Greenwashing in Sustainable Tourism & Responsible Travel

Ok, so the title’s a contradiction in terms. Because if tourism is truly responsible and/or sustainable, then it won’t be greenwashing…

What is ‘Greenwashing’?

In short, unfounded, misleading or inflated claims about ‘green’ credentials.

Like a whitewash, ‘greenwash’ paints a ‘green’ (environmental, ethical, responsible or sustainable) sheen over a company’s products or services.

‘Greenwashing’ deceptively uses marketing to portray and promote an organisation's products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not, in order to mislead consumers into believing they are, in order to capitalise.

 Photo by  Tadeusz Lakota  on  Unsplash

Greenwashing was actually a term coined from the tourism industry: New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt’s 1986 essay regarding a hotel in Samoa’s practice of placing notes in rooms promoting towel reuse ostensibly to reduce ecological damage on the oceans and reefs and so "save the environment." Westervelt noted that, in most cases, little or no effort toward reducing energy waste was being made by these institutions— evidenced by the lack of cost reduction this practice created – but that the actual objective of the green campaign on the part of many hoteliers was, in fact, increased profit.

Why do Organisations Greenwash?

Greenwashed non-environmental, unethical, irresponsible or unsustainable products or perceptions create a positive PR or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) spin on products and policies to gloss over wrongdoing or dishonesty, to exonerate without sufficient investigation, to repair a damaged brand overall perception, or to use spurious data to back unsubstantiated claims.

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It may be used intentionally in extreme, such as “strategies and counter strategies that serve to shift the focus and attention away from the firm, create confusion, undermine credibility, criticize viable alternatives, and deceptively posture firm objectives, commitments, and accomplishments” (Laufer, 2003).

Such sustainable rhetoric is fake and inauthentic, in order to capitalise, manipulate, ‘front’ and even attack.

Corporate disclosure may be set up so as to maximize perceptions of legitimacy. However, a growing body of social and environmental accounting research finds that, in the absence of external monitoring and verification, greenwashing strategies amount to corporate posturing and deception.

Such organisations know ‘doing good’ is important positioning in the consumers’ eyes, which they aim to exploit for profit, but such corporate deception can backfire heavily when made public.

At other times, personal health and environmental sustainability get fakely aligned: for example, the ‘natural’ water industry with its images of mountains and lakes to sell its products’ health benefits, supposedly good for the body and the planet, all the while packaged in a plastic bottle unlikely by probability to be recycled.

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One of the most well-known high profile corporate examples of greenwashing failures include Volkswagon’s 7 year ‘clean diesel’ advertising campaign scandal, with a suspected 25,000 vehicles sold with cheating emissions technology. The US took the company to court for violating the Clean Air Act, settled with a $120,000 fine without admitting any wrongdoing.

In 2018, in response to increased calls for banning plastic straws, Starbucks introduced a new straw-less lids that actually contained more plastic by weight than the old straw and lid combination.

What problems does Greenwashing cause?

Greenwashing doesn’t just impact the customers of the organisation undertaking it.

Greenwashing by irresponsible organisations can create negative impacts for an industry as a whole: environmentally, socially, economically and in credibility.

Consumers often rely on advertising and other corporate messaging to inform their purchasing choices. Greenwashing undermines confidence in the integrity of product and service claims.

Without confidence in organisations’ claims, consumers are unable to decide their green purchasing, since they do not know who or what to trust. As a result, greenwash could endanger a whole market for green purchases and can damage the marketing of the virtuous companies, and take up of sustainability as a whole.

How can you spot and avoid Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is green-spun unsubstantiated claims of ethical, responsible, sustainable products or services.

Therefore, any consumer must closely review the claims made in marketing, and whether there is sufficient evidence and data to support claims.

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At the most simple level, greenwashing may be as blatant as a ‘green’ name, slogan or packaging aesthetic: token efforts to create a green perception, without any green credentials or evidence offered.

For example, ‘nature-based tourism’ does not mean it is sustainable or responsible – it can have a serious negative impact. Sadly, ‘ecotourism’ (which should be responsible, by definition) gets incorrectly used to promote this too.

Further examples may be demonstrated in inconsistent messaging, such as text including unsubstantiated claims in an organisation’s policies, but not repeated on its product or service information, and not backed up by data evidence or demonstrated in reality.

Organisations which have sustainability as a core foundational value are completely consistent and aligned in their sustainability information, demonstration and evidence.

The Sins of Greenwashing

According to the Home and Family Edition, 95% consumer products claiming to be green were discovered to commit at least one of the "Seven Sins of Greenwashing":

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1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-off, committed by suggesting a product is "green" based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.

2. Sin of No Proof, committed by an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.

3. Sin of Vagueness, committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.

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4. Sin of Worshiping False Labels is committed when a claim, communicated either through words or images, gives the impression of a third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists.

5. Sin of Irrelevance, committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but which is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.

6. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils, committed by claims that may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting consumers from the greater environmental impact of the category as a whole.

7. Sin of Fibbing, the least frequent Sin, is committed by making environmental claims that are simply false.

In 2008, Ed Gillespie identified "ten signs of greenwashing" similar to the Seven Sins above, with three additional indicators:

1. Suggestive pictures - Images that imply a baseless green impact, such as flowers issuing from the exhaust pipe of a vehicle.

2. Just not credible - A claim that touts the environmentally friendly attributes of a dangerous product, such as cigarettes.

3. Gobbledygook - The use of jargon or information that the average person cannot readily understand or be able to verify.

Companies may pursue certification and accreditation to avoid and counteract greenwashing and ensure independent verification of their green claims.

Greenwashing in Tourism

When you consider the definition and meanings of responsible, sustainable, ethical, conscious and other ‘green’ tourism definitions, how do you tell what tourism actually falls within them and which are just saying they do?

“It is not difficult to make claims that are light on accuracy yet can neither be easily substantiated nor discredited.” (Totem Tourism, 2013)

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In tourism, greenwashing can be challenging to spot because sustainability is complex, as the sustainable tourism recipe comprises many ingredients including how to sustainably deliver and develop infrastructure and services including, but far from limited to, design, building, energy, water, waste, carbon emissions, employment, supply chain purchasing, food, equality, community development, culture, conservation, excursions… the tourism sector is often inextricably linked with most others locally, connecting internationally. The complex supply chain means it is easy to claim locals benefit while realistically it’s the originating organisations.

Tourism businesses can easily fall into a greenwash trap when seeking to demonstrate local stewardship, to enhance reputation, to differentiate in the highly commoditised travel, yet failing to embed sustainability in core organisational culture, or accuracy in communications.

But greenwashing in sustainable tourism is serious – it affects people’s lives, communities, indigenous cultures and global biodiversity conservation.

If you’d like to get into detail about how to spot greenwashing from websites, Earth Changers’ founder Vicky wrote her Masters’ thesis on it, published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism: “Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory”.

Most consumers don’t have the level of knowledge, insight and understanding of the issues in tourism and sustainability to spot greenwashing. This is why Earth Changers was created, to highlight and promote some of the best positive impact examples in the world, to hold them up with transparent information and evidence as a beacon of pioneering work and excellence in travel sustainability.

We include information on their standards, certifications and accreditations – but these are not a pre-requisite and this is why:

Certification and Accreditation in tourism

In order to substantiate green claims, some organisations follow a process to verify and certify that their tourism products (eg. accommodation, tours, venues or attractions) meet predetermined standards.

These measures are set are set by organisations who determine what standards should be met, and often provide consultancy services to the tourism organisations on how to meet them.

Sometimes standards have a recognisable brand, and so they also get known in the industry as ‘labels’, like ‘Fair Trade” for example in other industries.

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The advantages are that the certifiers can set a standard of integrity and support the industry members on their journey of sustainability, with an industry bird’s eye view of the range of criteria-meeting transparent data, which can help push standards across the industry as a whole.

The premise is, if you don’t measure and monitor, you don’t know what, where and how to improve; transparency, targets and support can then help drive overall improvements. The credibility is largely dependent on the level of inspection (desk top, evidence, in-destination assessments, spot checks) and accountability the certifiers are subjected to.

The disadvantages are that certification schemes are purely voluntary, can cost significant amounts of money, time and resource to pursue and they differ in their standards of integrity. Therefore, some organisations excellent in sustainability won’t pursue them due to resource cost, and other organisations with resource but little internal sustainability drive may pursue standards for little more than PR.

The terms certification and accreditation are often used interchangeably and occasionally together, but they do differ:

Certification is written third-party endorsement of an organisation’s systems, products service conforming to specified requirements.

Accreditation is the formal recognition by an authoritative body of the competence to work to specified standards ie. an independent third-party endorsement and verification of the certification.

Organizations get certified by a certification body, and certification bodies get accredited by an accreditation body.

A challenge with tourism is that, due to different places wanting their own localised ‘owned standard, and different types of tourism having different needs, there are now over 150 certification standards in tourism, all with different levels of integrity! It is confusing for the industry, let alone the consumer, and can undermine the whole meaning of green certification.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)

Due to the proliferation of green certification ‘labels’, in 2007 a coalition of 32 partners formed The Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, initiated by the Rainforest Alliance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Foundation, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The purpose was to foster increased understanding of sustainable tourism practices and the adoption of universal sustainable tourism principles.

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The coalition formally launched the GSTC Partnership in 2008 at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, with the initial Criteria organized around the four pillars of sustainable tourism:

1. Sustainable management

2. Socioeconomic impacts

3. Cultural impacts

4. Environmental impacts (including consumption of resources, reducing pollution, and conserving biodiversity and landscapes)

The Criteria reflect the minimum requirements that any tourism business or public destination management authorities should aspire to reach in order to protect and sustain the world’s natural and cultural resources while ensuring tourism meets its potential as a tool for poverty alleviation.

The coalition then consulted with sustainability experts and the tourism industry and reviewed more than 60 existing certification and voluntary sets of criteria already being implemented around the globe, including 4500 criteria with comments from over 2,000 stakeholders.

In 2009, the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council was also created.

In 2010, the two organizations— the Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria and the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council (STSC) – merged, forming the existing GSTC – the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (the “C” now referring to “Council”, rather than the earlier “Criteria”), later added to in 2014 by merging in the Tour Operator Initiative (TOI), committed to sustainable value chain development.

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The GSTC

  • develops standards with its Destination Criteria and Industry Criteria frameworks, which enables it to

  • act as an accreditation body, for certification bodies that certify accommodations, tour operators and destinations, as such

  • working with destinations’ local communities, governmental agencies, NGOs and tourism industry to support destination stewardship and management,

  • thus legitimising and promoting sustainable tourism across the world,

  • increasing knowledge of best practice in the industry and building trust amongst travellers.

On our Places pages, Earth Changers notes the certifications which or rare applicable to destinations.

What Can You Do if you Spot Greenwashing in Travel?

If you feel you have been misled in marketing about the green credentials of an organisation, you should first raise the issue with the organisation directly and give them a chance to explain or redeem themselves.

If you are not satisfied with the response, you might like to check whether they are certified, and even highlight your issue with the certifier.

In the absence of satisfactory response, you can raise the issue with a relevant body in your home country. For example,

The Australian Trade Practices Act has been modified to include punishment of companies that provide misleading environmental claims.

Canada's Competition Bureau along with the Canadian Standards Association are discouraging companies from making "vague claims" towards their products' environmental impact. Any claims must be backed up by "readily available data."

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides voluntary guidelines for environmental marketing claims. These guidelines give the FTC the right to prosecute false and misleading advertisement claims.

The UK Advertising Standards Authority Green Claims Guidance reflects the Advertising Codes that require truthfulness and clarity in green claims, issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to promote fair competition between business and, in turn, consumer trust and confidence. ASA has responded to rising complaints from members of the public concerned about advertisers over-exaggerating the benefits of their product, service or organisation to the environment.

Further reading:

Sustainable Tourism - What Does that Even Mean?

Sustainable Tourism, Ecotourism, Responsible Travel, Conscious Tourism... What's the Difference?

What are The Sustainable Development Goals and what have they got to do with Tourism?