What is the point of sustainability certification if consumers don’t care?

What is the point of sustainability certification if consumers don't care?

This month, I’d like to look at recent research in Tourism Review on consumer demand for benchmarks in hospitality and tourism. Benchmarks include certifications, standards, licenses, and other performance measures.

As an advocate for sustainability benchmarks, I wish this study showed a clear consumer preference for them, but it does not. I chose to write this anyway, because a critical element of developing a case is to identify weaknesses and obstacles, so we can develop strategies to overcome them.

Key findings of the research included

  • Importance of benchmarks for quality, price, cleanliness, and safety ranked above any of the sustainability oriented options, which included conserving resources, wellbeing, environmental friendliness, and promotion of healthy lifestyles. Tasci (the study’s author) noted the higher priority items are short-term and personal benefits, while the latter are longer-term and greater good benefits.
  • Women ranked the importance of benchmarks in all categories higher than men did.
  • Restaurants and airlines ranked highest in the list, while casinos, bars, and bus lines ranked lowest. The author noted a correlation between frequency of use and importance of a benchmark.
  • Consumers are unaware of benchmarks related to sustainability.

For the last point, respondents were asked to name benchmarks, but only 50% of those surveyed could name just one, and only 23% could name 3. Some names provided were generic – either applying to all industries such as Better Business Bureau, or generic in the sense that there is no label used for marketing (e.g. health department). Some, such as Michelin or J.D. Power, were specific to hospitality. None were sustainability related.

Unaware, unimportant, or unseen?

I want to take that lack of recognition one step further. To demonstrate a point, I conducted my own, informal research looking for accommodations. I randomly chose Memphis, Tennessee as my destination – a weekend getaway to check out famous Beale Street. Being a ‘practice what you preach’ kind of person, I’d like to book at a sustainable hotel.

I spent almost an hour searching an eco-hotel in Memphis. This did not include time needed to pick a hotel closest to Beale Street, within my price range, or to read reviews on quality, cleanliness, and safety. I compared different websites and searches to determine properties that might be considered sustainable.

In no OTA website was it clear what made a hotel “green” or “sustainable.” I only found one hotel website that listed sustainability initiatives, but it had no benchmark. No option in my initial research had a sustainability related certification. In fact, a Google search on ‘Memphis eco hotel’ or ‘Memphis sustainable hotel’ did not even return a result in the first 3 pages that pointed to the Tennessee Lodging Association’s Green Hospitality program. As it turns out, there is one hotel in Memphis with this certification; however, on that hotel’s website, there is no mention of green, sustainability, or the TN Green Hospitality certification.
(By the way, I do not mean to pick on Memphis or Tennessee. I selected it randomly and from experience researching this topic, I believe I would encounter similar results if I had selected any number of cities to perform this experiment.)

Recognition is requisite, but what is a consumer to recognize?

My experience supports Tasci’s proposal that a marketing orientation would serve certification organizations. Most certification bodies proclaim marketing as one of their benefits, but this generally consists of a press release and a few social media mentions. Certifiers seem to lack the marketing savvy and resources to drive bookings.

My observation is also that the entirety of the system is not conducive to consumers being aware of or able to easily search on sustainability. Where I have encountered hotels with rigorous sustainability benchmarks to tout (which I found because I go out of my way to do so), there has often been little or no mention on OTA listings (which are already crowded) or hotel webpages (the content of which can be dictated or even controlled by a corporate brand). And where I found green/sustainability on OTA listings, the data was sometimes inaccurate (mostly in the form of a lapsed certification).

As Tasci suggested, those using benchmarks ought to be driving demand through promotion and education, which leads to both recognition and behavior change. Certifying bodies should be the catalyst for such collaboration. If you have a benchmark or are part of a certifying body, I would certainly like to hear your perspective on this. As always, you can email me at aurora@astrapto.com.

Travindy’s new columnist Dr. Aurora Dawn Reinke, ISHC, ISSP-SA, founded Astrapto to bring about sustainability change in hospitality, travel, and events. Astrapto Academy offers practical online training and toolkits to make sustainability simplified and approachable for busy industry professionals. Aurora’s contribution to sustainability in these sectors includes chairing the Business Travel Working Group for the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), serving on the sustainability committee of the Global Business Travel Association, and on the redesign task force for green meeting standards for the Events Industry Council. She is always open to dialogue and ideas for how to promote the sustainability business case.

Aurora Dawn Reinkehttp://www.astrapto.com
Aurora Dawn Reinke is a sustainability consultant and speaker. Aurora’s firm, Astrapto LLC, guides owners and management teams through change by establishing a vision and strategy for sustainability; demonstrating the business case; engaging, empowering, and equipping stakeholders to achieve the vision; and formalizing and codifying sustainable processes. Aurora has a Doctorate in Business Administration in Social Impact Management. She is a Certified Sustainability Associate from the International Society of Sustainability Professionals and a LEED Green Associate

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