There has been a growing trend of consumers wanting to live more sustainably and make environmentally friendly choices in recent years. As a result, many tourism businesses have started to promote their products and services as ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ to appeal to this growing market.
Sadly, not all of these claims are accurate.
In truth, some tourism businesses are engaging in a practice known as ‘greenwashing‘.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is an emerging term advising that a product, service, or business’s operations are environmentally friendly, sustainable or ethical when in actuality, it is a distortion of messaging to influence consumer decisions.
Why is it called Greenwashing?
The word greenwashing describes how businesses ‘wash’ their public image ‘green’, by using green words and fake eco-friendly promises to attract a certain crowd.
In the tourism sense – some companies may make false or exaggerated claims about their environmental or social responsibility in order to appeal to these environmentally conscious travellers. Greenwashing is a black hat marketing tactic, blatant false advertising and, in some cases, a criminal act.
The Adverse Effects of Greenwashing
The adverse effects of the practice of greenwashing for our tourism industry include the following:
- Misleading Consumers: Greenwashing misleads consumers into believing that the tourism product or service is environmentally friendly or sustainable when it is not. This can lead to a loss of consumer trust and reputation in the business and the tourism industry.
- Undermining Genuine Efforts: Greenwashing undermines genuine efforts to reduce the environmental impact of tourism. It can create confusion and mistrust, making it more difficult for genuinely sustainable tourism products and services to stand out.
- Negative Impact on the Environment: Greenwashing can also harm the environment as it may encourage unsustainable tourism practices. For example, a hotel that claims to be eco-friendly may still use large amounts of water and energy or produce significant waste.
- Harming Local Communities: Greenwashing can harm local communities by promoting tourism activities that may damage the environment or cultural heritage. It may also displace local people or negatively affect their livelihoods.
- Missed Opportunities for Improvement: Greenwashing inevitably leads to missed opportunities for improvement in sustainability practices. If a tourism business believes it is already sustainable, it may not invest in further improvements or innovations that could enhance its sustainability performance.
Forms of Greenwashing in Tourism
Greenwashing in the tourism sector can take many forms, from exaggerating the environmental benefits of a product to using eco-friendly packaging without addressing the product’s environmental impact. Unfortunately, greenwashing is becoming commonplace. Below are just a few examples of greenwashing in the tourism industry:
1. Energy conservation claims: An accommodation provider may boast about energy conservation initiatives, such as using solar panels or implementing energy-efficient lighting. However, while these initiatives are essential, they may only be small and insignificant, or they may not even exist.
2. Misleading ‘eco-friendly’ labels: Tour operators or accommodation providers may use vague or meaningless terms such as ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ to attract environmentally conscious travellers. These terms have no legal definition and are often used to create a false impression of environmental responsibility. These buzzword labels may be based on self-assessments and not backed up by certification or independent verification.
3. Promoting unnecessary or unsustainable activities as ‘eco-friendly: Certain activities have a negative impact on the environment, such as off-road tours. Promoting them as eco-friendly by highlighting the use of electric vehicles is misleading as the activity’s environmental impact needs to be considered.
4. Minimal effort for marketing: Making minor cosmetic changes to operations to appear eco-friendly without significantly changing practices. For example, switching to reusable straws or refillable shampoo dispensers is commendable, but avoiding investigating and supporting other unsustainable practices and addressing those is not.
5. Incomplete disclosure: Avoid disclosing important information to customers, such as their carbon footprint, the source of their energy, or their waste management practices.
6. Exaggerating Environmental Benefits: Greenwashing can also involve exaggerating the environmental benefits of a product or service. For example, a tourism business may claim that its product is carbon-neutral when they only offset a small percentage of its emissions.
How to Avoid Greenwashing
In truth, many tourism businesses may not even know they are engaging in harmful greenwashing tactics, so to avoid this practice, you can take the following steps:
1. Use green buzzwords with care
Green buzzwords like ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’, and ‘green’ are overused and can be harmful and misleading. Avoid vague, ambiguous or deceptive language and use these buzz words carefully.
Back up your claims with evidence. This can include certifications from recognised organisations, third-party audits, or data on your environmental performance. Provide clear and detailed information about your environmental practices, such as energy and water usage, waste reduction efforts, and conservation initiatives.
Be honest about areas where you are still working to improve. Providing evidence will help consumers trust the claims made by your tourism business.
2. Be Transparent
Be transparent about your environmental practices, including both the successes and challenges. This can help build trust with consumers and stakeholders and lead to valuable feedback and suggestions for improvement.
3. Get Certified
If you are only starting your tourism sustainability journey, signup and complete the Strive 4 Sustainability Scorecard. Launched by Ecotourism Australia in 2022, the Strive 4 Sustainability Scorecard is a pathway program for any tourism business to start its sustainability journey. Tourism Australia is the founding partner of the Strive 4 Sustainability Scorecard.
Work with other businesses and organisations in your area to promote sustainability and share best practices.
Tourism businesses should involve stakeholders, including employees, local communities, and environmental organisations, in their environmental initiatives. This not only helps to build support for the initiatives but also ensures that the initiatives are effective and meet the needs of all stakeholders.
5. Be Consistent
Ensure that your actions match your words. If you claim to be committed to sustainability, ensure your policies and practices reflect this commitment.
By following these guidelines, tourism businesses can avoid greenwashing and build a reputation for genuine environmental stewardship.
Tourism Eco & Sustainability Accreditation
So you are just starting your ecotourism or sustainability journey and want to avoid being part of this greenwashing b.s.
Then take action by gaining accreditation and proudly displaying these credentials across your marketing collateral. Here are just a few areas we suggest for Australian Tourism Operators, but each country may have something similar:
- Strive 4 Sustainability Scorecard
- Quality Tourism Accreditated Busines (QTAB)
- EcoTourism Accreditation covering Nature Tourism, Ecotourism and Advanced Ecotourism
Wrapping it Up
No one tourism business can be 100% sustainable and perfect, but by avoiding greenwashing and choosing more sustainable practices, we all can contribute to viable visitor economy.
Switching to biodegradable straws is a start, but implementing better waste and water management, changing to renewable energy, managing food waste, equal rights, and fair wages, employing local people, and community programs go much further and are a lot more impactful to sustainable tourism.