By Maria Wood
For eco-conscious travelers, staying in a hotel, signing up for a tour, or embarking to a destination that adheres to sustainable practices ranks as important as buying only organic kale. And a significant percentage of global wanderers now seek out green vacation spots: Of the 32,000 travelers Booking.com surveyed last year, more than half stated they would opt for a hotel or destination based on how socially and environmentally responsible it is.
But how can they be sure they’ve booked into an environmentally friendly property? Merely asking guests to use towels for more than one night may not impress this new band of eco-travelers. In addition to the environment, they want to know how the property or destination impacts its surrounding community.
Fortunately, implored by a public increasingly demanding green hotels, a plethora of organizations have sprouted up to anoint hotels, tour operators, and destinations as sustainable in their environmental practices. Unfortunately, travelers may need to hike through claims of sustainability to discover those properties that are truly environmentally and socially responsible — and those that make unsubstantiated assertions of being green.
It requires a bit of digging on the part of travelers, but a good place to start is to find out whether the hotel, tour operation, and destination has been certified by an independent third-party that inspects and verifies a travel product as green.
Look for the certification label
One such group is Green Key Global, based in Ottawa, Canada, that has so far certified more than 1,800 hotels across the U.S., Canada and 25 countries. Besides the cost savings going green harvests for hotels, the properties reap the added benefit of being able to tout their sustainable practices to potential guests. “Hotels very much value the fact they have undergone the program, they’re certified and have been inspected by a third party,” Anthony Pollard, managing director of Green Key Global, says. “And they are able to use that as a marketing tool as they reach out to guests.”
Among the criteria Green Key Global bases its certification on are energy and water conservation; land use; community outreach; and indoor air quality. The group reviews several operational areas, such as food and beverage, housekeeping, engineering; and conference and meeting facilities.
Overseeing certification bodies like Green Key Global is the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). Established in 2007 by three United Nations agencies — the UN Environmental Programme, the UN Foundation, and the UN World Tourism Organization — as well as the Rainforest Alliance, GSTC serves as the umbrella accreditation organization that verifies whether the certifying agency’s criteria match up with its standards, Randy Durband, GSTC’s CEO, explains.
GSTC has three levels of accreditation: Recognized, meaning the certifying agency incorporates all of GSTC’s 41 standards. The next two — approved and accredited — require a more technical review of how those certifying bodies apply those standards in their certification process. Before a hotel or destination moves to approval, it must first be recognized.
Currently, 25 certification bodies hold recognized status; another three, approved. Among the recent additions to the recognized list are Green Key Global’s Eco-Rating Program and Hostelling International, a network of 4,000 hostels in 84 countries.
What a certification stamp from an independent, neutral third-party provides is assurance the hotel or destination is truly green, and not merely listing sustainable features on its website that may or not be verified.
OTAs start to go green
Several online travel agencies (OTAs) have waded into green waters. Not as much as GSTC would like but it’s a start, Durband says. Much of the green booking sites are what Durband terms “niche operators.”
One such site is BookDifferent.com, which features a section on eco-labeled hotels, meaning those hotels that have been certified by an organization like Green Key Global or Fair Trade Tourism. Glooby.com also enables travelers to browse eco-flagged hotels as well as fuel-efficient flights.
For the U.S. and Europe, TripAdvisor’s GreenLeaders lists hotels with green attributes, which a potential guest may mistake as being properly certified, Durband cautions. “We fear they don’t adequately inform the traveler that those are unsubstantiated claims,” he says. “That’s what certification is about — to substantiate one’s claim.”
Public awareness is key, Durband says. Travelers must be educated to seek out certified hotels, tours and destinations. “We look forward to the day when either those niche operators get big or the big online travel agencies add certified properties to their search results,” he says.
Travelers can also review what major hotel chains practice in terms of sustainability. Many of the large brand companies, such as InterContinental Hotels Group (which counts Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza among its franchises) and Accor, franchiser of Novotel, have instituted green policies. Hotels within their brands are required to report on their sustainability efforts and are encouraged to obtain certification, Durband notes.
When hunting for a green hotel, travelers may come across the term LEED certification. Overseen by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) certification verifies the materials used in construction and the energy systems installed in the building produce minimal impact on the environment. LEED has four certification levels: certified, silver, good, and the highest, platinum. The USGBC notes LEED-certified hotels are spread across 41 states in the U.S. and 31 countries. Two hotels in the U.S. have attained LEED platinum states — the Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, North Carolina and the Bardessono in Yountville, California.
Accordingly, LEED focuses mainly on the physical plant, which, of course, is a good thing. Any eco-conscious traveler should definitely search for the LEED certification label. Certifying organizations such as Green Key Global add another layer of verification. Such groups review the ongoing operations of the building and whether those actions are sustainable or not. So even if a building isn’t LEED certified, it could be considered green if staff manages the building’s systems in a continuously sustainable and environmentally sensitive manner.
A worthy, although costly, undertaking, LEED applies more appropriately to newly constructed buildings, Pollard contends. An older, existing property would probably need to tear down walls and rebuild to obtain LEED certification, he says. Yet an existing hotel can become green by following sustainability principles and becoming certified.
For instance, LEED certification doesn’t address recycling, Durband points out. “LEED covers the building, how green is it, how good is the insulation, how sustainable is the built-in energy source system — purely physical stuff. It doesn’t speak to [the sustainable] process.”
More than environmental
When thinking about sustainability, most travelers probably focus on the environmental aspects, such as tech systems that lower the temperature in an empty room, whether the hotel recycles, and how efficient are its energy and water systems. GSTC’s standards cover those elements, but go further in assessing the property’s impact on the local community, including social responsibility, culture and community, and management structure.
More specifically, GSTC reviews whether a property or destination follows fair labor practices that allow for local residents in developing countries to ascend to good paying jobs in management. “We don’t think it’s sustainable for the community if the local people only get the low paying service jobs and have no hope to become managers,” Durband says.
Durband further reminds travelers to consider the transport portion of their trip. Air and ground travel rank as leading causes of carbon emissions. So it may be better for the environment to take fewer trips for longer durations versus frequent short excursions, Durband says. “In terms of doing less harm, look at your carbon emission footprint.”
A journalist and writer for over 20 years, Maria Wood has reported on such diverse topics as the nursing profession, commercial real estate, and local politics in her home state of New Jersey. In the business realm, she has written extensively about the lodging industry, annuities, financial/retirement planning, and marketing.
She served as the editor of Real Estate New Jersey, a magazine focused on the commercial real estate industry in New Jersey, as well as the managing editor of Retirement Advisor, a publication for financial planners. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching baseball and jogging. She is on LinkedIn and can be followed on Twitter.