With more travellers seeking environmentally-friend tourism, terms such as ‘eco’ and ‘ethical’ are flooding the travel industry. But how do you ensure that your holiday is sticking to its green credentials? In this post, we offer advice on how to spot greenwashing in tourism, and give some pointers on how to avoid it.

Posted on : 2019-12-06 15:03:35

Terms such as ‘sustainable’, ‘eco’ and ‘ethical’ are flooding the travel industry. More than a third of travellers are now found to be seeking environmentally-friendly and responsible tourism, willing to pay up to 40% more for the experience. These trends are predicted to grow rapidly over the next two decades, with global spending on eco-tourism increasing at a faster rate than industry-wide average growth.

Companies are now rushing to fill this demand, with a range of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), private sector companies and larger firms looking to expand their standards for sustainable tourism. This is often portrayed and promoted through positive PR and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) claims and policies.

Unfortunately, a disturbing number of companies are opting to promote misleading or inflated claims about their environmental credentials, in the hope of attracting these more conscientious travellers. This is called ‘greenwashing’ and is essentially when a company makes unfounded claims about the ‘green’ quality of their policies or products. This can range from ambiguous or vague carbon policy reports to portraying certain services as ‘certified’, ‘100% organic’ or ‘clean’, with very little or no evidence to back it up. An example of this is EasyJet in 2008, when they claimed that their planes emitted 22% less carbon dioxide than other providers. This claim was found to be untrue when the Advertising Standards Agency questioned their figures in relation to emissions per passenger.

How to spot Greenwashing

With sustainability becoming more and more relevant to consumers, companies are taking desperate measures to appear more eco-friendly. At the simplest level, greenwashing can be spotted through blatant green promotional materials or catchy slogans claiming environmental benefits. There may also be use of ostentatious green imagery, such as leaves, animals and landscapes. Most of these marketing methods should be questioned.

greenwashing can be spotted through blatant green promotional materials or catchy slogans claiming environmental benefits. There may also be use of ostentatious green imagery, such as leaves, animals and landscapes. Most of these marketing methods should be questioned.

It can be more difficult than this though. Some companies have inconsistent messaging that may easily fool an untrained eye. Corporations and companies may claim that a product or service is green but conceal a hidden non-environmentally friendly trade off. Therefore, determining whether or not a company is actually sustainable requires proactive research.

Greenwashing doesn’t only impact the consumer, but also a much wider pool of issues. Misguided consumer purchasing impacts the environmental, social and economic credibility of the eco-tourism industry itself, endangering wider, credible ‘green’ businesses.

Greenwashing in tourism

Greenwashing is increasingly difficult to spot in the tourism industry. There are many factors that intersect to make up a complete environmental profile of a business or travel experience. From transportation to infrastructure and services, there are many ways tours can falsely claim sustainability. For example, ‘nature-based tourism’ or ‘eco-’ does not necessarily mean the experience itself has any sustainable benefits; it may have negative ones.

Often, tour operators and companies will claim that their experiences benefit local communities. They may offer day-trips to nearby villages, encourage nights in ‘traditional’ home-stays or promote interactions with local conservation or educational efforts. While these initiatives may be rooted in positive intention, there may also be misleading information regarding the financial benefits locals receive or the amount of control they have over their cultural property. It is worth doing your research before you invest your time and money in such projects, as you may be unwittingly supporting negative system of exchange.

Additionally, tours that allow travellers to closely interact with wildlife, by swimming with dolphins or riding elephants should be questioned.

How to react

Raising the issue with the organisation directly, if possible, gives them the best chance to explain their polices. If this doesn’t work, different countries have their own institutions to deal with sustainability issues. You can contact your home country’s body to flag greenwashing concerns, whether that is the UK Advertising Standards Authority, the US Federal Trade Commission or the comparable. If your efforts at an institutional level fall short, it is best to simply boycott the company and spread the word so that others do not fall for false claims of sustainability.

How to avoid greenwashing

Ask questions

The easiest way to avoid greenwashing is to ask questions. Don’t be a passive traveller – contact companies and ask about where they source their food from, whether or not they employ locals, and determine if they support any charities. Another thing to keep an eye out for is how much profit is invested annually in environmental conservation and shifts towards sustainability in the tour itself. It is also useful to check whether or not a board like The Global Sustainable Tourism Council certifies the company. Even easier, checking reviews of the tour on sites like Trip Advisor can be helpful as tourists can usually get a sense of whether or not the trip is eco-friendly whilst travelling. It is important to take these steps if you want to be a truly environmentally savvy traveller.

If the tour claims to foster connections with the local cultures, do more research to determine if the company actually empowers the community. Are local people working for the company? Does the company use locally-made products? Does the company participate in any community-based projects? Digging deeper and asking these important questions makes you a more responsible traveller.

Be aware of false advertising

Look for meaningful and accredited claims. Be cautious of generic and poorly defined statements such as ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘100% natural’ or ‘carbon neutral’. If these claims have no evidential information attached to them, question the company in question. Do they have legitimate links with a local charity? Can they verify that they invest in genuine carbon-offsetting projects? Do they monitor and seek to improve their standards for waste disposal and water usage? These are all key issues to consider when selecting a vacation experience.

Look for credentials

A company’s concern for the environment should be reflected in their policy and credentials. Some savvy tourism organisations verify their tourism products i.e. tours, accommodation, venues and attractions to meet certain sustainable standards. This can help improve transparency and targets within their wider values. There are many green certification labels in tourism, so it is worth doing your research on any particular accreditation or certification. A good benchmark for such certifications is The Global Sustainable Tourism Council, which was developed by the Rainforest Alliance, the United Nations Foundation, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The criteria is organised around the four pillars of sustainable tourism:

  • Sustainable management
  • Socioeconomic impacts
  • Cultural impacts
  • Environmental impacts (including consumption of resources, reducing pollution, and conserving biodiversity and landscapes)

It is worth noting, however, that some smaller organisations may not have enough capital to invest in certification and schemes.

For more information for sustainability in tourism, check out the Tourism for SDGs platform – created by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) – it seeks to encourage policy makers, tourism stakeholders, actors, internal organisations and companies to engage in the Sustainable Development Goals in tourism.

Be aware of hidden trade offs

Labelling a service, attraction or product as environmentally friendly based on small number of generic attributes i.e. ethical, responsible, community drive etc., when there is no mention of the wider issues of energy consumption or use of manufacturing may allude to a hidden trade off. Be aware that vague green claims may mask some more negative environmental attributes.

A last word

Greenwashing is rampant in the global tourism market. As a consumer, it is your responsibility to ask lots of questions of your tour operator, agent or hotelier. We can all act as agents of change when considering our global and systemic wellbeing – it is important quickly identify and call out instances of greenwashing and replace them with truly sustainable practices that reflect the true values of the conscientious consumer.