Environmental sustainability presents a multifaceted challenge for the hotel industry.

Hotels must combat carbon emissions from energy usage and transport, reduce food and water waste, and sustain the natural land they operate on.

As the international accreditation body for sustainable tourism, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) manages the standards hotels must meet if they are to gain this crucial certification, known as the GSTC Criteria.

Aside from being a basis for certification, the Criteria are used for education and awareness-raising, policy-making for businesses, government agencies, and other organisation types, measurement and evaluation.

By adopting the criteria, hotels can enhance their operational efficiency, reduce their environmental footprint, and improve guest experiences and community relations while operating in a responsible and sustainable manner.

GSTC Members such as Booking.com and WebBeds have already developed guidance to hotels on sustainability based on the GSTC Criteria, achieved by hotel groups such as Barceló.

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But significant barriers are slowing down the vision of an entirely sustainable global hotel industry. Hotel Management Network speaks to GSTC CEO Randy Durband to gain insight into what faces the hotel industry’s adoption of sustainability standards.

Hotels must intensify sustainable commitments

Durband states that hotels must “rigorously adopt and implement global sustainability standards.”

This includes investments in sustainable architecture, renewable energy use, and circular economy practices.

Transparent ESG reporting and active collaboration with stakeholders, including guests, employees, local communities, and governments, are crucial for driving broader systemic changes.

“Embracing sustainability as a core business strategy, rather than a mere add-on, will be key for the hotel industry to make a significant and positive impact on the planet and society,” asserts Durband.

The GSTC doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to collaboration, as aside from hotel brands the organisation also works with tourism boards, universities, and other industry councils, like the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), to strengthen global sustainability practices.

Hotels can demonstrate their dedication to sustainability by entering the GSTC-Committed process. This represents a pledge by a hotel to fully implement the GSTC Criteria in its policy and operational guidelines, while also influencing its stakeholders and supply chain.

Overcoming barriers to sustainability

While ESG is becoming an increasing priority for the hotel industry, concerning results from GlobalData’s 2023 ESG sentiment polls show that while 51% of respondents said that their company had an ESG plan in place, 17% could not say whether their company had an ESG strategy, and 33% said their company had no ESG strategy.

Not only is this bad for the environment, it is also bad for business as guests become more conscious of the impact of their travels and look to hotels to mitigate this.

Durband notes that as sustainability becomes a more prominent selling point “hotels face the challenge of falling into greenwashing.”

Certification provides a safeguard against the smokescreens that can be created when marketing sustainability. “Being certified as a sustainable hotel by an Accredited Certification Body provides assurance that the certification is awarded according to processes that comply with international standards and good practices,” confirms Durband.

But once a hotel is certified, the work doesn’t stop there. Challenges to sustainable hotel operations as identified by Durband are “the need for significant upfront investments in sustainable technologies and infrastructure, the difficulty of measuring and effectively communicating the impact of sustainability initiatives, and ensuring that these practices are inclusive and beneficial to local communities.”

GSTC believes in a holistic approach to sustainability and emphasising the importance of balance in the wider tourism sector.

Durband confirms the GSTC’s understanding that “Tourism can be a powerful force for economic growth, providing jobs, stimulating local economies, and fostering infrastructure development.

“However, this growth must not come at the expense of the very assets that make destinations unique and attractive in the first place. To this end, the GSTC promotes practices and standards that safeguard natural environments, wildlife, and cultural heritage, ensuring they are preserved for future generations.”

Striking the balance between economic development through tourism and the conservation of natural and cultural resources is crucial to ensure that the journey towards sustainability is both responsible and effective.