Over the past 20 years, the hospitality industry has experienced a continuous increase in various 'stamps of approval', especially at the sustainable front. A few large certification bodies with extensive criteria catalogues dominate the market but hoteliers and consumers alike are still struggling to differentiate the reputable and credible ones from the home-made seals of approval. A growing number of hotel chains and independent operators have opted for external, third-party certification in regards to their hygiene and sanitation standards in light of the current pandemic. Is there an increased interest in micro-certification? Why not look for a plastic-free certification? What about a carbon natural certification or a water-efficient certification? A plant-based restaurant certification? So micro certifications with low-barriers of entry for hoteliers who could build their sustainability endeavours along micro-certification, like pieces of a puzzle. Would micro-certification facilitate consumers' understanding of the meaning and intention of certification?
I see various certifications being complementary and serving different purposes. There are already multiple “micro-certifications”, related to the origin and qualities of products: FSC, FairTrade, MSC, Rainforest Alliance, Nordic Ecolabel, Energy Star, Gold Standard, or VCS for carbon offsetting, etc, etc. They are indeed better recognizable to sustainability-conscious customers when choosing a product.
On the other hand, we have the ISO-series of certifications related to the processes and procedures of various aspects of activity management, which might be already more confusing for a customer, as the customer buys a product, rather than management of a business. In the universe of sustainable hospitality certification, different certifications provide various systematic approaches to building a sustainable system, where the use of certified products forms part of recommendations or requirements. It could be rather a matter of choosing a methodological approach in the selection of a hotel sustainability certification, i.e. how a hotel would like to develop its sustainable management.
Sustainability needs to be viewed from a large Ecosystem perspective and as such, certifying only hospitality needs to expand to everything that pollutes the world. When addressing the sustainability agenda in a multidimensional manner and across the whole supply chain, the onus is not on what you inspect but on what you expect. The natural progression, I believe, would be governments to start developing future cities, where they will have to create ecosystems and scaffolding that would supply for all needs of the different stakeholders, including energy, food, transport, etc.
Transformative experiences appearing due to the co-caring and co-sharing trends for collaboration, hospitality, and entertainment, the co-living space will increasingly combine heritage and forward-looking to the future where large ecosystems will replace the individual small components. With the latest changes occurring in the post-Corona marketplace, legislations will also need to be adjusted as the argument goes beyond hospitality certification and extends across all the elements in a project: such as hospitals, retail, wellness centers, food outlets, farms, construction materials, etc. Unless certification becomes the new normal, and gets introduced and defined by the country's visionaries, everyone will keep on doing as they please. In addition to this come the cost element and the lack of infrastructure, which further lead me to doubt that certification would be the answer.
As the hospitality industry deals with the challenge of assuring a nervous public that it is safe to visit our hotels, restaurants, and attractions, there has been an explosion of “sanitation certifications” launched. While these certifications may have some limited value, I think it reasonable for travelers to remain skeptical.
Certifications, and more importantly, the certification process, has several benefits when done correctly. A good certification has a transparent set of criteria, broad stakeholder recognition, and, most importantly, has independent verification that the standards are met. Credible certifications do not rely on self-reporting. The benefits of certification go beyond just consumer recognition. The certification process is a tool for improving performance over the long term. The best certification programs encourage leveling up, meeting criteria of one level of certification, and then striving for the next.
As life – and business – becomes more complicated, there is growing desire to break down big challenges into smaller, more manageable parts. This is true in education, where traditional degrees – bachelor's or master's degrees are now competing with micro-credentials. The growth of micro-certifications is clearly driven by the same “what I need now…don't waste my time on things I am not interested in now” mentality. Committing to a master's degree, like committing to a traditional certification process, is a major undertaking. Even so, there are significant benefits from a more holistic approach.
In sustainable tourism, high- quality, comprehensive certifications such as those accredited by GSTC, are a major commitment for organization. They are long term commitment, require resources, and involve all parts of the organization. When I first started exploring sustainable tourism, I asked the most important thing in the sustainable tourism certification and was told by a revered leader in the field – “doing it all at the same time”. While I believe it is true, it creates a hurdle for companies wanting to ease into the process.
So, if the question “is whether we'll see micro-certifications or larger more comprehensive certifications in the future?” the answer must be “yes”. We can have the best of both approaches. The analogy to the way forward can be seen in the work we are doing at Purdue with higher education. At Purdue, we are building micro-credentials that contribute towards larger degrees. The micro-credential has benefit as a stand-alone course but can be combined with other courses to build up into a degree. Similarly, the use of micro-certifications as an “on-ramp” for companies eager to improve, but overwhelmed by the comprehensive programs, provides a great opportunity for certification organizations. The challenge – as always – is ensuring that these certifications and micro-certifications are transparent, recognized and verified.
COVID-19 is a reminder of how vulnerable the tourism industry is to disasters in general, not just pandemics. Disasters from major events like earthquakes and tropical cyclones, to smaller and more localized events such as landslides and fires, put tourism destinations and hotels at risk in every part of the world. The re-opening of hotels following COVID-19 has also highlighted the importance of 3rd party safety audits following hazardous events. Travelers want to know that a destination or hotel is safe before booking a trip. Yet, for COVID-19 alone there are dozens of labels and certifications for hotels to demonstrate a certain level of safety. The risk-averse traveler may question each of these certification labels: Is the label comprehensive? Is it based on proven science and best practice? Is it by an objective 3rd party?
Hoteliers have further questions regarding how COVID-19 certification labels are going to require a change in their business practices: Will they have to temporarily pause sustainability practices? Will they need to compromise on security? And this is just COVID-19. These issues are compounded with every new safety certification label, which risks contradicting the standards of another label. While having a specialized certification label can demonstrate to guests that a hotel is committed to safety in the face of COVID-19 or fire-safety or earthquakes etc., in practice, the standards behind each label often contradict one another. Fire-safety evacuation guidelines that do not take into account COVID-19 physical distancing requirements, will turn a false alarm into a big risk. Similarly, COVID-19 standards on identifying symptomatic guests that do not consider water quality as the potential cause (e.g., Legionella Bacterium with the same symptoms) can lead to unnecessary illness and even death. The alternative, as we strive for at Hotel Resilient, is to offer specialized safety standards and certifications that consider all hazards of a hotel and thereby complement one another.
The reason the sanitation certifications have been embraced by the hospitality industry is because they know consumer confidence needs to be high. Unfortunately, consumers still are not asking for the hospitality industry to be 'green'. So, most hotels, at least in the United States, are not seeking any kind of certification or rating.
Most sustainability 'certifications' are audited by the same organization that created the program. The term certification should only be used if an accredited third-party verified the data, otherwise the terms 'designation' or 'rating' should be used. I know of only one sustainability certification that truly has a third-party auditing company verifying the data, which is the Events Industry Council. They recently launched new standards after nearly two years of input from industry leaders. These standards are designed for meeting planners and their suppliers, such as destinations, venues, hotels, and others. The one drawback for these suppliers is the combined cost of the certification, and the sustainability consultant they may have to hire to guide them through the process.
Micro-certifications, such as plastic-free, carbon neutral and others, I believe, would assist consumers' understanding, because they are more specific than, say, a 'green lodging' designation. Micro-certifications could be a simpler process to begin with, and then build on that.
We can learn from how other sectors are grappling with this. After I read the question, I went to my pantry for a selection of items with various certifications - an average of 4 per product. Some labels I always look for (Certified Organic or Humane), others I try to find (B Corp), and others aren't necessary but serve as a trust-building bonus (labels related to allergens or a hodgepodge of ingredient specific ones). In my research on food startups with social and environmental missions, I heard the continual tension (based on budget/resources) between the label they wanted because it represented their ethos or origin story and those the consumer recognized and demanded. You can guess what won the day.
Does the mere presence of labels convey trust or do I, as a consumer, need to be familiar with each one? And, like food, are there a few most people recognize and seek out and the rest would only matter to those who care deeply about a particular aspect? Can one certification automatically convey others? In food, Certified Organic (USDA, at least) means it's automatically non-GMO (but note you'll often see BOTH on a package because of consumer expectations and price justification). Many 'big' certs really do/can cover the same criteria in the micro certs; it's a matter of interpretation, audit, and enforcement. More questions than answers but let's apply best practices from other industries as they show us how customers recognize, process, and act on the presence of certifications.
As legislation evolves, current certification schemes might be ineffective or become obsolete in upcoming months, especially in European countries. Further regulations for hotel building and operations have more chances to be a catalyst for change than some of the existing certification schemes. Alike with CSR, due to its voluntary and altruistic motivation, we can not expect an exponential impact. Thus, materialization, commitment, and integration into the core business activity are essential.
Current certifications offer is too wide and it can be challenging for hoteliers to spot the right one for every environmental and social challenge. Considering if they help to dig deeper into ESG issues (such as risk management or SCM) is fundamental before adding more certification schemes into the market. Micro certification could offer solutions to tackle specific issues as well as support to non-financial reporting. However, in terms of strategy and implementation in business areas that are transversal with interdependencies, it should be easy to implement with a holistic approach and systems-based. For reputational purposes, or consumer awareness, micro certification could bring clarity to consumers on business advancement in their sustainability journey, nonetheless, building trust does not only depend on one or multiple certifications.
In this regard, distribution platforms play a key role in consumer awareness and data management. The industry needs a shared vision where sustainability in hospitality is perceived as the normal practice, guide consumers to identify truly responsible hotel companies that are a force for good and proactively tackle environmental, social, and corporate governance challenges (e.g B corps).
Similar to many other sectors, the hospitality industry has access to a plethora of labels and certification schemes when it comes to environmental and sustainability matters. Arguably, the sheer number makes it difficult for consumers to sensibly differentiate between the labels and for hoteliers to wisely implement one over another. Micro certification, 'single attribute certification', or topic-specific certification has been around for decades already within the hospitality supply chain but is gaining in popularity in hotels' own range of services and operations. Networks of hotels have been created around specific sets of attributes such as the Bio Hotels in Europe or Certified Passive House hotels ('Passivhaus-Zertifikat').
So while the wheel is not being reinvented on the topic of certification; arguably the industry needs to move fast in this decisive decade and thus, micro certification may offer an opportunity for hotels to accelerate change. Whether all-encompassing certification scheme or micro certification, ultimately, a series of basic questions are critical to consider:
1. Who issues the certification?
2. Are the certification criteria accessible for review?
3. Are partner organizations (e.g. NGOs, governmental organization, and scientific bodies) involved?
4. Who checks the criteria compliance or the information provided by the hotels?
5. Is a system of continuous improvement part of the certification?
Beyond the obvious benefits certification offers on all sustainability pillars, the added value is in the booking decision. Therefore, distribution partners must help and emphasize that this basic information is made available at the booking stage if certification is to make a difference in booking decisions and ensure a greater commitment from hoteliers.
Yes, there is a role for micro-certifications companies who can prove to properly apply international protocols covering specific issues, which are at the top list of the hospitality industry and the international demand. Beyond that particular role, there is also an open space to be full-filled by these organizations adding value through close collaboration and advisory services, helping companies improve their performance in different aspects such as climate neutrality.
Micro-certifications are growing in number and outreach and so far, experience shows that there are here to stay.
I believe micro-certifications will increase guests' confusion concerning sustainability engagement of the hotels. The majority of the clients have already had difficulties to differentiate among the various labels they may see at the hotels. I trust if some credible national or international certifications are pre-selected and imposed by tourism/hospitality authorities, not only guests would trust more in these labels, but companies would also have an easier task which one to choose. To sum up, there are already far too many certifications in the market, so it is better to pick few that are credible and also recognizable by the clients.
Comprehensive Micro-Certifications can combine both main advantages of certifications: building trust and sending a clear message to consumers. Existing sustainability certifications often struggle with the latter. What is a “sustainable hotel”, consumers might rightfully ask.
The question remains, whether it needs external approval on the micro-level in an age of transparent consumer reviews and the ever-present fear of reputational losses. I think external validations and quality systems are important from a management and not a marketing perspective. Communication, on the other hand, should then mirror the management efforts to steadily become more sustainable. Trust can be achieved through a credible, public, multi-level communication strategy, regular reporting, and an open handling of shortcomings. A plant-based menu does not need external validation. Neither does an “x% plastic-free” promise. Hotels might be open about their energy sources, but they will need to back the information up (publicly). Companies might disclose their suppliers and include them in their social media communications. These efforts might pay-off more than “putting a stamp on it”.
Micro-certification - while certainly useful for hospitality businesses in that they could pick what they need and thus experience a lower entrance barrier to sustainability assessment - would complicate things as customers have no idea what kind of factors contribute to a specific badge or label. For instance, whether third party checks on actual performance, or whether a hospitality business simply fills an online form (self-declaration). It would make more sense to align one's commitment to sustainable business practices to the UN sustainable development goals. And where that's not feasible or possible, to adhere to established standards, i.e. those found to adhere to minimum standards by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
An alternative avenue (especially for small businesses with very limited time and funding for certification) would be to simply "do" things well and then to share such achievements and commitment by means of storytelling directly with the suppliers and clients. The Sustainability Leaders Project has examples and advice on how to communicate sustainability well.
Certification is complex, expensive and often criticized for not being good enough. This puts those, who want to prove that they are “doing good” in a dilemma. You might invest in something that makes your life more complicated without being honored by your customers. On the other hand, certificates are a straight-forward way to prove that you followed certain standards. In my opinion certificates are not enough for those who take sustainability seriously. However, going without organic-, fair-, climate-neutral-… certificates is no alternative. My advice: check which standards are convincing (=strict), widely accepted (=well-known), fit your business (= prove aspects that are important for you), and chose the few you cannot do without.
Sustainability is such a broad topic, that either you try to cover all aspects and accept to hardly scratch the surface, or you design a catalogue with hundreds of criteria that no management team will adopt, or you go for focused certifications (= micro certifications).
I believe in the latter, like The PLEDGE on Food Waste. It doesn't pretend to make your restaurant green, but certainly to make it more cost-effective, alongside other positive externalities of food waste reduction.
While co-desiging the PLEDGE, there were 3 aspects we wanted to ensure:
a) the business case must be clear
b) it has to be practical for operations
c) it should help structure and support the ecosystem of "green" solution providers.
This is where well established certification often fall short.