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Module 4

Overview in the European Certificate Jungle: how do I find the right Certificate? 

This fourth module gives a brief overview of the current situation of sustainability certificates in the EU. It also presents tools and quality criteria that can help in the selection of a certificate. Furthermore, the “Certification Quickfinder” will be introduced as a tool to search for credible certificates.

Which sustainability certifications exist for tourism SMEs? And how can I recognise a ‘good’ certification system? Do you need support in choosing a suitable certificate? No problem - there are helpful tools and criteria to help you answer these questions.

This module is about:

  • The diversity of sustainability certifications in tourism
  • Introduction to the tool “Certification Quickfinder”
  • Quality criteria for sustainability certification in tourism

Introduction to the Certificate Jungle

Certification systems for sustainability in tourism are very diverse. Just as diverse as the tourism landscape itself:

Today, there are more than 200 labels worldwide that distinguish a broad spectrum of tourism services - from accommodation to tour operators, beaches, nature reserves and destinations. Who can maintain an overview here? (Florin et al., 2023)

Originally, sustainability certifications were developed for hotels and beaches. This is perhaps one of the reasons why there is a predominance of certification systems for accommodation sector today - around 2/3 of all labels are specialised on this sector. Another reason is that it is easier to develop and implement sustainability criteria for accommodations (Lund-Durlacher, 2017).

Certification systems also apply to different geographical spaces: they can have a local/regional or national to sub-global (e.g. EU-wide) scope of validity. Each of these application areas has its advantages and disadvantages. While local/regional certificates are more suitable to take local needs into account and to facilitate networking of certified stakeholders, transnational certification systems are often better known.

If we leave aside the specifications of the certification systems, SMEs still have a huge choice of certificates they can choose from. It therefore requires some guidance to be able to identity suitable certificates for your business and to understand how they differ from each other.

Finding a suitable Certificate

ECOTRANS is a European Network that promotes sustainable and responsible tourism practices. One of the tools developed by ECOTRANS is the Certification Quickfinder, which is a user-friendly online platform that allows tourism businesses and travellers to search for and compare different sustainable tourism certifications worldwide.

The Certification Quickfinder provides information on the geographical availability, category and sustainability orientation of a certificate - making it easier for businesses to choose the most appropriate certification for their operations. The tool currently provides an overview of over 200 certification systems.

We would like to give you the opportunity to briefly familiarise yourself with the tool. For this, take about 5 minutes experimenting with the tool and finding out what information the platform has to offer.

As a little inspiration, we give you some questions to follow up with:

  • Which certification systems are available in your country?
  • Which certification systems are available there for your category?
  • Compare two certification schemes that have piqued your interest - how do they differ?

Click here for the global 'Certification Quickfinder'.

Quality Criteria for Sustainability Certification in Tourism

One important finding that can be derived from studies on sustainability certification in tourism is that many certification systems have deficits (Verbraucher Initiative & ZENAT, 2017). Criticism is directed at the content-related requirements as well as the independence and transparency of the test criteria. These aspects are particularly relevant for the credibility of a sustainability certificate!

In the following, we provide you with the most relevant quality criteria, which should be considered when selecting a high-quality certificate:

  • Transparency of criteria
    In order to get an idea of the certification system, the criteria of the standard should be fully published on the internet. 
  • Broad range of criteria (ecologic, social-cultural, quality)
    The more comprehensively a label takes into account the environmental, social/cultural, economic and management aspects, the more effectively it can contribute to the sustainable development of tourism. 
  • Demanding criteria (compulsory minimum criteria)
    A standard certifies that sustainability activities go beyond the minimum standards or legal requirements. The criteria should be correspondingly demanding. 
  • Mixture of performance- and process-related criteria
    Certification systems that are exclusively process-oriented are less informative about sustainability performance. Without externally defined requirement targets, the performance of a certified company is neither comparable to others nor necessarily better than that of a non-certified company (Synergie, 2000). 
  • Independent, on-site verification
    Since the credibility of a certificate depends heavily on control, compliance with the criteria should be verified independently and on site (Third-Party Verification). 
  • (Geographical) spread and popularity of the certificate
    The number of certified businesses and the degree of public knowledge about the certificate can show whether a label is publicly recognised. 
  • Transparency of the certification system
    The ownership and objective of the certification system should be publicly available. The logo of the label is designed in such a way that it cannot be confused with others.

These quality criteria provide an initial orientation for a profound selection. However, some quality criteria are not easy to verify, such as the independence of a certification system or the qualification of the auditors. Therefore, other institutions help to find the right way through the label jungle:

The Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria - as described above - are considered the global minimum standard for sustainability in tourism. Standards that are GSTC-Recognised are compatible with the criteria of the GSTC. Certification bodies that are GSTC-Accredited certify in accordance with the GSTC standard.

Another useful tool is the “Guide through the Label Jungle”. This guide presents those certificates that have been rated as particularly qualitative by the participating NGOs.

Further Information

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

By this point, you have deepened your knowledge of sustainability certification in tourism. Your interest in the subject shows that the topic is important to you and that you want to engage in it more seriously. This is already the first important step towards sustainable development! The next and last module will show you how to continue and actually present the steps to improve your sustainability performance by obtaining a selected certificate.