One of the most important things to understand about sustainability is the enormous grey area that comes with using the word ‘sustainability’. It’s something I’ve learnt working as a writer in both the travel and sustainability space, listening to experts share their knowledge and reading up on the topic of sustainable travel.
People and businesses can make efforts to be sustainable, but we still have a long way to go to truly understanding where we can make an impact, the different terms used and what they actually mean. Greenwashing in travel and sustainability is rife. Ultimately, the best way to travel sustainably is, in fact, to not travel at all but of course that’s not logical or realistic.
Travel has been proven to expand our minds and generally make us more compassionate people, so we can argue that it’s important. But there are things we can do to lessen our footprint as we move through the world. Below, we’ve broken down how to spot greenwashing in the travel space.
Greenwashing and Sustainable Travel
“Greenwashing in tourism is a harmful practice that makes people believe they contribute to eco-friendly travel, while in fact, the opposite often happens,” writes Yvette Van den Brand on the blog of her sustainable travel search site Sustaying. “Greenwashing is used as a marketing technique to attract more customers.”
While greenwashing in travel is not only an issue in that it misleads customers, it’s also a problem in that it can have numerous negative consequences on the environment, as well as undermine genuine efforts to promote sustainable tourism.
Examples of Greenwashing in Travel
Jen Clark, an Airbnb Superhost-turned-founder of an online directory platform Hosting With Heart, designed for travellers who care about people and the planet, has seen plenty of greenwashing in travel over the years.
One example she often sees is accommodation providing water in cartons rather than plastic bottles, and citing their environmental credentials in the process. “If fresh, drinkable tap water is available, the greenest solution would be not to provide any packaged water at all,” says Clark.
“I also recently came across an ‘eco-accommodation’ operator offering to take guests on tours of the wilderness-based property via Ute. It was part of a sponsored arrangement with Toyota, and invited guests to explore this operator’s ‘pristine natural environment’ more efficiently. How is exploring the natural environment on the back of a petrol-fuelled car helping in any way to conserve or respect it?”
Clark says to remember that the greenest solution involves nothing new being introduced, and nothing resulting in waste of any kind.
How to Spot Greenwashing in Travel
So, how can you be aware of greenwashing in travel. Generally speaking, Clark says travellers should be digging deeper. “[Travellers] believe promises and claims, rather than facts,” she says. “Anyone can claim to have certain ‘green’ credentials, but these need to be objectively and repeatedly verified.”
Official certifications are almost always a way of ensuring that an accommodation operator has a firm, tangible commitment to the independent auditing of their property and has satisfied an objective set of criteria about the environmental credentials associated with it, Clark says.
Within Australia, travellers can rest assured that accommodation providers with certification from EcoTourism Australia are honest about their eco credentials.
Last year, Booking.com launched a Travel Sustainability Badge. The first of its kind in the industry, the badge highlights sustainable stays for travellers, helping them to make more eco-conscious travel decisions.
“Building a truly sustainable travel industry will take time, coordination and concerted effort, but progress is possible through continued innovation, partner support and industry collaboration,” said Tracey Foxall, Regional Manager Oceania at Booking.com. “With our Travel Sustainable badge and programme, we’re recognising the sustainability efforts of a broader range of properties around the world in a credible and transparent way for consumers.”
Aside from looking at certification, you can also look at how companies are supporting other businesses and if they’re proactively helping to build and strengthen the infrastructure of their local communities.
“That’s a tell-tale sign that an accommodation or tourism operator has a strong sense of social responsibility,” says Clark. “Without this, it’s difficult to believe that individual operators are in business for any reason beyond their own profit.
“In order for destinations to maintain ongoing appeal to travellers, they need to remain vibrant and well-resourced. It is therefore in the best interests of any genuine accommodation operator to give back to their local communities in whatever capacity they can, as often as they can.”