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Module 2

 Understanding Certification Systems: Types and Procedure

In the second module, we delve deeper into the world of sustainability certifications. We define the characteristics of certification systems to learn about the different types and the process of certification. Additionally, we introduce a leading institution on sustainability certification: the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC).

By the end of the first module, you have learned that sustainable tourism certification is a useful tool for introducing sustainable practices and demonstrating your commitment to sustainability. You may now be wondering: How is a certification system structured? And who determines what is sustainable? Start with the module to learn more about certification systems!

This module is about:

  • Characteristics of a certification system
  • Sustainability focus
  • Costs
  • Structure of a certification system
  • Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)

Characteristics of a Certification System

Sustainable tourism certifications are based on the functional approach of assessing and monitoring sustainability activities of tourism enterprises, such as accommodation providers, and promoting the demand and supply of sustainable products and services. But what are further characteristics of a certification?

Certification systems are characterized as follows (UNEP/UNWTO, 2005):

  • The procedure is based on voluntary participation.
  • The process is standardized.
  • The requirements go beyond legal requirements.
  • The requirements are verified by an authorized certification body.
  • Successful verification of the requirements is confirmed by a certificate and a logo.

Certification systems are financed by various entities. There are cooperations between public and civil organisations, certificates that are funded by the state, or certificates that are funded by the private sector. Thereby, the certification systems are often developed with the participation of various stakeholders from civil society, authorities, companies and science (Florin et al., 2023).

The degree of market coverage of the certification systems varies significantly. Some certification bodies have certified only 50 businesses, others have already certified 8,500 businesses and more (Schories, 2022). Among other things, this is also due to the geographical orientation of the certificates. This means that there are certificates with local, national and international/global scope and validity.

Some sustainable tourism certificates are focused on a single or few tourism segments or specialized service providers such as tour operators, accommodation and/or restaurants (e.g. Travelife), while others offer certifications across different segments and sectors along the entire tourism value chain. For instance, the certification spectrum of Biosphere, EarthCheck or Green Globe includes other tourism-relevant segments like attractions, events, cruise, transportation, or shopping/retail, in addition to the previously mentioned segments. Moreover, there are generalized labels that operate across segments and industries (e.g. EU Ecolabel, EMAS) (Schories, 2022 & Strasdas et al., 2016).

While sustainable tourism certification originally focused on environmental objectives, more and more standards also include social, cultural, and economic issues. However, some standards are still considered deficient today when it comes to a more holistic representation of sustainability. In particular, working conditions, discrimination (social dimension), the overall strategic orientation (management), as well as climate protection, adaptation, and preservation of biodiversity (ecological dimension) are not adequately taken into account by some certification systems (Verbraucher Initiative & ZENAT, 2017).

Many sustainability certifications do not sufficiently represent the various dimensions of sustainability.

Most certification systems cover their costs through certification fees. The price of sustainability certification in tourism can vary greatly depending on the certification system, the size of the company and the scope of the certification. On average, the cost of sustainability certification for a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME) in tourism can range from 500 to 5,000 euros. Some certificates give a discount on fees for micro-enterprises (e.g. EU Ecolabel).

Furthermore, costs also strongly depend on the requirements of the respective certification system. Some schemes may have higher costs, for example, if additional consulting or training services are required in the scope of the process.

Structure of a Certification System

The figure below shows the schematic structure of a certification system. It provides an insight into the procedures of a certification process and introduces the key terms of sustainability certification.

Source: Schories, 2022, based on Font/Buckley, 2001 and Toth, 2002.

1. Standards

Most certification systems publish their standards with their criteria and guidelines on the internet. Depending on the assessment procedure of the standard´s criteria on distinguishes process- or performance-oriented certifications. A combination of both approaches within a standard is also possible.


  • A process-oriented approach is predominantly associated with measures or requirements that create the preconditions (management systems, reporting standards) for a continuous improvement of sustainability performance over time (e.g. EMAS, TourCert).


  • A performance-oriented standard focuses on the fulfilment of specific, mostly quantifiable objectives or the compliance with benchmarks, such as maximum amount of energy use per guest night or per trip day or a requirement to use 100% renewable electricity in a tourist accommodation (e.g. EU Ecolabel, Austrian Eco-label).

2. Assessment

An important part of the certification process is the verification of the information provided by the applicant. Verification ensures that a defined standard has been adhered to and the criteria have been met. The type of verification is of central importance for the credibility of a certificate. A distinction is made in this regard between first-, second- and third-party assessment.

First-party assessment refers to the self-assessment and self-declaration of a company or organisation, which evaluates and declares their own sustainable practices and compliance with sustainable certification standards. Such a verification can also be supplemented by declarations or receipts (e.g. electricity bills). Certificates based purely on self-declaration exist, but are less popular due to their low credibility.

Second-party assessment involves external stakeholders assessing a company's sustainable practices. These can be business partners or member organisations (e.g. a tour operator evaluates its contracted hotels). This form of assessment is more common - partly for cost reasons.

Third-party assessment is conducted by an independent and impartial certification body that certifies a company's sustainable practices. This type of assessment provides the highest level of assurance to customers, stakeholders, and the public that the company has met the rigorous requirements of the sustainable certification standards. Most market-relevant certification systems conduct the verification of applicants in this way as standard.

Only a few systems rely on paper audits (validation of documents). Most combine these with full on-site audits and/or random checks.

3. Certification

With the achievement of a certification, a public declaration is made that a company or a product fulfils certain criteria, usually through a protected label or designation. The validity of a certificate can vary - from one year to over 7 years. For SMEs, the validity of a certificate is sometimes adapted to the specific challenges of SMEs, so that, for example, the interval for recertification is extended.

A certificate can be awarded in at least two ways: Firstly, single level, referring to a "pass/fail" system, or secondly, multi-level, using a scaled assessment process in which a label is divided into different levels of performance depending on factors such as ambition, scope of the assessment or length of membership. This has advantages: On the one hand, the multi-level approach can be used to promote motivation for continuous improvement. On the other hand, even demanding labels become more accessible to (at the beginning of the system's use) less sustainable businesses.

4. Accreditation, Recognition and Acceptance

Certifications themselves can also be subject to an assessment (Accreditation). The 'certification of the certifier' by e.g. an umbrella organisation confirms the quality of the certification system. Internationally recognised accreditation organisations in the field of sustainability certification in tourism are the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) and the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance (ISEAL).

The stages ‘Recognition’ and ‘Acceptance’ describe the process of establishing a certification system´s approval. Recognition within a sector mostly is received through an NGO or political institution, which officially assess a specific certification scheme and therewith confirm their credibility (Recognition). A certification scheme is accepted, if it is actually used in the marketplace and/or by the relevant target groups in regard to their purchase decisions (Acceptance).

Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)

With the aim of creating a common understanding of “sustainable tourism” at the global level, the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria were developed in a worldwide multi-stakeholder dialogue, based on more than 40 widely accepted principles, guidelines and certification criteria for sustainable tourism. The criteria were later transferred to the equally named Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC).

The GSTC is a non-profit organisation whose mission is to promote sustainable tourism practices, support the application of the GSTC criteria and develop basic standards for sustainable development in the tourism sector at the global level. It is now one of the best-known organisations for sustainability certification and accreditation in tourism and enjoys a high reputation in the industry worldwide.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) provides two sets of criteria:

  1. The GSTC Industry Criteria: This set of Criteria relates to the sustainable management of private-sector travel industry, focusing currently on Hotels and Tour Operators.
  2. The GSTC Destination Criteria: This set of Criteria relates to sustainable management of Tourism Destinations.

Furthermore, it has several different designations for organizations and standards that meet their criteria and requirements for sustainable tourism:

  1. GSTC-Accredited: This designation is for certification bodies that have been accredited by the GSTC to provide certification or accreditation services for sustainable tourism standards. A GSTC partner accreditation body verifies weather the organisation certifies hotels, tour operators or destinations in a competent, transparent and neutral manner.
  2. GSTC-Recognized: This means that the GSTC has verified that a given standard aligns with the GSTC Criteria and is administered by an organisation that is a member of the GSTC.

To meet the definition of sustainable tourism, certification systems must cover four pillars of sustainability:

  • Sustainable management
  • Socio-economic sustainability
  • Cultural sustainability
  • Ecological sustainability (including consumption of resources and conserving biodiversity and landscapes)

The GSTC criteria serve as global baseline standards for sustainability in travel and tourism: they are used for education and awareness raising, policy-making for businesses, government agencies and other organisations, measurement and evaluation, and as a basis for certification.

Today, 38 standards for the accommodation sector are recognised by the GSTC (GSTC, n.d.). GSTC-Recognised certification systems exist exclusively for tour operators, hotels and destinations.

Further Information

You want to deepen your knowledge? Here we have summarised further information for you:

After the core characteristics of sustainability certification have been outlined, the following module discusses the benefits and challenges of sustainable tourism certification.