TourCert Journal

How the Green Claims Directive will transform international tourism and certification: Insights from Dr. Martin Balas


The fight against greenwashing is gaining momentum as the European Council takes a bold stance with the Green Claims Directive. This directive aims to prevent greenwashing by requiring businesses to substantiate their environmental claims to consumers with specific evidence, such as primary data or scientific studies on sustainability impact. Additionally, certification schemes must adhere to clearer criteria concerning their transparency, credibility, and organizational structure. Currently, the Directive is in its final development phase and is expected to be finalized by the end of this year. Once approved, European countries will have up to 18 months to implement the Directive into national law. But what does the Green Claims Directive mean for international tourism and the certification landscape?

Dr. Martin Balas, TourCert partner and owner of the consulting agency reCET create.empower.transform

In collaboration with the German Tourism Association Martin, offers training sessions for German tourism professionals on this issue. In the following interview, he provides an insightful overview. 

How significant is the problem of greenwashing to date?
It is more present than we might think. The EU Commission published a study in 2020 that evaluated a range of environmental claims by businesses. About half of them were vague, misleading or unfounded; 40% had even no substance at all. At the same time, the study also showed that consumers are highly aware about their consumption effects but feel overwhelmed and not well informed by labels. This led to the development of the Green Claims Directive.

How do you assess the directive: bureaucratic red tape or a meaningful regulation to make tourism more sustainable?
I guess both. Surely, there will be the necessity to document and verify all sustainability efforts by a business, if it wants to communicate these to the consumers. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the certification jungle. However, smaller companies in particular need guidance on what exactly they need to do and how they should use their scarce resources to become more sustainable. And this is where EU-wide regulations can help by providing clear guidelines on standards to be met and thus creating more clarity and credibility. Ultimately, the planned regulations should lead to more harmonization and clarity of really relevant sustainability topics and thus also have a greater overall impact across all economies.

How should tourism businesses and destinations prepare for the new regulations? They are currently wondering: What is coming our way? How significant is the effort, and where are the biggest challenges?
Firstly, it is even more important to be informed and trained about a concrete and verifiable sustainability communication and to critically structure any statements on sustainability according to the upcoming criteria of the directive. Every claim should fulfil at least three criteria: It should be true and not exaggerated, it should present an environmental performance that is outstanding and better than the average and lastly this performance should be backed up by specific data which is optimally connected to an independent verification.

As a certification body, we support all efforts to strengthen sustainability in the market. We believe we can assist companies in meeting the directive’s requirements. In your view, what role do labels play?
Most of the sustainability labels in tourism are comparably small and face issues of cost pressure and sector-specific demands. This has been a core value of certification for many years, because certification really met the demands of the businesses. This will change now. There will be more standardization, documentation and a clear focus on impartiality. The Directive clearly states that only those labels will be allowed to be associated with sustainability that are licensed according to EU requirements. This means a real clearing of the certification jungle and a renaissance of high-quality labels. The requirements for these licensed labels are quite high: The certification system needs to be accredited by a national or international accreditation body, the auditors need to be independent and meet ISO standards and the verification has to be third party and on-site. Also, all processes and certification requirements need to be transparent and well documented.
There is the hope that this creates more trust in certification. Also, certified businesses will have clear USPs, as they will be acknowledged as the pioneers of the sustainability movements. All in all, certification will be the backbone of any sustainability communication.

The Tourism Impact Alliance focuses on collaboration: Last year, you moderated the Impact Panel, which brought together certification organizations and standard owners on a discussion about KPIs. This year, TourCert is partnering up with eight of the world’s leading sustainability certification organizations. How can collaboration benefit the implementation of the Green Claims Directive?
Honestly, I truly believe that without collaboration and strong partnerships it will be very difficult for certification schemes to fulfil the requirements of the Directive. Certification organizations need to create synergies when it comes to measuring sustainability impact, implementing the audit demands, reaching accreditation and providing guidance for businesses in their sustainability communication. Some bigger schemes might achieve this without any further partnerships but I believe that many won’t. Costs will be simply too high, of every schemes sets up its own system that is compatible with the Green Claims Directive.

Do you expect the directive to have an impact beyond the EU?
Any business that is active in the EU will be impacted by this Directive. For example: Tour operators that are based outside the EU but offer trips to any country of the European Union and claim an environmental performance, will have to fulfill the requirements of the Directive. The same counts for certification bodies: If they would like to have certified businesses in Europe that want to communicate the label, they would need to fulfil the requirements of the Directive. I believe that many tourism stakeholders worldwide will be impacted by the Green Claims Directive. 

Environmental Claims, EU Regulations on Sustainability and Environmental Claims, Green Claims Directive, Green Claims Directive for International Tourism and Certification, Greenwashing, Impact of the Green Claims Directive on the Tourism Industry, KPI for Measuring Sustainability Impact