Putting a spotlight on sustainability in the STR space

This week’s move by Booking.com to drop its “Travel Sustainable Badge” for accommodations shines a spotlight on the need for clear, meaningful communication related to environmental practices in the travel industry.

Bob Garner can hardly wait.

Garner, the founder and CEO of EnviroRental, a not-for-profit dedicated to sustainability in the short-term rental sector, has been advocating for environmental business practices for 20 years. He’s one of the organizers behind Scale Green, the first event of its kind solely dedicated to sustainability efforts in short-term rentals, scheduled for April 23 in London.

“The message of sustainability as a foundation for the short-term rental sector is beginning to gain momentum, and it’s important that we build on this progress,” Garner said. “Our mission for Scale Green is to educate property managers, and, through them, the wider travel sector — helping the entire industry see the opportunities and business advantages of being more sustainable.”

Recent events have highlighted the need for more education on the issue.

The European Union has been moving forward with legislation that would require companies to substantiate their claims to consumers about sustainability. That’s moved companies to give more thought to their marketing claims, lest they be accused of greenwashing, said Jeremy Sampson, CEO at the Travel Foundation, which has been pushing for a coordinated effort by the industry to meet United Nations’ goals to be net zero by 2050 while preserving travel growth.


We need to promote sustainable tourism and start reducing the emissions of our businesses and those of the properties we manage.

Vanessa de Souza Lage – Sustonica

“It’s a wake-up call, I think, for the industry, which has in some sense had a bit of a free pass to label things sustainable,” Sampson said. “There’s going to need to be more evidence now to back up those claims. And I think that’s a good thing. I think it also makes things really challenging because the industry has depended on these kinds of mechanisms for certifying and labeling trips, accommodations, attractions and destinations without any sort of deep inquiry into what we mean by that.”

Booking.com’s move followed pressure from the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets that called its scoring system misleading and said it might result in a “distorted impression” of properties’ efforts toward sustainability.

“There needs to be an audited badging system that has authority and credibility,” Garner said. “So when people say things like, ‘I’m running an eco-lodge’ or ‘I’m doing something that’s sustainable,’ they can substantiate that.”

He pointed to the 2023 launch of Sustonica as a positive step. The Barcelona-based startup offers the first sustainability certification open to all short-term rentals, regardless of where they are listed. Because Booking.com now will prioritize third-party certification systems, short-term rentals that still want to promote their green credentials will need to look elsewhere to be certified.

That will place even greater importance on the educational efforts offered at the Scale Green conference, said Vanessa de Souza Lage, founder and CEO of Sustonica.

“The conference is needed because big changes are upon us, and our sector is not ready,” de Souza Lage said. “We need to promote sustainable tourism and start reducing the emissions of our businesses and those of the properties we manage. The conference will center around property managers that are a step ahead of the shift.”

Damian Sheridan is the founder and director of the Scale series of events, which cater to short-term rental property managers. He said the first Scale Green sets a precedent for sustainability to be at the forefront of the sector.

“It’s been a core part of our discussions at the Scale events over the years, and to have the opportunity for a day solely dedicated to an actionable green message is crucial for our journey to be a leading resource for the STR and holiday let sector,” he said.

To get a fuller understanding about the event, PhocusWire spoke with Garner, who also shared how he got started on the issue and how no gesture toward sustainability is too small — even down to our choice of toilet paper. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Sustainability is challenging for everyone, but it seems even tougher for the short-term rentals sector given how diffused it is.

You’re absolutely right. There aren’t any really huge chains in the industry. … Sometimes you’re dealing with individual organizations that just have one or two or three properties. But there are a lot of property managers who manage tens, hundreds, even thousands of properties. And that’s why we’re targeting property managers. … And that’s why I started speaking at conferences. I always thought, well, if we can get sustainability on the agenda, that’s where people hear and see the big topics.

What do you tell people who don’t share your passion for the environment?

I can’t expect everybody else to be passionate about the environment, so if you look on the [EnviroRental] homepage, you’ll see all the business benefits as being sustainable. We talked to hosts and property managers about what’s in it for them because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how people get to be sustainable. If they just get there because they’ve got a desire to make more money, we still get the end result of the industry being sustainable.

But it’s not enough just to get people to agree that sustainability is a good thing, is it?

When I speak to people, everyone goes, ‘Right. Absolutely. I’m totally with it. I’m really on board with it.’ But moving them from that belief to the action is really fundamental. It’s a bit like travelers. What they say and what they actually do is not the same thing. So we’ve got to try and narrow that gap and move more people from thinking it and saying it into believing it and doing it.

When did that moment happen for you, when you moved from thinking about sustainability to taking action on it?

We moved from London, me and my husband, and we bought an old farmhouse in Italy 20 years ago. It was a wreck. We converted it over a couple of years into seven apartments. And we knew at that point that we wanted to build it into a sustainable business. Didn’t know anything 20 years ago, but we knew that we would do this.

You have an extensive list of green initiatives used at your property. Beyond the obvious like solar panels, no plastic bottles and recycling, can you offer an example of something out of the ordinary?

We use Who Gives a Crap toilet paper. It’s a funny name, I know. They’re a great
company [using recycled paper and donating half their profits to causes like
building toilets in developing countries]. This is another amazing thing that I
think is really crucial for businesses like ours. When you’re really small, you
need to find a multiplier effect, and you do that by giving your business to
the companies who also do good. … You’ve got a choice of doing something really
good and amplifying your result. So choose companies who’ve got good ethics,
who support the community, who do something with the environment. You know,
we’ve all got the power of our wallet; spend it wisely.

You also give back to causes that are important to you. And while you have personal reasons for doing so, you’ve also found such activities are good for business. Can you explain?

When people come to stay with us, they get a digital guidebook [with lists of restaurants and places to visit and discounts]. We encourage people to go eat at the restaurants locally, and we say, ‘If you go and eat there, you will get a 10% discount on your bill. You bring that 10% back to us, let’s say it’s $20, and we’ll match that $20 and give that money to a community [organization] supporting something like planting trees or whatever it might be.

It hasn’t cost the guests a cent. They were going out to eat anyway. … The really crucial thing is the guest has an amazing warm feeling. They’ve done something for the environment, and they go home, and they remember that, and it hasn’t cost them any money. And I think that’s quite unusual.

They leave with a great story to tell when they get home …

Absolutely. It’s all about the story. We get a lot of referrals. We get people coming back. It’s all about the experience, and it’s really reflected in the reviews. You get more reviews, you get better quality reviews. We love reviews because that’s how we generate more customers.

Phocuswright Europe 2024

Hear about Phocuswright’s latest research on sustainable travel followed by a panel discussion with Travalyst CEO Sally Davey, The Travel Corporation’s chief sustainability officer Shannon Guihan and Barcelona Tourism director general Mateu Hernández. 

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