A Primer on Hotel Sustainability Certification

Research done in the past years on the attitude of travellers and tourists (e.g. by Booking.com) have shown that there is an increasing expectation among travellers that the hospitality industry has a focus on sustainability. The pandemic crisis has been limiting the possibility for travelling, but as it emerged from the interaction between wildlife and humans, the current health crisis is linked to the biodiversity crisis, and the focus on health and sustainability in the travel industry will continue to increase in the years to come.

What to look for when choosing a sustainability certification programme?

There are several sustainability certification programmes available for hotels and other tourist establishments. The advantage of these programmes is that they assist and guide the establishments in their efforts on working with sustainability. The certification programmes also serve as an external recognition of the sustainability efforts done by the establishments. With the increasing interest for sustainability among travellers, the establishments can use the participation in certification programmes to promotes themselves as eco-friendly/sustainable establishments.

With the choice between a range of certification schemes, selecting a serious and recognised scheme is important. The certification criteria need to be strict and include the three aspects of sustainability (environmental, socio-cultural, and economical), and the criteria should include all the main areas of the establishment (housekeeping, restaurant, rooms, etc.). It is strongly recommended to choose a certification programme that have its criteria aligned with the requirements of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. It is also important to choose a programme that is transparent meaning that information about the criteria as well as the application, audit and award process is publicly available. It is important to choose a programme that has on-site audits as part of the application process to have the verification of the standard on-site, and for the independency of the award it is also important to have a third-party that takes the decision.

What are the most important focus areas for hotels to achieve certification?

The most important focus areas in a sustainability certification programme include reducing the use of resources such as water, energy, chemicals; reducing the production of waste and food waste; the choice of changing to more sustainable alternatives such as in food/beverage and cleaning products; increased focus on circular economy principles including recycling and reuse; preservation of the surrounding nature and biodiversity; focus on awareness and engagement of staff, guests and suppliers; and the focus on socio-cultural and economical aspects, such as labour, health, safety, access, equality, etc.

Is it costly to invest in sustainability?

Some changes in relation to the sustainability performance of the establishment require financial investments, while other initiatives are cost-neutral or can save expenses for the establishment. Some resource-saving activities such as installing water-saving aerators in taps and showers or changing to LED light bulbs have an initial investment, but with increasing prices on water and energy, the return on investment on installing these devices might be very short and in some cases just 3-6 months. Other changes do not require much additional funding but more a change to more environmentally friendly alternatives, and yet other initiatives of reducing the plate size to reduce food waste might save expenses for the establishment.

The work with sustainability within an establishment is however primarily a change of mindset. It is recommended that the establishment appoints a sustainability coordinator and (if the establishment is larger) a sustainability committee with representatives of the different parts of the establishment. The first tasks of the coordinator/committee is to train and engage the whole staff in the work, institute a general change in behaviour and have all staff members contribute with ideas about how the establishment can reduce its use of resources, work with alternative products, etc.

Green Key: an example of a sustainability certification programme

One of the sustainability certification programmes that are offered is Green Key. Green Key is the world’s leading certification programme on sustainability with 3200+ awarded establishments in 60+ countries. Green Key is managed by the international charity the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) and its national member organisations. The international development and coordination of the Green Key programme are done from the FEE Head Office in Denmark, and the implementation of the programme in most countries is done by Green Key National Operators. This means that for most applicant establishments the application process and support can be done in national language with considerations to national legislation and circumstances. For more information about Green Key on www.greenkey.global.


Interested in learning more about sustainability certification for your hotel? Join us on our webinar, Hotel Sustainability in the Age of COVID-19, featuring leading sustainability experts from Green Key, Innovation Lighthouse, and Arthur Hotels. 

Finn Bolding Thomsen

Finn Bolding Thomsen

Finn Bolding Thomsen is Deputy CEO & International Green Key Programme Director at the Foundation for Environmental Education. Green Key is a leading standard for excellence in the field of environmental responsibility and sustainable operations within the tourism industry.

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