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OPINION: Greenwashing In Tourism; Is Your Vacation As Eco-Friendly As You Think?

When planning a vacation, we’re all about trying to travel consciously. Be that staying at an eco-friendly resort, attempting to offset our carbon footprint or adopting a zero-waste approach. But sometimes, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking we’re doing good when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Greenwashing in tourism is a ‘thing’, and we all need to be mindful of it when booking the next adventure. Here are a few things to look out for, and some handy, actionable tips.

International tourism is, without a doubt, one of the largest and fastest-growing global industries. Airlines, restaurants, tour companies, hotels, amongst others, are all examples of tourism-related businesses that fall within the field—making up for 10% of the global GDP, providing one in every 10 jobs, and extending into 140 countries. The sector has received heavy pressure from stakeholders and the market environment to conform to more sustainable practices to bring out the positive socio-cultural, economic, and environmental aspects of tourism. 

This green focus has caused some travel-related companies to implement sustainable practices to be more socially and environmentally responsible. While others have quickly reacted by deceitfully using green marketing as a tool to attract travellers, this phenomenon is known as greenwashing.

Three Reasons Why Greenwashing Usually Occurs

1. Instead of using company expense to make genuine green transformations, some enterprises push heavy marketing and PR to reap the socio-economic benefits that come along with being perceived as “sustainable”. Perks such as competitive edge, cost/profit advantages, higher perceived Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and niche opportunities being the main priority.  

A widespread example of mild greenwashing can be found in countless hotels around the world where many claim to have a towel and linen reuse policy. The guest feels like the hotel cares because they put the card in the room about saving the planet, but management makes no effort to ensure that the initiative is put into practice.

2. The most common tools to promote a company’s green practices are certification schemes. To date, there are over 150+ eco-labels present within the travel and tourism industry (all with varying measures, indicators, and definitions of sustainability) making it next to impossible to enforce the same degree of strictness over sustainability responsibilities. The lack of regulation over sustainability practices or declaring credible certification bodies allows companies to use faulty labels, self-audit, and claim “eco” without any proper credentials or practices. And there are zero repercussions. While some may argue that there are credible eco-labels out there, the above-outlined matter ultimately leads to the questionable legitimacy and credibility behind eco-certification schemes overall.

3. In respect to both #1 and #2, some businesses, mainly small-to-medium enterprises (particularly in developing countries), associate certification schemes with negative factors such as high costs, limited knowledge, seeing eco-certification schemes as PR stunts, and high levels of bureaucracy. Unwilling to commit the time or resources, an enterprise can still be self-motivated and implement their own version of sustainable practices. While every intention may be right, due to the lack of access to necessary resources or knowledge, they can ultimately end up creating an imbalance. 

 

Shipwreck underwater
Case study: This self-motivated SME “eco-resort” in Southeast Asia had the mission to rebuild their house coral reef after a toxic algae bloom wiped out 80% of their surrounding aquatic ecosystem. However, while the marine conservation efforts were clear, they still had green discrepancies—such as providing plastic mini toiletry bottles and using cleaning supplies containing chemicals that create a toxic runoff— through standardisation and education, imbalance issues resulting in greenwashing could be avoided.

What Needs To Change?

The lack of attention and technical competency, combined with general confusion over greenwashing has allowed for the matter to develop and grow. This becomes problematic for travellers as individuals want to support businesses who are doing socially and environmentally good, yet may end up choosing companies that affect their footprint unwittingly. Nonetheless, greenwashing seems to be left to the guest to identify. Even though the ordinary consumer is not trained to recognise credible eco-indicators, and can therefore easily fall for dishonest claims.

This is why, according to research, it is vital for the industry to become more regulated on a policy level, or else companies will continue to get away with deceiving the consumer market. Some suggested solutions to combat greenwashing in the sustainable tourism industry could include the declaration of one standardised framework, the creation of a platform where a company’s green claims can be verified, and/or repercussions for companies found guilty of improper practices. However, as of now, there are no concrete plans in place from appropriate regulatory bodies to resolve the matter.  

So What Can I Do?

While waiting for our governments, tourism boards, and businesses to step up and implement these changes, conscious travellers can follow these tips to fight greenwashing now:

1. Take the time to research. Learn what genuinely sustainable practices look like in action. This way, indicators for credible versus greenwashed claims will become easier to recognise.

2. Look for clear proof and explanation over green practices. Most businesses who are actively working on their sustainability measures will be proud to display and discuss their eco-initiatives. 

3. If any green practices or claims seem vague, then ask. Trustworthy enterprises should not be afraid to openly disclose their efforts (including failures) to the public.

4. Hold businesses accountable. While a company can make green declarations, if they are not following through, then this is greenwashing. If you witness this, find the appropriate party to talk to (i.e. sustainability manager) and voice the matter at hand.

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