"For years we have talked about when ecolabelling reaches the economies of scale to make a difference, but it has not. The business models for current certification programmes do not add up, because the costs of continuously being assessed outweigh the benefits of membership - therefore requiring very low prices or subsidies."
ECOCLUB.com: Do you plan to avoid or discourage businesses interested in green-washing altogether or rather to try and steer them towards the green path?
Xavier Font: Greenwashing will continue to happen regardless. We target those companies that are doing good things, but fail to see that these are valuable to their customers, or do not understand how to put them across in a way that the customer will first understand them, and then appreciate them. The danger of course is that some companies learn the rhetoric but do not behave responsibly, but I am happy that they stick their head above the parapet, because we can then work with them to make the necessary improvements - or criticise them for example in our Facebook page irresponsible tourism!
ECOCLUB.com: Have you witnessed any real progress in Tourism Ecolabelling since you wrote your seminal book on the topic in 2001 and why?
Xavier Font: That is a good question. The number of labels has not increased substantially, and more worryingly, neither has the number of applicants in most labels. For years we have talked about when ecolabelling reaches the economies of scale to make a difference, but it has not. The business models for current certification programmes do not add up, because the costs of continuously being assessed outweigh the benefits of membership - therefore requiring very low prices or subsidies. There are exceptions - the Green Tourism Business Scheme has no subsidies, and currently has over 2,500 members. The overall trend has made it difficult for global accreditation proposals to make a big impact. In the last ten years we also have not seen certification programmes able to give us data that clearly show the positive impact they have had - how much better in sustainability terms is a certified company than the average, and how much of that difference can be attributed to the learning from becoming certified? Such data might help make a business case to donors. So I see two ways ahead: sustainable supply chain management, where intermediaries see certification as a requirement to trade - Travelife has been the major new player. The alternative is lowering the entry barriers - TripAdvisor’s GreenLeaders is free and is communicated to customers at the point of purchase, having greater impact.
ECOCLUB.com: As someone who is closely involved with development of Responsible Tourism both as a concept and a practice, are you optimistic that it will be adopted by the private sector on a voluntary basis, or is it time for binding legislation? And can everyone be responsible, for example, big transnational chains, golf resorts and holiday home developers associated, according to their critics, with global land grabs?
Xavier Font: We need both approaches. Industry leaders work at the cutting edge voluntarily, whether they are small or large firms. In a survey of 900 European companies we found about 40% stating they do what they do for altruistic reasons - and these were the companies doing most. We then found 30% of them being reactive to stakeholder pressures. Their actions were relatively mild and the result of posturing, working on the fringes, without changing their business model. Of 80 cruise companies globally, we found only 10 publishing corporate social responsibility reports in 2010, but over 40 by 2012. Finally another 30% saw themselves as resource efficiency, cost driven opportunistic firms- and the data proved they were able to calculate where the savings were and make the necessary investments if the figures added up. So we need a three pronged approach to getting companies to change. Hilton Europe has published savings of close to USD 30 million in three years from water and energy management for example. But there is further to go - in my study of what 10 large international hotel chains reported in their policies and then practised in their properties, we found substantial differences in both environmental and customer engagement claims for example.
ECOCLUB.com: What is your view of worker managed companies and do you see this is as a viable and responsible option in Tourism?
ECOCLUB.com: In the past 10 years has the quality and quantity of tourism education in Universities in the United Kingdom and other countries increased in your view, along with the recognition of Tourism as an academic topic?
Xavier Font: The quantity has increased, but not necessarily the quality. UK universities have lowered the entry points for tourism and hospitality courses, which has meant a decrease in the quality of what can be taught. This is at odds with the increased requirements for publications and research activity, which has meant that staff have to seek funds and publish to remain employable. The increase in student fees (first to GBP 3000 and since September 2012 to GBP 9000 per year) means students will be more demanding, and that universities with low rankings (resulting from low entry points required, low research scores, low student satisfaction…) will find demand shrinking. Eventually the quality of courses will improve again, by having departments close and many others specialise, but the readjustment that academia will go through from now until 2015-16 will be though.
ECOCLUB.com: Is the current trend of tourism and other academic departments branching out to consultancy a direct result of the financial crisis and smaller state funding? Is there a price to pay in terms of the academic agenda becoming more politically conservative or do you see it as a win-win for students and academics?
Xavier Font: I personally see it is positive that academic departments need to be more in touch with industry and government needs, and that what we teach, publish and consult on has to be current and relevant. Our research will be judged on its impact- it is good to write a book or appear in a conference, but the important thing is to which extent anybody has changed their behaviour as a result - with tangible evidence. This inevitably changes the game - some forms of research become prioritised, and there are fewer incentives to write research that substantially goes against the status quo and being more conservative, or at least more utilitarian.
ECOCLUB.com: Finally, if an advocate of Responsible Tourism, like yourself, was to become head of the UNWTO what key policies should they try to introduce and in what way could they reform the organisation?
Xavier Font: Sustainability is high on the political agenda but institutions have limited power to enforce behaviour change. That is not their fault, they are membership organisations. I would aim to introduce more methods to measure the impact of their programmes, and to reduce the number of activities and whole programmes that demonstrate no behaviour change. The credibility of the institutions would improve, after the obvious growing pains. I would also look more closely at how the UNWTO is more evidently a UN agency responding to a global mandate.