The Pitfalls of Responsible Tourism: Greenwashing
Imagine you have been convinced by our articles to travel more in a more environmentally friendly manner and you decide to book an accommodation that claims to be sustainable. Yet when you arrive, you see they do not separate waste nor have sustainable water practices. They do, in fact, serve locally produced food. I can imagine you might feel a bit ambivalent and would think twice to book a ‘sustainable’ accommodation again. Because although we have shown the importance of responsible tourism in our magazine, it should also be noted that these initiatives do not always work out the way they are meant to be.
Increasingly, terms such as ‘eco-’, ‘green’, ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘responsible’ and ‘sustainable’ are used to advertise tourism activities and destinations. However, it seems that it is not always checked whether these initiatives actually meet the standards of what they claim to stand for. ‘Greenwashing’ is a term that demonstrates how, in practice, a firm’s environmental performance or the environmental benefits of a product or service are misleadingly promoted as sustainable. Greenwashing is thus a combination of poor environmental performance and positive communication about this performance. For businesses in tourism, adopting terms such as ‘eco-’, ‘green’, ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘responsible’ and ‘sustainable’ in marketing plans speaks to consumers who are environmentally conscious and want to reflect this in their consumer behaviour. These terms thus make a good marketing strategy, but might not always represent their actual practices. As a result, the terms threaten to lose their meaning, making it difficult to know anymore when a practice actually is actually eco-friendly.
Box 1. shows the seven sins of greenwashing, which demonstrate all the strategies that are considered as greenwashing and some examples for the tourism industry.
The Seven Sins of Greenwashing:
The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: “Suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues”.
In tourism, for example, an operator can do very well using sustainable water sources and communicate this positively, but they can be unsustainable in their waste policies and not mention this.
The Sin of No-Proof: Not being able to substantiate environmental claims “by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification”.
In tourism, for example, an operator can argue that they perform sustainably, without being certified or having concrete evidence for their sustainable behaviour.
The Sin of Vagueness: An environmental claim that is “so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer”.
In tourism, for example, the term ‘green’ is used so often that it has lost its meaning to many consumers.
The Sin of Worshipping False Labels: “Gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists; fake labels, in other words”.
In tourism, for example, organisations can argue that they are certified by a label that does not exist or that they are certified when they in fact do not meet the standards at all.
The Sin of Irrelevance: an environmental “claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products”.
In tourism, for example, companies can claim certain achievements that are irrelevant to its possible consumers, such as claiming to have zero CO2 emissions for a canoe day trip.
The Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils: An environmental claim that “may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole”
In tourism, for example, flight operators may point out that they have great on board waste policies, distracting the consumer from recognizing that their air pollution is very harmful to the environment.
The Sin of Fibbing: “Environmental claims that are simply false”
In tourism, for example, although this sin is the least practiced, organisations can lie about their policies, emissions or impacts.
Despite these sins, there are ways to secure whether or not tourism activities and destinations are in fact doing their share to make their products more sustainable. It can always work to just ask companies what it is that they do specifically to increase their environmental sustainability and relations with local communities. It is a good sign when tourism operators have written policies about their impacts so that they actually can demonstrate what they are doing. However, although tourism operators can have big plans in regard to sustainability, it would also be a good idea to check the results of their plans. Ask what it is that they have achieved with their practices to be(come) more sustainable.
Another way to assess the legitimacy of marketing strategies is by looking at ecolabels. Certification is currently a very popular and common way for companies to demonstrate that they comply with certain rules in relation to sustainable tourism. Labels are often constructed by involvement of all kinds of stakeholders that together determine the guidelines for the label. There is an immense number of labels in the tourism industry that are meant to substantiate a company’s responsible environmental performances. At the same time, they remind tourists of their possible destructive behaviour and enable them to make informed choices. Therefore, labels need to have well-defined and transparent criteria for use as well as effective means to prevent the abuse of the label. However, also within labels there are a lot of contradictions. The label might only have meaning to consumers when it is broadly used, on national or even international levels, and its meanings is then actively promoted. An example of such a label is the Travelife certification (see https://www.travelife.info/index_new.php?menu=home&lang=nl#). As a consequence of this broad usage, the label cannot have too many specific rules and regulations, because it can then not be used by all different kinds of tourism providers. The labels that are broadly used do not really offer specific guidelines to providers in order to be more environmentally sustainable. On the other hand, specifying the criteria and guidelines might mean it cannot be used on a larger scale and it might not be able to become known by a wider public. These labels can also only focus on an aspect of sustainability, such as waste disposal or water policies. An example of a more narrow certificate is the Carbon Trust Footprint (https://www.carbontrust.com/client-services/certification/product-footprint/).
In conclusion, greenwashing can encompass a lot of different strategies. Often, it is meant to become more attractive to environmentally aware consumers. Consequently, terms such as ‘eco-’, ‘green’, ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘responsible’ and ‘sustainable’ are falsely used and thus lose their meaning. Ways to combat greenwashing are, for example, the use of certification labels. It can be recommended to always check for the certification standards used by operators who claim to be eco-’, ‘green’, ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘responsible’ or ‘sustainable’ in order to make sure your holiday will be sustainable and when in doubt, you can always contact the company.