Scotland: The greenest destination in Europe

15 February 2007 by
Scotland: The greenest destination in Europe

The green movement may have captured the public imagination in a big way over the past 18 months, but some parts of the British Isles have been following an environmentally aware agenda for over a decade. Tom Vaughan reports on Scotland's claim to be the greenest destination in Europe

It isn't a usual point of reference for the hospitality industry, but VisitScotland chairman Peter Lederer says he's inclined to agree with Kermit the Frog: it's not easy being green. And it was even harder, he adds, 10 years ago, when the Scottish Tourist Board, as VisitScotland was then called, decided to take the first step towards the country's goal to become the greenest destination in Europe.

VisitScotland hopes that by 2015 the Scottish tourism industry will be in a position where every quality-graded member will also achieve environmental grading - and that the country will be well on the way to being entirely carbon neutral.

To have pre-empted a movement that has penetrated public perception only over the past two years seems incredibly prescient. So, what triggered Scotland's quest for the green crown of Europe?

"There has always been a feeling that part of what we are selling in Scotland is green, unruined countryside," Lederer explains. "And if we are serious about that, then we need to preserve it. No brand can survive if it's not delivering what it's selling. We are all damaging the countryside - the question is: how much can we as an industry minimise that?"

A discussion on how this gap could be closed was started back in 1997. A then-fledgling organisation called Shetland Environmental Agency (SEA) was brought on board by VisitScotland for consultation and it was decided that the best way to encourage the industry to embrace sustainability was through an infrastructure they were already familiar with: accreditation.

The idea was that if a tourism establishment wanted quality-grading, then it would also have to meet criteria for environmental accreditation. The SEA won the contract to help put this infrastructure in place and was renamed the Green Tourism Business Scheme (GTBS).

John Stocks, Carbon Trust manager for Scotland, argues this system is well suited to the disparate tourism industry. The varying sizes, locations and designs of hotels and visitor attractions mean it is hard for the government to put effective and fair levers on them to control waste and emissions.

"Hardest of all to regulate are the self-employed - plumbers, hairdressers, etc," Stocks says. "Then next up come hotels, hostels and visitor attractions. Incentive schemes rather than statutory regulations are much better suited to these operations, especially as they are already versed in the idea of stars and crowns."

There are compelling reasons why a green tourism policy is attractive. There is, for instance, growing evidence that holiday-makers are interested in the environmental sustainability of their location. In a 2005 poll taken of holiday-makers in Devon, where the GTBS is starting environmental accreditation of hotels for the Southwest England tourist board, more than half said they considered environmental issues when booking and three-quarters said they associated an environmentally friendly attitude with better quality.

Andrea Nicholas, Green manager at GTBS, adds that sustainability is a language more and more people understand: "Ten years ago environmental issues were considered niche," she says. "In just the past year it has drastically changed: both the business and the consumer now accept the importance of the environment."

At present, there are 740 GTBS members out of 10,000 quality-graded tourism establishments in Scotland. The aim is to have all 10,000 signed up to GTBS by 2015, although Nicholas is realistic. "We have had a growth of a third per year consistently over the past few years and if this continues we should be nearing 100% of graded stock by 2015 - but maybe not all of it," she says.

The scheme has three advantages for hotels. First, cutting waste and energy consumption will reduce a hotel's bills, with savings of anything between 20% and 40% possible on energy consumption alone. Second, access to GTBS's guidelines and advice make it easier for businesses to become environmentally friendly. Third, with the increased publicity surrounding green issues, accreditation is a great marketing opportunity to target an increasingly eco-aware public.

Jo Springford, environmental director of five-strong Scottish chain Apex Hotels, says her company got involved with the GTBS for all these reasons, but business considerations were the main focus. "We are very strong on our ethical fronts, but because we are a business we have to look at the marketing opportunities as well," she says. "Our PR team has given a lot of attention to what we have been doing with environmental awareness and our involvement with the GTBS."

In a world where there is a growing voice calling for reduced emissions and environmental awareness, the arguments for joining the GTBS seem to outweigh any downsides for a hotelier or site manager. But how far can the scheme reach? When it started in 1997, it embraced serviced accommodation, self-catering accommodation and hostels, but it has since been expanded to include any establishment concerned with Scottish tourism - for instance, restaurants, caravan parks and visitor attractions.

So, the difficulty now is how the GTBS can extend to those establishments that don't fall under a VisitScotland central quality grading scheme. It was only with the inception of EatScotland in 2005, a Visit­Scotland body listing Scottish restaurants, that GTBS was able to appeal directly to them. The fact it is a recent initiative is evident in the paltry number of restaurants in the scheme - only three out of the present 740 members.

Nicholas admits that where there is a lack of central authority, the GTBS must wait for VisitScotland to take the lead. For instance, there is no central body within VisitScotland for listing and accrediting conference centres or golf courses. While individual members are free to join, the lack of a central database makes it difficult for the GTBS to send information to them.

Marketing or ethics?

While any move to make businesses more environmentally friendly is to be applauded, cynics might argue that the GTBS initiative is nothing more than a marketing exercise.

Lederer's response is that the GTBS scheme is designed to ensure the country delivers what it promises and points out it has sought noticeably little media or public attention. In fact, by putting in place what was in 1997 a 20-year plan, VisitScotland has given other countries ample time to copy its ideas and dilute Scotland's marketing power.

That said, Lorraine Thompson, quality operations manager at VisitScotland, adds that once membership has been expanded and the target is in sight it will form a more solid part of the country's marketing strategy.

In the meantime, the GTBS is involved in helping other parts of the UK to achieve the same goals set out in Scotland. It is working with five of the nine English regions - the North-east, South-east, South-west, North-west and East of England with the goal of encouraging hotels to become environmentally accredited.

Clearly, then, the nature of the long-term plan and the willingness of VisitScotland to share its methods makes it hard to dismiss the initiative as just a marketing campaign. Lederer admits that marketing is important, but he describes it as "defensive" - in other words, ensuring that they deliver the unruined countryside that is the average holiday-maker's image of Scotland, rather than reinventing new ways of selling the Scottish "brand".

The aim of the tourism industry in Scotland to become carbon neutral might also be seen as just a means of reinvigorating a marketing campaign that others are starting to mimic. But that isn't the case. The challenge, laid down by Lederer in December last year within a time-frame that has yet to be decided, doesn't just extend to businesses. It requires the customer to consider how they are arriving at a destination and asks them to reduce their carbon footprint in the process - possibly at their inconvenience. And one thing that tourists don't like being is being inconvenienced.

Will England follow?

While Scotland started the ball rolling back in 1997, Nicholas at GTBS says that it is only in the past two years that England has begun to attach more importance to green issues. "You could say they are eight-and-a-half years behind Scotland, but realistically, now that there has been a rapid growth of interest, they should be able to catch up quickly," she says.

Yet what VisitBritain seems to be doing is a whole lot of prevaricating. Jeremy Brinkworth, general manager of quality at VisitBritain, says that it was only after the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001 that the Tenancy Reform Industry Group was formed to (among other matters) review environmental issues within the tourism industry. After sitting for two years they decided the industry needed to do three things: advise its members on best practice establish a set of common standards and establish green accreditation.

From this final point has come the discussion over which body is best-suited to accredit tourism businesses. Concerns about the numbers involved (VisitBritain has 23,000 accredited properties) and the size of GTBS has divided opinion at VisitBritain, despite the fact Scotland's GTBS has so far successfully used membership fees to grow the scheme according to demand.

The timidity of VisitBritain to follow Visit­Scotland's lead could be because it views the initiative more as a marketing opportunity than an ethical necessity. "Scotland has positioned itself as a green destination and it is up to us to decide whether we want to market ourselves as such," Brinkworth says.

It is also fair to reason that England, being split into different regions, is much harder to control centrally. A priority for a London-based business might be wholly different from a Devon-based business. Although five of the nine English regions have now signed up to GTBS, widespread take-up in any region other than the South-west is minimal.

Brinkworth freely admits that Scotland has stolen a march on England. "In terms of penetration of the GTBS, then yes they have," he says. "And in terms of having a clearly articulated target, it is also a yes."

However, besides marketing reservations and regional disparity, there is one important reason behind England's delay, Brinkworth says. When VisitBritain was formed in 2003 through the merging of groups including the English Tourism Council and the English Tourist Board, it wasn't given the remit to decide on initiatives such as green accreditation. The Government saw VisitBritain as a marketing department and intended to lead on bigger issues itself. This, of course, hasn't happened and England now finds itself chasing Scotland.

Certainly, the past 10 years have seen Scotland embark on a co-ordinated campaign to make sure that, in Lederer's words, it delivers what it is claiming to. And while he admits there is nothing the tourism industry can do about energy-burning power stations and other unsustainable aspects of the country, the tourist industry can still lead by example.

If everything goes to plan, Nicholas says, by 2015 a tourist in Scotland will shun an establishment if it has no environmental accreditation in the same way as they might shun somewhere with no quality-grading - "because you don't know what you are getting". With the additional clout of the push for carbon neutrality, the country seems destined to lead the pack.

Now at only a half-way point in their plans, VisitScotland's initiative can, if nothing else, be commended as being prescient, almost a decade ahead of other industries that have only more recently been forced to assess their impact on the environment and begin consideration of how to best go green.

Outside Scotland, tourism industries are waking up to the future. As Kermit would say: "It's not easy being green/But green is all there is to be."

For more on environmental awareness

Green Tourism Business Scheme

Originally called the Shetland Environmental Agency, the Green Tourism Business Scheme won the contract with VisitScotland in 1997 to help determine criteria and infrastructure for accrediting tourism businesses. The scheme works on nil subsidy, with money raised entirely through membership fees, which vary depending on the size of the business. There were only two employees for a long period of time but the team was increased to six in 2002, including administrators and auditors.

The scheme has eight technical sections, which businesses are judged on. Three of these need to be met to gain bronze accreditation, four for silver and five for gold. The sections are:

  • Compulsory: compliance with environmental legislation and a commitment to continuous improvement in environmental performance.
  • Management: demonstrating good environmental management, including staff awareness specialist training monitoring and record-keeping.
  • Communication of environmental actions to customers: eg, green policy, community and social projects.
  • Energy: efficiency of lighting, heating and appliances insulation and renewable energy use.
  • Water efficiency: eg, maintaining low-consumption appliances, rainwater harvesting as well as using eco-cleaners.
  • Purchasing environmentally friendly goods and services: ie, products made from recycled materials and the use and promotion of local food and drink.
  • Waste minimisation: eg, plastic and metal recycling, supplier take-back agreements, composting.
  • Transport: eg, aiming to minimise visitors' car use by promoting local and national public transport services.
  • Wildlife: on-site measures aimed at increasing biodiversity - ie, wildlife gardening, installing nesting boxes, as well as providing information for visitors on the wildlife on and around the site.

GTBS case study… Fairmont St Andrews Hotel

The Fairmont St Andrews Hotel on the east coast of Scotland became a member of the Green Tourism Business Scheme (GTBS) two years ago. Last year it was awarded gold status for its excellent environmental practice. For Jonathan Titterton, director of facilities, joining the scheme was an opportunity to measure how efficient the hotel was, as well as set future green targets for the business.

What particularly drew him to GTBS was its holistic approach. "Some initiatives can be more about ticking boxes, rather than looking at the overall picture," he says. "But this takes all sorts of things into account, from reducing your overall consumption, to raising staff awareness and buying local produce."

After a complete environmental audit, GTBS came back with various recommendations the hotel should follow, looking at eight key areas. "It's very much a partnership agreement, though," Titterton explains. "The team are there to help and you go at a pace that suits you."

Some criteria have been easier to comply with than others. With the North Sea close to hand -"we can stand in the lobby and point to where we buy our lobsters," Titterton says - sourcing fish locally as part of the scheme's requirement to promote local purchasing has been reasonably straightforward.

Recycling, too, was easy as the hotel already had a scheme in place, recycling not just the usual plastic and paper but also furniture, linen and old uniforms, given to local charity Furniture Plus.

Guest involvement has proved to be one of the hardest areas, according to Titterton. One initiative that has worked well is recycling bins in guest bedrooms, so people can divide up their paper and glass and so on. "It has been quite successful," he says. "Apart from environmental benefits, it also makes sorting much easier for us. Anything we recycle saves us money, too, because we avoid landfill costs which are £95 a tonne."

One of the hotel's biggest investments so far is a combined heat and power (CHP) system, which produces electricity on-site and captures excess heat for use in the building. Although the system cost £315,000 to install, it is 95% efficient and Titterton says the payback will be less than three years. Another big saver has come from reusing rainwater, captured in large underground tanks, to irrigate the gardens.

Altogether, Titterton estimates that the hotel has saved more than £250,000 by cutting down on waste and using gas, electricity and water more efficiently. His target is a further £300,000 of savings over the next five years. A new £15,000 laundry system is planned in the next 12 months, reusing grey water taken from the washing machine's rinse cycles. This, he says, will save the hotel £10,000 a year, so payback is relatively short.

Other plans include a herb garden to attract wildlife and a bio-diesel fuel pod that will convert cooking oil into bio-diesel for machinery use.

For Titterton, the scheme has clearly been successful. But, he adds, staff involvement has proved crucial. "There's no point doing anything if the people who work on site all day aren't enthused or don't remember to turn things off," he advises.

Report by Emma Allen

Excellence awards

The 2007 Scottish Food and Drink Excellence Awards will include a new category for companies that can demonstrate all-round achievement in reducing environmental impact in the manufacture and distribution of their products. The aim is to encourage the £8b sector to recognise the importance of environmental management and reflects the thinking behind the Scottish Executive's new sustainability development strategy. The closing date for entries is 21 February and the awards ceremony and dinner will be held on 10 May in Glasgow.


Sustainable food sourcing… the issues

These days the "buy local" message might be picking up speed among consumers, but according to Tim Bailey, agricultural director at the Scottish Food Quality Certification (SFQC), there's still a huge gap between food producers and food service providers in Scotland.

"The main stumbling block to sourcing local food is that there's a serious shortage of information on what's available," he says. "We've got producers who are desperate to access the catering market but don't know how, and we're seeing growing numbers of businesses that want to start using more Scottish produce but don't know where to look."

One initiative that aims to address some of these issues is the Local Food Supply project, run by SFQC and supported by the Scottish Organic Producers Association (SOPA). Plans include an online directory of suppliers and a series of "meet the buyer" events, which, Bailey hopes, will result in a more organised buying and selling network.

The costs involved in producing local food can be an issue, though. Recent reports showed that one large Scottish company was sending local langoustines on a 17,000-mile trip to Thailand, because it was cheaper to de-shell them overseas, then flying them back to be sold in Scotland.

Bailey agrees that relying on a regional market alone is unlikely to be enough for some bigger producers, but says any moves towards boosting the local economy and promoting local goods can only be a positive step. "It also helps raise important questions, such as why do we import meat or fish when it's available 10 miles down the road," he points out.

A key issue, according to Anna Ashmole, head of food and farming at the Soil Association Scotland, is the need to promote seasonality, rather than the idea of all-year-round availability.

"Scotland has a much shorter growing season than other parts of the UK so what we call the ‘hungry' gap, from March through to May, can be difficult if you're trying to source local ingredients," she explains. "But Scotland has a very good larder and essentially, it just means changing menus. If you want to use local produce, you have to accept that certain fruit or vegetables aren't available all year."

Consumer pressure is playing more of a part these days, Ashmole believes. "It is now getting to the point where if a Scottish restaurant is serving fresh green beans in February, or strawberries at Christmas, customers are starting to query why that's necessary," she says.

At the Loch Torridon Hotel, in Wester Ross, in the Scottish Highlands, the remote location hasn't stopped owner Daniel Rose-Bristow from growing as much produce as possible and building networks with local suppliers. The hotel's two-acre kitchen garden provides most of the hotel's fruit and vegetables beef comes from his own Highland cattle and other fresh supplies, such as fish or venison, are all sourced within a 60-mile radius.

"Although buying locally can be more expensive, we work hand-in-hand with local producers to make sure we get the best price," Rose-Bristow says. "Of course, buying only what's in season does help that. It can be difficult if a tourist wants venison in August, but these days, we find more and more customers understand if something's not available."

Report by Emma Allen

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