that sustainable tourism certification programs actually work at the grassroots level—from the ground up, and issues specific to and relevant for the destination are addressed. A set of global criteria will not change this, but will put minimum standards in place to better guide the process, which can be tailored to local circumstances and needs. STI’s Sustainable Tourism Eco-certification Program™ (STEP), for example, was developed with input from more than 500 organizations of all sizes and geographies. So while it incorporates the global baseline criteria, it also provides locally relevant criteria, taking into consideration regional social, cultural, environmental and economic attributes.

Certify What Can Be Controlled
An argument against certification arises from the ‘human factor’—that a business cannot be truly sustainable and therefore certified as such, since it cannot be guaranteed that visitors’ actions will be kept in check. While this is a valid point, it is important to note that certification programs only certify what businesses can control: their own operations, supply chain management, staff and guide training. In fact, an informed management team, staff and guests lead by example and influence the ‘wayward’ tourists to tread lightly as well. Many certification programs emphasize the importance of educating and raising awareness among guests, employees, and subcontractors, which in turn has measurable environmental, cultural and economic benefits at the local level.

Not Just Another Logo
Another argument in opposition to a global standard is that it would oversimplify the impacts of tourism; the use of logos or eco-labels to indicate levels of sustainability would undermine the complexity of tourism and its associated variables. Worse, they say, the consumer would be lulled into submission upon seeing the logo and stop thinking and questioning. The truth is that a recognizable and trusted logos and eco-labels representing quality and third-party verification would assure customers that the business is complying with a standard agreed upon by regional or global stakeholders. At a minimum, this appeases fears of greenwashing, and ideally will empower the guest to become more involved. The certified hotel or tourism provider publically shares with the travel market that they have a vested interest in sustainability, and by adhering to the region, national, or international sustainable tourism criteria, they can be held accountable—both by auditors and the customer. The so-called ‘rebellious tourist’ can still in fact question the behaviors of the business, perhaps even more so. These savvy guests will know better what to look for if they have a publicly recognized set of standards to guide them.

Selling Sustainability
Some opponents claim that global certification programs will be mistakenly perceived solely as a marketing opportunity and create a market-driven incentive—that by having complied with criteria and displaying a logo, you are guaranteed increased sales and bookings. Given the growing demand for certification, and more specifically, third-party verified programs, this is certainly possible. Most sustainable tourism certification programs currently aren’t in the business of marketing, but they should be. The industry, travelers, and the destination would benefit from more attention on the importance of greening operations and responsible tourism development. If anything, compliance with a credible certification standard will become a way to market and differentiate your business from others that claim to be green —but the catch would be that with accreditation in place, accountability would ensure that the work is being done, and that the certification is not just a marketing scheme.

To Be Certified or Not to Be…That is the Question
Finally, there is the argument that there is no evidence that certification delivers, and that it is a lot of money and effort for little to no return on investment. What’s worse, some say that the consumer doesn’t even really know what the business has achieved to become certified. To this end, it is crucial to note an example of a program that debunks these myths; STI’s STEP program is an education, measurement and management tool, which is affordable (the tool itself is priced at US$150) and incorporates a process that is process and performance based. It is designed to help businesses define what needs to be done, guides them in doing it, and provides them with the information they need to measure and track their progress.

In the Waste Management segment of the STEP program, for example, data on current waste levels is reported initially, a policy is put in place to better manage the waste, and steps are taken to reduce and eliminate waste. Because quantifiable data is tracked and reported along the way, progress in working toward a zero-waste program can be visibly noted. On-site auditors oversee the process and ensure compliance. This data serves as evidence to both the business and the customer of progress made toward sustainability; testimonials provide support and links to STI’s website provide insights into the nature and requirements of the program. It’s important to reiterate that the intent behind STEP is to educate applicants about sustainability and help them implement sustainability frameworks to measure and manage their impacts.

Regarding voluntary global standards and their return on investment, they have absolutely proven themselves in many industries, from forestry to fisheries to organic and natural food. For proof we encourage you to read Michael Conroy’s: Branded! How the ‘Certification Revolution’ is Transforming Global Corporations.

The Bottom Line
Again, a global baseline standard is a starting point, meant to guide the process of regional, national and international sustainable tourism certification standards and help find common language in defining what green means in the tourism industry. And global accreditation is meant to ensure that certification program providers are adhering to standards themselves. Having globally-recognized criteria in place will not undermine the complexity of destinations’ unique needs and issues—if anything, increased accountability will place greater emphasis on the importance of preserving these places for what they are, and ensure the success and livelihood of future generations.

To learn more about eco-certification and our newly launched Luxury Eco-Certification Standards (LECS), please visit

This article is quoted from the Responsible Travel Report The Sustainable Tourism e-Newsletter Vol. 7 No. 7, July 2009 from STI.

This article is uploaded by Majbritt Thomsen, administrator on ‘Views On Tourism’.

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Posted in Best practice, Development, Education and qualification, Performance and management, Sustainability.

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