Encyclopedia Monday, October 9, 2017 615 hits

Social sustainability gaps in tourism

Vinod Sasidharan, San Diego State University


Sasidharan, V. (2017). Social sustainability gaps in tourism. In AIRTH Encyclopedia of Innovation in Tourism and Hospitality. Retrieved: <insert-date>, from http://www.airth.global


Globally, both private and public sectors of the tourism industry have been aligning their efforts and strategies to address ecological (environmental) concerns, in response to changing/evolving societal priorities and awareness regarding sustainable development.  Recent trends indicate that tourists are increasingly demanding and purchasing tourism services and products from companies who have a proven commitment to environmental-responsibility, sustainability, and a track-record of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)[i].  Tourists, especially from industrialized nations, are realizing the importance of environmental responsibility and their role in promoting sustainability through the tourism products and services they purchase.  Social concern for ecologically-sustainable practices has resulted in the emergence of a plethora of “green” tourism products, industry alliances, and organizations, which claim to make a difference by encouraging positive environmental changes in the business landscape[ii].  Unfortunately, the availability of such tourism products is no more effective than the over-supply of other trendy ‘responsible’ products such as “organic,” “eco-friendly,” “fair-trade,” “lite,” “heart-healthy,” etc., since both producers and consumers are often unclear about the true meaning of such nomenclature.  Due to the lack of clearly-defined government regulations and industry standards for sustainability performance among tourism enterprises, voluntary certification schemes for verifying the eco- and social-responsibility claims of tourism businesses and recognizing sustainability leaders within the marketplace have emerged to fill this void[iii].  Since the mid-1990s, the number of tourism ecolabeling/eco-certification schemes[iv] and CSR assessment programs around the world has increased exponentially.

Relevance for innovation

Ecolabels are “trademarks or logos” that are used to communicate the environmental credentials of a company, so that customers develop positive attitudes toward development, production, marketing, selling and delivery of their product or service[v].  Through ‘a voluntary procedure that assesses, audits and gives written assurance that a facility, product, process or service meets specific standards’[vi], a marketable logo is issued to an entity that either meets or exceeds the performance levels stipulated in the sustainability criteria and respective indicators identified by the certifying body or agency[vii].  Furthermore, ecolabels are intended to provide companies a marketing advantage over parity products and services offered by other enterprises.  Ecolabels are intended to promote sustainable developmental and operational practices within industry by encouraging private enterprises to address the negative impacts of their operations through improved environmental standards for products and services[viii].  Enterprises promote the ecolabels received for their environmental achievements through various marketing channels including websites, online booking platforms, print media, press releases, and display of award logos/seals, both on and off-premises[ix].  Currently, more than a hundred ecolabeling schemes are available across the globe[x] for the certification of tourism enterprises, facilities, amenities, attractions, destinations, etc., with almost fifty of them specifically developed for the European Union[xi].

Relevance for tourism

The growing trend of environmentally conscious and socially responsible travel provides tourism enterprises with the opportunity to utilize ecolabels for developing and promoting products and services which directly respond to the sustainability needs and demands of travelers.  While the overarching goal of most tourism ecolabels is to improve environmental performance within the industry, the evaluation criteria used by most eco-certification schemes, in order to award the seal, generally also incorporate social sustainability indicators, in addition to ecological and economic parameters.  The variables/indicators commonly utilized by tourism ecolabeling schemes for evaluating sustainability performance include:  resource protection, environmental health and safety, green management, environmental compliance, recycle/reuse, chemical management, water usage, paper usage, energy usage, pollution, client education and feedback, fair labor, social cultural compliance, heritage preservation, equity, community engagement, fair trade, local products, philanthropy, etc.  Although several well-established measures exist for evaluating the environmental and economic dimensions of sustainability practices within the tourism industry, to our knowledge, there is a lacuna of reliable methodologies for assessing the social sustainability outcomes of tourism enterprises. 

As a result of the lack of proper guidelines/indicators for social sustainability performance among tourism ecolabels, organizations that have received (or are seeking) certification often tend to perform well in the area of environmental and economic sustainability, in comparison with lower levels of engagement in the social dimension of sustainability. Underperformance in the social component of sustainability among eco-certified tourism enterprises can be attributed to the ethical obligation perceived by tourism managers[xii] regarding the extent to which ‘unclear’ social sustainability parameters need to be met as opposed to the ‘clearly’ articulated environmental performance guidelines identified by ecolabeling schemes.


[i] Chatterji, A. K. and Toffel, M. W. (2010), How firms respond to being rated. Strat. Mgmt. J., 31: 917–945. doi:10.1002/smj.840

[ii] Vaccaro, A., & Patiño Echeverri, D. (2010). Corporate Transparency and Green Management. Journal of Business Ethics, 95(3), 487-506.  doi: 10.1007/s10551-010-0435-z

[iii] Font, X. (2002).  Environmental certification in tourism and hospitality:  progress, process and prospects.  Tourism Management, 23(2002), 197-205.  doi: 10.1016/S0261-5177(01)00084-X

[iv] Buckley, R. (2013).  Social-benefit certification as a game.  Tourism Management, 37(2013), 203-209.  doi: 10.1016/j.tourman.2013.01.004

[v] Middleton, V., & Hawkins, R. (1998). Sustainable tourism: A marketing perspective. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann (Reed Elsevier plc group).

[vi] Honey, M., & Rome, A. (2000). Ecotourism and sustainable tourism certification. Draft report prepared for the ecotourism and sustainable tourism certification workshop. Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, New York, 17–19 November 2000.

[vii] Margaryan, L., & Stensland, S. (2017).  Sustainable by nature? The case of (non)adoption of eco-certification among the nature-based tourism companies in Scandinavia.  Journal of Cleaner Production, 162(2017), 559-567.  doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.06.060

[viii] Mihalic, T. (2000). Environmental management of a tourist destination: A factor of tourism competitiveness. Tourism Management, 21(2000), 65–78.
 doi: 10.1016/S0261-5177(99)00096-5

[ix] Morgan, R. (1999). A novel, user-based rating system for tourism beaches. Tourism Management, 20, 393–410. doi: 10.1016/S0261-5177(99)00015-1

[x] Dziuba, R., (2016). Sustainable development of tourism - EU ecolabel standards illustrated using the example of Poland. Comparative Economic Research, 19(2), 111-128. doi: 10.1515/cer-2016-0016

[xi] Margaryan, L., & Stensland, S. (2017).  Sustainable by nature? The case of (non)adoption of eco-certification among the nature-based tourism companies in Scandinavia.  Journal of Cleaner Production, 162(2017), 559-567.  doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.06.060

[xii] Sandve, A., Marnburg, E., & Ogaard, T. (2014). The ethical dimension of tourism certification programs. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 36(2014), 73-80. doi: 10.1016/j.ijhm.2013.08.009






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