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How to Choose Green Accommodation: Certifications Explained

Sustainable accommodation is on the rise, but just like all goods and services, without extensive research it is nearly impossible to identify which hotels are wholeheartedly sustainable at their core. In this article we offer some advice to help you with your next search for eco-friendly accommodation.

Voting for ‘better business’

At Sustainable Guides, we’re big believers in the idea that where you choose to spend your money has an incredible impact. We’re absolutely convinced that our money works in the same way as a vote.

When we hand over our money to a business, we are showing our support and voting for them to continue their service, selecting them over their various competitors. Conscious consumers among us will know oh too well, that the more you consider this very idea and the more you learn about the exploitation or environmental damage caused by all sorts of industries, the easier it becomes to shift your consumer behaviour. 

Let’s take the garment indsutry for example. Once you fully comprehend that giving your money to a typical fast-fashion brand found in your local shopping mall means; 

  • supporting a company in its continuation of low wages, 
  • perhaps supporting forced or child labour,
  • contributing to the everyday mass production of plastic-based garments,
  • supporting an industry making up 10% of CO2 emissions,

…it’s hard to enjoy wearing their clothes again. All of these points and many more make up the reasons why hoards of sustainability-minded individuals have started opting for sustainable fashion brands. 

On the contrary, when you hand over your money to fashion brands with ethical and environmentally friendly values, you start paying for a better world. By financially supporting companies using Fair-trade and ethical labour, as well as those invested in reducing carbon emissions and those working on a zero waste model, you put your demand in the right place, withdrawing it from less ethical businesses.

For more information about how to choose more sustainable fashion brands, please see Good On You.

A need for sustainable accommodation 

Albeit a service and not a product, accommodation can also be understood under the framework of conscious consumption. The accommodation industry is notorious for its large environmental impact. What with high guest turnover and therefore excessive water usage, plastic waste, food waste and energy consumption, hotels have a hefty environmental footprint. In fact, according to UNWTO, the hotel industry is responsible for 1% of global emissions, and this is set to grow even further in the coming years. 

Unfortunately, this impact must decrease a whole lot if we are to combat climate change. According to the International Tourism Partnership, for the hotel industry to align with the Paris Climate Agreement, greenhouse gas emissions per room per year will have to decrease by 90% by the year 2050. It’s a sobering fact and deserves a whole lot of attention.

Yet it’s not all about energy usage and carbon footprint. Hotels are known for producing, storing and using excessive amounts of resources. Plastic water bottles, shampoo and conditioner bottles, leftover food from buffets, water used to wash sheets and towels each day, straws, napkins, paper, packaging and endless other products are used and disposed of at alarming rates in hotels across the globe. Typically, such wasteful behaviours increase the more ‘luxury’ a hotel is.

Choosing a sustainable hotel

Many of us are clocking on to the wastefulness and environmental impact of hotels. That’s why, the last ten years have seen a worldwide surge in sustainable accommodation options. In fact, 56% of Gen Z prefer to stay in green or eco-friendly accommodations, whilst around 70% of travellers across the world are more likely to book a hotel if they know it’s eco-friendly. 

This is where we arrive at the crux of the problem. How exactly can consumers know if a hotel is eco-friendly? 

If you’re knowledgeable in the sustainability arena, you’ll know that this is never an easy task. Not only because sustainability covers endless criteria, or because these criteria are also so incredibly difficult to measure, but because a lack of universal understanding makes it very easy for hotels to greenwash their services.

Greenwashing 101

The unfortunate truth is, not all hotels claiming to be green actually are. Meanwhile, the ones which are truly giving it their best shot, often find it hard to shine out amongst a crowd of greenwashing. Let us talk you through this issue with an example. 

A hotel in Stockholm decides to eliminate plastic straws, start recycling and installs LED bulbs. In Sweden, where such practices are pretty much norms in the hospitality indsutry, these kinds of standards are actually expected. This same hotel, wanting to explore additional marketing avenues and capture new audiences, inserts an image of a green leaf onto their website, writes a section about ‘sustainability’ and claims to be a green player in the accommodation indsutry. On their site, they describe their commitment to the environment and explain using bullet points their efforts in: using paper straws, recycling hard plastics and using LED bulbs in their hotel rooms. 

The key message here is; the hotel in our example is practising the bare minimum when it comes to environmental standards, out of necessity or perhaps to keep up with new audiences and ultimately for financial gain. This is hotel greenwashing: implementing small eco-friendly changes, exaggerating them and using them to sell hotel rooms.

So, do the recent changes to this hotel contribute to them becoming a more sustainable business? Absolutely. Making small eco-friendly changes is the beginning of a journey towards becoming sustainable.

Does their claim to be sustainable player in the accommodation sector actually make them sustainable? Absolutely not. Sustainability in hotels incorporates hundreds of factors and goes lightyears further than recycling and LED bulbs.

Do we even know for sure that this hotel is actually implementing their claims before we book? No we don’t. Unfortunately, we can’t always trust hotels to tell us about what they’re up to. Vague information, a lack of facts, and initiatives that seem pretty commonplace are all alarming signs of hotel greenwashing.

A third-party is then absolutely necessary when learning about which hotels are doing great things and which are not.

Hotel Certifications 

It goes without saying that looking for a hotel’s certifications is an excellent way to find out whether they’re more eco-friendly that others. An astonishing number of certification bodies exist out there, set up to establish a social and environmental standard and to give consumers a more reliable answer to the question: which hotels are more sustainable than others?

You might find these certifications proudly displayed on hotel websites. For example, you might see the EarthCheck logo, or the LEED symbol. But, just when you thought it couldn’t get any more confusing, not all certifications can be fully trusted either. Perhaps a better way to word this, is that some are less credible than others. Here’s an example:

Launching their programme GreenLeaders to highlight sustainable hotels, a few years ago TripAdvisor came under criticism for lacking integrity when it came to the processes behind their certifications. Randy Durband – CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council – stated, GreenLeaders “does not adequately educate travellers about the differences between the hotels’ own claims and those confirmed by external audits or certification.” In fact, GreenLeaders not only asked individual hotels to fill out their own questionnaires (alarm bells) but also asked customers to review the environmental efforts of hotels. As a result, TripAdvisor’s efforts have been deemed invalid, since it is clear to most, that guests at a hotel are absolutely unable to judge a business’ washing materials, boilers, solar panels, waste processes and so on.

What else should I be aware of?

So far we’ve learned that the best way to identify whether a property is doing its part for the environment, is to look for valid certifications. Meanwhile, there are some certifications which aren’t particularly thorough and can’t really be trusted.

However, we’d like to highlight here that there are some cases when certification might not be possible. For example, if a hotel is very new, if it’s small and family-owned, or simply because the hotel hasn’t invested in acquiring one!

It is important to understand that not all hotels want to become certified. Certifications are often expensive and as a result lots of hotels (especially smaller ones) decide against it. Interestingly, it is also true that a handful of wholeheartedly sustainable hotels actively avoid certifications so to differentiate themselves from what they consider ‘halfhearted’ sustainable accommodations. 

We think that it’s therefore pretty key to know a little about how to look out for sustainability when a hotel does not have a certification. A couple of main points are outlined below.

Credit: Elements of Byron
  1. First impressions 

Granted, this seems like a very unscientific piece of advice, but please bare with us. Upon opening a website for a sustainable hotel, you may or may not notice a section about sustainability, a strong reference to nature, conservation, zero-waste or anything else which seems to portray an ‘eco-friendly’ message. If a hotel has a lot to shout about, they’ll do so on their site. If they don’t go into enough detail, try a good google search. 

For example, landing upon the Elements of Byron website, guests will find information about nature-based experiences, conservation and mentions of sustainability. Plus, laced throughout their site’s video, mentions of wildlife rehabilitation projects and the protection of native species jump out at the viewer. It’s a good start.

2. Second impressions 

However, only upon a quick google search, did we find that Elements of Byron has also won an award for sustainable architecture as well as an award for their investment in ecology. We then identified with a quick search that the hotel has an eco-education centre on site. Whilst this still doesn’t fully inform us about the hotel’s carbon footprint or waste policy, a little research certainly ticked some boxes off for us. 

Still not sure? Don’t be afraid to call up a hotel and ask for their sustainability policy. Most hotels will happily send this information across to you, especially if they’re genuinely proud of their achievements. Haven’t found much on the website, or online? It might be time to start searching for another hotel.

3. No certification can be a great thing

Sometimes hotels with no certifications can be just as good if not better than certified ones. In many cases, small family-owned accommodations see no need for certifications. Sometimes, their very purpose surrounds being in tune with nature and respecting the environment within which they flourish. Take Old Leura Dairy for example. This accommodation in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains has its entire ethos rooted in nature: 

Our philosophy in the creation of Old Leura Dairy has been to be as gentle on our world as possible, without detracting from our guests’ experiences.

What follows their claim includes a thorough breakdown of different aspects of sustainability and transparency surrounding their efforts. Whilst we don’t always recommend trusting a business’ portrayal of themselves, referring to the information that is available here, they’d have our bet. Might we also add, that typically small businesses, homestays or B&Bs:

  • Hire local staff 
  • Buy local food and goods
  • Use less resources in their construction
  • Generate less waste 
  • Use less electricity and water 

4. Boasting about the bare minimum

Our experience has taught us that lots of discourse surrounding a commitment to sustainability, paired with very few facts, can often mean a lack of genuine impact. On the websites of many luxury hotels and large chains, you will often find a section about sustainability. This kind of page might include:

  • An emphasis on the hotel’s commitment to the environment without facts or figures.
  • Messaging around the hotel’s use of LED bulbs without information about energy usage (a hotel can write a sentence about their use of LED lights and in reality only use them in their reception area. Not significant!).
  • Talk of signage in hotel rooms about reusing towels (this is an easy one to add to the list for hotels that don’t have a long one).
  • Mentions of paper straws (what about the rest and majority of the single-use plastic?).
  • A mention of the hotel’s use of water in cartons in replacement of bottles (if your hotel is in a destination where water is drinkable from taps, there are much less wasteful alternatives available).
  • Green imagery and not much evidence to back up the branding. 
  • Over-emphasising messages around already banned or illegal items such as shark fin (this is absolutely a bare minimum for hotels and should be a given!).

Can’t see much more than the above on a hotel website? Still nothing after a bit of research? You may be witnessing some greenwashing.

Which certifications can I trust?

So which certifications can you look out for when looking to book a hotel? Below, we list some great options which in general guarantee a certain level of trustworthiness and thoroughness.

LEED

Identify a LEED certification on a hotel website, and you can rest assured that the hotel is built in an environmentally friendly way, from the ground up. This international rating system has been formed as a way to certify buildings themselves. Consumers should take into account that LEED guarantees the energy efficiency and greenness of buildings, but would not take into account the processes and systems used in a hotel’s day to day functions, for example waste management.

Green Globe

If your accommodation of choice meets Green Globe Certifications, you can be pretty satisfied with your choice. Green Globe certifies all kinds of tourism businesses, and has very high standards. Focusing on the three S’s – safety, security and sustainability – Green Globe’s criteria has been researched and improved for many years. 

Earthcheck 

Similarly, find the EarthCheck logo on a hotel website and you’re pretty much guaranteed a sustainable stay. EarthCheck is the world’s leading scientific benchmarking certification for the tourism indsutry. Working with businesses in 70 countries, the certification covers a great deal of social and environmental sustainability issues in-depth.

Green Key 

Covering campsite, hotels, small accommodations, restaurants and much more, Green Key is a leading standard for excellence in the fields of sustainable tourism operation. Criteria is set by the Foundation for Environmental Education and pretty much promises guests that by staying with their certified establishments, they’re opting for ‘good’. 

Travelife 

The Travelife programme rewards deserving tourism businesses with a certification which communicates their sustainability achievements to customers. The certification is based on leading international sustainability and CSR guidelines and standards, including those of GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council), making it highly trustworthy for consumers. 

Green Tourism Active

The non-profit organisation Green Tourism Active, certifies hotels and all sorts of other accommodations using an in-depth assessment programme. Accredited by GSTC, Green Tourism Active is highly regarded and can be trusted by conscious consumers across the globe. Hotels with this certification will without a doubt have the highest of sustainability standards.

Eco Tourism Australia 

Whilst this one might be specific to Australia only, it’s still worth a mention. The ECO Certification from Eco Tourism Australia has a primary focus on nature and assures travellers that products are backed by not only great values but strong and impactful commitments to the environment. Divided into different categories, this certification covers anything from tour operators to hotels.

The new way to find green hotels fast

Certifications are a great help when trying to identify a sustainable hotel in a new destination. Whilst we list a few of these above, there are many out there which can be trusted, it just takes some thorough research! Often you may have to spend a few hours on google trying to find the perfect place to stay.

At Sustainable Guides, we want to make this process much easier for consumers. Now, there’s a trusted source you can turn to. Collecting the best of the bunch when it comes to sustainable hotels and accommodation across the world, Sustainable Guides makes sustainable travel one hundred times easier. Crafting travel guides for regions across the world, selecting only the most ethical hotels, restaurants, attractions, experiences, spas, stores and more, taking a sustainable holiday is now almost effortless.

Jessica Beaumont
Noticing the footprints left behind by travellers in the countries she has lived in and loved, Jessica found her calling in the sustainable travel niche. Aside from writing, Jessica is found exploring the Adelaide Hills for good views and delectable wines, dancing, taking leisurely walks on the beach and trying to make friends with dogs.