Don't Greenwash Your Holiday

By David DeFranza on 30 May 2008 3 comments
Photo: tillwe

As consumer concern over environmental problems has increased, we have witnessed a push to make almost every industry "greener." The travel industry, as we all know, has not ignored this trend. From hybrid car rentals to carbon offsets, green hotels to conservation oriented vacation packages, the number of options now available to the environmentally conscious traveler are numerous.

While I appreciate these efforts, the reality is that, at this point, much of it is greenwashing.

This greenwash, which describes any good or service that is misleading about its environmental virtue, often comes at a premium, adding several additional fees to a vacation. To save our budgets and our conscience, we must filter out the truly green from the imposters.

The first step is to define ecotourism, or green travel, in a way that is meaningful to you. In order to do this, you must decide what shade of green traveler you are. Decide to what lengths you are willing to go in order to make your trip easier on the environment before you start shopping around for hotels and packages. If you are looking for a more concrete definition, perhaps the best place to look is the International Ecotourism Society, which defines ecotourism as:

"Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."

When evaluating an element of your holiday, whether it is a carbon offset, eco-hotel, or environmental tour, compare its promises to your definition. If they do not match, than it is probably not a good option for you. If it does match your definition, than you should check to make sure it holds up against the "Six Sins of Greenwashing." These "sins" offer an excellent framework for evaluating, not only ecotourism options, but all "green" products and services.

  1. Hidden Trade-off: Make sure that one green initiative does not cause other problems. For example, a hotel may advertise that it is heated with wood instead of oil, but harvesting local wood for fuel may be contributing to the deforestation of the region.
  2. No Proof: Many hotels and operators will claim to be doing things to help the environment, but cannot offer any evidence of their efforts. Don't hesitate to ask if a hotel or tour company has a written policy concerning environmental initiatives and relations with local people. If they don't have it written down, it probably isn't happening.
  3. Vagueness: This likely goes without saying for Wise Bread readers, but you should never take a claim of "green," "environmentally friendly," or even "ecotourism" at face value. Look for specific definitions of terms and actionable policies that produce measurable results.
  4. Irrelevance: It takes a little effort, but it is a good idea to do some research to verify the relevance of claims. For example, if a hotel boasts that it has a "property wide recycling program," it is worth checking to see if, in fact, there is a citywide recycling program mandated by law.
  5. Fibbing: It is easy to say that a building was constructed from "environmentally friendly materials," but it is harder to know what this means. For the traveler, the best way to sniff out fibbing is to look for widely accepted certifications, or their absence. Some common ones include Green Globe, Energy Star, and the U.S. Green Building Council.
  6. The Lesser of Two Evils: A carbon offset flight is still harmful to the environment in several other ways. Whether you give up certain unavoidably impacting activities or not depends on what shade of green traveler you are. Either way, consider the true benefit a green upgrade has in comparison to the damage done by the activity before you pay extra for it.

As the travel industry clamors to turn green, it will, at times, settle for the appearance of environmental friendliness. It is important for us, as consumers, to take a little effort to make sure these initiatives are all that they seem.

More importantly, it is necessary for travelers to define their own understanding of eco-travel, one that takes into consideration individual tastes, tolerances, and budgets. By doing this, we may help make the travel industry one that is genuinely concerned with its impact.

For some more about greenwashed travel, check out the following:

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Guest's picture

Great article...finally some commmonsense being applied. Going or acting green seems to be the trend right now and is being commercially exploited in a number of ways (like holidays!).

Guest's picture

I like those hotels that give you the option of signaling that you don't need your towels washed every day by putting them back on the towel racks - if you want them washed, you put them in the tub. It's a little thing, but for a big enough hotel I'm sure it saves quite a bit of water and energy if people do it (I always do).

Guest's picture

Having worked at a hotel that was both self-proclaimed "green" and energy star certified, I think the whole thing is a bunch of bunk. The amount of research done in the Energy Star certification process, at least for hotels, is minimal and they take A LOT on the word of the property.

My hotel claimed to:

compost waste (they tried it for a while but F&B was run by a separate entity and there was no oversight. The person in charge of green relations actually still sells the hotel on this point although it was only done for about 3 months, max),

use energy efficient bulbs (this was def. done for a while until a new GM came in and hated them and thought they were dim and changed a bunch, especially in public spaces, out),

use low VOC paints and environmentally friendly construction materials in renovation (apparently, low VOC paint costs less than non-low VOC paint and since budget was still a huge factor and higher costs were not budgeted in, cheaper ruled),

smart thermostats and lights (switches on the lights would routinely break - not detecting a person was in the room and having to be manually turned on and then not automatically turning off, I don't think they were ever installed in guest rooms, thermostats were talked about FOREVER but never installed, housekeeping was supposed to set them back but oversight and training was lacking so it rarely, if ever, got done),

save your towels/sheets (I'm sure the sheets were not changed on a regular basis during single, multi-day stays but we frequently received comments that the towels would be changed out no matter where they were left in the room, also, not enough places to hang the towels to dry between uses led a lot of guests to request they be changed--I have noticed this in my own travels as well, regularly I hang up my towels and regularly I come back to find new ones),

Hotel-wide recycling (one was supposed to leave newspapers, cans, etc for the housekeeper in the rooms and the housekeeper was supposed to recycle them - again, lack of training and oversight led to this rarely being done. In my office, we had bins for paper at every desk as well as a huge bin in the back, if we had a substitute for our regular housekeeper all of it would find its way into one trash can/bag and there was no little gnome in the basement separating it out again)

We had won a bunch of green awards and are energy star certified (which is v. expensive to undertake but apparently not too hard to achieve if you're willing to pay for the process - at least for hotels). I would regularly be horrified to read press on the hotel extolling virtues never practiced or never implemented.

Buyer beware. I'm sure there are a lot of great green properties out there--but there are even more claiming to be something they are not. Do your research carefully.