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Certification makes greens see red

Posted by Catherine Mack at 01:15 on Wednesday 28 October 2009

How do you make a group of greenies see red? Ask them how they feel about certification. At The Travel Foundation's Forum meeting last week, entitled ‘Be seen to be green - Can certification work for you?’,  it felt very much as if, for most people working in the tourist industry, the answer was still clearly no, it can’t. Or at least, not yet. The good news for green travellers is, however, that we can make them work for us, just as long as we know which ones to look at, and how to find the businesses which have been awarded them. 


The Forum started on an inspiring note, led by Dr. Ruth Nussbaum, Director of Proforest and expert adviser to international forest management schemes on creating successful accreditation schemes. Her main tip to anyone wanting to create a green certification scheme for tourism was to work through each and every detail of a scheme with all the individuals who need and want to be involved, “even if this means going out to a remote rural area to talk to a farmer with a tiny piece of land, because he too must be meaningfully involved”. She continued, “There is a tendency to collect information from documents, but most frequently you only get the real information in the field. It may take years for you to reach a decision on what is the right certification for tourism, but it is worth the wait". 


It quickly became clear throughout the afternoon that Dr. Nussbaum’s advice was a thorny issue...


The tourism experts on the panel, including Chris Thompson of Travelife (a new certification scheme set up by the Federation of Tour Operators - see greentraveller's article on the launch of Travelife) and Justin Francis of responsibletravel.com, were adamant that tourism is different from other commodities such as trees, sugar, coffee or chocolate, as the supply chain is a lot more complex. It was claimed that certification schemes “cannot guarantee any tourism experience is sustainable…because the tourist is part of the impacts. If the tourist decides to get drunk and be offensive to local people or use masses of water for baths, this holiday is no longer sustainable”. Consumer feedback, it was suggested, helps provide information on whether a holiday is genuinely responsible. However, Tricia Barnett of Tourism Concernwas quick to take this last point to task saying, “A tourist cannot report back on the supply chain as it is often invisible. What can they know about water equity in a destination and local communities’ access to water?”


As a green traveller, I'd like to know that there have been experts out there in the field, looking at every green aspect of a business before deciding whether it is green or not. Certification can only help this process and, when writing about green tourism businesses in the past, I have found the resources of several international schemes to be of great use. When I visit an eco-accommodation to write about it, truly green owners will always talk happily about their geothermally heated pool, reed bed filtration system, food hampers from local farm shops, local cycling routes, or solar powered saunas. Then we can write about them, so that you don’t have to waste time on holiday interviewing the owner about how often they water their golf course. But then again, you will be pushed to find a golf course in a water-deprived destination on greentraveller. But I don’t claim to be a water waste expert either, so I am grateful for the people who have gone out there and done the technical ground work before me. 


So which certification schemes do we know and like at greentraveller? Well, I used EU Flower when researching my book, Ecoescape Ireland, a scheme which is recognised by Ireland’s National Tourism Development Authority, Failte Ireland, for tourist accommodation. I have visited the majority of businesses in Ireland which have been awarded the EU Flower, and have seen that the changes they are required to make in order to get the award are in no way tokenistic. The EU Flower is also gaining popularity in France. In the UK, the Green Tourism Business Scheme has hundreds of carefully audited businesses on its books, and Travelife's listings are also a good source of information on which mainstream hotels are starting to do their bit. Further afield, Nature's Best provides a useful guide to low impact holidays in Sweden, Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa is trailblazing certification in fair tourism, and the Certificate of Sustainable Tourism in Costa Rica has led the way in certifying green accommodation in Central America.


With about a hundred accommodation certification schemes worldwide alone, this area is a mine field. Each one wants to be better than the next, and sometimes it feels as if there is a bit of reinventing the wheel and not enough of them all coming together to really make one or two of them work. Surely this would save a lot of time and money, not to mention avoiding confusion for consumers and tourism providers who are being sold different certification schemes left, right and centre. 


The debate in this area will go on for years but,  in the meantime, people are still booking holidays and trying to do so with green principles. Few are going to wait for all the bureaucracy to fall into place, or for stakeholders to agree. So, in the meantime, greentraveller will try and make your job easier by highlighting the accessible ones and recommending businesses which are happy to show off their green flags and work they have put into achieving an accredited business.

eco labels,


When responsibility comes

When responsibility comes from within, whether someone is certified or not doesn’t make a difference. However unfortunately that’s not how majority of the industry functions. To what extend can reporting back from travellers bring in a control on green-washers? To what extend can tourist actually see the entire supply chain and report back? To what extend would a traveller run around and report back on the green credentials of operators / properties, rather than enjoying their holidays?...

In 5 years of running my company, we have come across many DMC’s in India who are many times transparent and accountable than any that has been certified by someone like Green Globe. To do a fantastic job, they don’t need certification, however this doesn’t mean that any one of these people might be unwilling to respond to questions from those who are interested in the responsibility factor of their business.

We know personally many stories of poorest of poor artisans in the state of Rajasthan who are cheated by so-called fair trade organisations funded by many international organisations. It’s not about taking massive amount of margins. (A leather bag bought at 7 Euro sold at 110 Euro in Habitat isn’t our concern.)But, to pay these poor artisans, below standard rates to mass produce these bags and then call it fair-trade is the crime. When we ask the illiterate artisan(sitting in front of a big poster announcing the fair-trade practices of his partners (meaning organised buyers in Europe and their whole sale agents in India))what he understands by “fair trade”, he says, he gets about 20 GBP per year to send his kids to school ! For me, that is scandal and not fair trade!

When you see a stamp of fair-trade on a product that one purchases in the west, people buy those (to an extend) as a guilt free experience. ‘My purchase is making a difference to the destination from where this product came from. I know that this product I buy hasn’t been sourced through exploitation’. Oxfam fair trade coffee became a hit earlier mainly because of this. However, as in the case of a traveller, who might want to know more of about the responsibility factor of the supply chain on which the holiday is running, the lay customer who quickly runs into a fair-trade shop doesn’t have or resources or energy to investigate the ‘fairness’ of these products.

I am not suggesting that we need to have another organisation that certify the ‘fairness’ of the organisation that has already certified these products. Though that will be a hilarious situation.

What is missing in all the certification process is the matter of ‘Trust’. Our guests purchase many souvenirs from the artisans we work with mainly in Kerala and Rajasthan. They buy leather products, bell metal art, pottery and puppets without any question of ‘certification’. None of these are certified products in any case!

The reason they purchase these with genuine interest is because of the ‘trust’ they have developed with the company they are travelling with, and most importantly because they are purchasing it straight from the hand of the artisan without a middle-man. ( certified or not!).

I don’t know how this ‘trust’ factor can be built in the purchase when you buy it from elsewhere. (For.eg, a purchase in a shop in London claiming to have fair practices)

However one way to sort out of these issue of trust / certification is for the operators ( Tour, or property owners) to be pro-active about their claims. Orchid Ecotel in Mumbai for e.g, are so proud to show their guests on check-in about the responsibility in which they are running their business! This touch and feel experiences makes all the difference.


Hi Ron
Many thanks for your comment. I totally agree with you, and as Dr. Nussbaum put it, every stakeholder should be consulted. In the meantime, my concern is also that consumers who are trying to be green travellers, and really embrace the principles of sustainability in their travels, are totally confused by what it is out there, and if we all wait for each group of certifiers to make up their mind, some will give up even trying.
I really hope The Travel Foundaton will open the debate further, and Greentraveller would certainly love to participate in that process as I am sure Planeta.com would.

it's not only the greens who are upset by certification

One of the biggest challenges of tourism certification is that when it comes to defining what constitutes ecotourism, sustainable tourism or responsible travel, there is little consensus.

It’s not only the greens who are upset by certification. When it comes to developing global accreditation schemes, there’s a growing demand to ‘stop the steamroller.’ Indigenous peoples, tour operators and others say that many programs do not deserve support.

Most stakeholders have been left out of the process, including indigenous people, community representatives and owners of travel businesses. When invited to participate, many of these leaders opt out, reminding organizers they have other priorities.

In fact, some leading tour operators believe certification and accreditation schemes are a scam that creates a cottage industry for consultants.

What is needed urgently is an open discussion. It would be good to see the Travel Foundation not only host a dialogue in a specific place but also participate in an online review of the various programs. I haven’t paid attention to the Costa Rica program for years because of its lack of transparency. Green Globe continues to re-invent itself every few years. And now we have a Travelife that attempts to brand big hotels as sustainable? Mind you, mass tourism must work toward becoming more responsible, but when it make claims that alienate the environmentalists and community activists, we are moving backward not forward.

Ron Mader


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