How To Avoid Greenwashing Through Sustainable Travel

How to Avoid Greenwashing

Greenwashing (noun). Expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities. 

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

As the Merriam-Webster’s definition suggests, “greenwashing” is essentially the act of lying to or misleading potential consumers to make it seem like a product or a service is sustainable. Unfortunately, with popular buzzwords like “natural,” “sustainable,” “green,” and “eco-friendly,” coupled with flashy marketing, it can make it difficult for consumers to identify whether a company is, in fact, practicing what they preach.

Beyond the glaring lies, small, symbolic steps can make it seem like a company is doing the right thing for the planet when they’re barely moving the needle. The nuances about what sustainable travel is and the lack of information available to us can make it really hard for travelers to know if a company is greenwashing or not. 

The buzzwords themselves can also mean different things. Without consistent outside certification standards, it’s often up to the consumer to figure out what’s behind the marketing. Luckily there are some companies that are making it easier for us to see through the greenwashing (more on that later), but oftentimes it’s still on us, the consumers.

This article is meant to give you some insights into what greenwashing looks like in practice, context about the harm greenwashing can do, tips on how to avoid greenwashing, and what true sustainable practices in tourism look like.

Examples of Greenwashing

Before going into how to avoid greenwashing, here are some examples of what it looks like in practice.

The “Green” Hotel

You’ve probably noticed the “help us be green” placards in some hotel rooms. You know, the ones suggesting you leave your towel hung up if you don’t want it washed and a note that your sheets won’t be changed every day. All in the name of sustainability. On the surface, this looks like it could actually go a long way if many guests practice this. But it can’t just stop there to be truly sustainable. 

This Greenloons blog post shows an example of how attempts at greenwashing at a Westin in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina (US) seemed to be less about being green and more about saving on labor costs by eliminating daily cleaning altogether. The attempts at sustainability seemed to stop with that (they still had A/C on full blast, individually-wrapped toiletries and had plastic cups and other single-use plastics at the event the author was attending). Not only are they not actually being “green,” the scaling back on labor costs can negatively impact people who need tourism to make a living. Both go against true sustainable practices.

The “Eco-Friendly” Tour Company

Tour companies can also make money off of showing how “responsible” or “eco-friendly” they are. But when you dig in farther, what does that actually look like?

This Guardian article shows the example of a company whose name itself, Responsible Travel, suggests, well, they believe in “responsible travel.” When the author actually looked into it, the company was working with large corporations that local communities have been fighting because of the toll the large-scale resort developments are taking on the environment (e.g., Canadian resort communities in Whistler, British Columbia). The company also isn’t actually organizing your tour, they’re just the intermediary contracting with other large corporations. This business model completely overlooks small, locally-owned businesses and certainly doesn’t favor ethical travel companies. 

Why Greenwashing is Bad

To be blunt: it’s unethical. 

This goes without saying, of course, but beyond the sheer irresponsibility, it has a negative effect on the entire industry of sustainable travel and tourism. By undermining the credibility related to certain buzzwords or terms, it makes it harder for truly sustainable companies to get through the fog.

Additionally, greenwashing can do actual harm to a community, an ecosystem, and local wildlife. Operating under the guise of being sustainable or responsible as a way of capitalizing off of local resources for financial gain is extremely harmful. For example, some tours geared towards the protection of animals might actually put animals in danger

Because of that opaqueness around sustainability, it can definitely be difficult to identify what is a worthwhile sustainable vacation. But we’re here to help!

How to Identify Greenwashing

With practice and a trained eye, you can avoid being greenwashed while traveling. Here are some of the red flags to look out for:

    • There’s an overabundance of buzzwords in their marketing without much substance behind it. Some common terms you’ll see (and sometimes with even special “badges” that don’t really mean anything) include: “eco-friendly,” “natural,” “environmentally friendly,” “earth friendly,” “nature-focused.” Using these terms in and of themselves doesn’t mean you’re being greenwashed, but if that’s all there is to their marketing and information provided, then there likely isn’t substance behind the fancy words. Here are some examples of how buzzwords can be used to greenwash to sell green-seeming product.
    • They don’t have specific information about their sustainability practices. While their website might say they’re reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, if they don’t say how they plan to do that in a concrete way, then it’s unclear what metrics they’re using and how they intend to achieve this goal. Those should be clearly displayed. 
    • You have to do a lot of work to find out how a company is sustainable. You shouldn’t have to hunt this information down if they’re actually practicing what they preach.
    • They don’t employ people from the local community, especially in leadership positions. Without a clear commitment to employing and engaging with a local community, a company cannot and will not be sustainable. For tour companies that run trips all over the world, each of their sites should have local community involvement at all levels.
    • Programs that offer animal restoration participation involve close encounters with animals. Some terms to look out for include “sanctuary” or “animal rescue center.” These places might actually be exploiting animals for personal profit. Some other red flags include the promise of interaction with animals and marketing of the entertainment aspect over science education. This Green Travel Guides article provides some more insight on what to look out for.
    • Their profits don’t benefit the local community. Community is an essential element of sustainable travel. Distributing some of that income to the people and places that make it worthwhile to travel there is a small part of that work.
    • The tours seem voyeuristic and euro-centric. You can often get a feel for this kind of tourism through the marketing (e.g., poverty tourism showing pictures of white travelers posing with people of color; the use of coded language such as “exotic” and “authentic”). This shows a lack of respect for the communities and cultures where the company works. Sometimes these types of tours bring you in by billing themselves as “off the beaten path.” This blogger writes about how she felt she had crossed a line when taking a tour of the community of Karen people near Chiang Mai, Thailand. There can be an especially thin line between ethical tourism and voyeurism/exploitation in “dark travel”–travel focused on conflicts and suffering (whether historical or current). The Conversation delves into how you can determine the difference.
    • They boast third-party endorsements or certifications. There has been a huge proliferation of “green certifications” that don’t really say much about what a company actually does. Don’t buy into all green certifications as the criteria is often limited and might only require a minimal fee. While it’s not the end-all-be-all, Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) standards are the most, well, standardized of the standards around sustainable tourism. 

What Does Actual Sustainability Look Like in Practice

Being “sustainable” goes beyond one, simple action (e.g., providing nature hikes for kids or not washing linens every day). Rather, it’s a holistic ethos that goes into almost all areas of the business model. 

Companies like the sustainable travel platform and a BBV Trusted Partner, Wayaj, are making choosing eco-hotels easier and more transparent.

“There’s a lot of greenwashing out there,” says Wayaj founder, Nelly Gedeon. “We try to cut through all the noise to provide all our users information that is based on science that they can make informed choices. Assuming choices that go against climate change.” 

They do this by using seven categories that make up their Sustainability Rating for hotels on their platform. While they’re focusing on lodging specifically, the ratings can be applied to any industry in tourism.

Here’s how you can use Wayaj’s sustainability assessment model for all your green travel choices beyond the hotels on their platform:

  1. The local community benefits from and has a voice in the business practices of the company or organization. Learn about the company’s employment practices, how the local community is involved with and benefits from the company, and if and how they work with local community partners.
  2. They actively implement sustainable water practices. Find out how the company reuses water (e.g., do they have a greywater system to recycle water used from the kitchen or laundry), what their natural sources of water are, and how they treat their wastewater.
  3. They aim to reduce energy and to employ clean and renewable sources. Find out how the company monitors its energy consumption and what goals they have for reducing it. Additionally, learn about their energy sources and if they have plans to use renewable energy and what that will look like.
  4. The materials and resources used do not contribute to single-use plastic waste and unnecessary consumption. Learn about packaging of any materials (e.g., hospitality items) and whether they use single-use plastic and do they aim to eliminate the use of such. If they haven’t eliminated it completely, do they use more sustainable packaging? Additionally, do they partner with local organizations or groups to provide products or resources for the company?
  5. They have high indoor air quality levels and a healthy indoor environment. For companies with a physical building, especially hotels, find out how they cycle and treat the air.
  6. They have decreased the amount of waste and divert waste generated from landfills. Find out how the company has cut down on waste in general and then what they do with other waste. Learn about their composting and recycling practices and where those are taking place. Companies that adhere to the Leave No Trace principles go even a step feather, especially outdoors companies.
  7. They adhere to socially responsible, safe, and healthy management practices. Learn about the workplace environment and how employees are treated and whether there’s intentional and diverse representation as well as non-discriminatory practices. Understand how they are welcoming and open to all genders and races. For companies that lead tours, find out if they have limits to the number of travelers to minimize environmental impact and if wildlife and ecosystem protection-focused tours are based on science and education vs. exploitation.

It’s important to note that for small companiesdepending on their product and sourceemploying all of the above categories can definitely be difficult and time-consuming. But being transparent about how they’re being more sustainable goes a long way. No one is going to do it perfectly, but it’s a process and the goal is that companies are doing the best within their means to achieve it.

You Have Power to Make Change through Your Choices

While it’s disheartening that marketing can act as a barrier to actual action to be sustainable, hopefully these tools can help you make good choices.

Hopefully more companies like Wayaj will begin to make this easier for us to make good choices. But for now, as Nelly Gedeon says, “It’s really incumbent on us to make choices to force hotels [and other tourism industries] to do the right thing when it comes to sustainability.” 

The research you do and what you do to share what you learned is a huge part of moving the needle. 

If you are interested in learning more and becoming part of our members only community, check out our website and help us change the future of travel!

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