Greenwashing looms ominously over travel and tourism. Defined as “disinformation that is disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image,” it has become a recognisable term.
The rise in awareness around green issues such as global warming, declining biodiversity and overpopulation has led to more and more businesses keen to publicise their green credentials, even though they don’t have any!
Here are some of the greenwashing sins of the travel and tourism industry in India.
A hotel states that it uses solar panels for water heating, but has not implemented a water conservation programme is still depleting the communities’ water resources.
This refers to an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. For instance, restaurants and hotels claim to serve organic food, but do not provide any information on where it is sourced from.
Hotels ask guests to reuse towels claiming that it is good for the environment, but almost never provide evidence of the environmental savings or how this is monitored. Furthermore, housekeeping staff frequently replace towels regardless of where they are left.
A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. Tourism destinations are promoted as pristine, natural and well-preserved, but this does not mean there are any measures being taken to protect these natural landscapes and mitigate tourist volumes.
The term “eco” has lost all power and meaning; there are countless tourism businesses calling themselves eco-lodges just because they are situated in natural landscapes. Saying a hotel is green or sustainable and then not qualifying this claim with respect to specific features is interpreted as implying that the hotel is sustainable in every respect, which is impossible to prove and therefore misleading. Having a third party bestow this type of general claim does not relieve the hotel of the burden of proof.
Worshiping false labels
A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists.
Many the eco labels in tourism do not require third party verification, and the large number of certification schemes creates confusion amongst consumers, in general, as well as in terms of which ones require a rigorous assessment process to earn the label.
An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.
Cruise ships may take considerable efforts to recycle on board and although there are programmes to build recycling facilities in the ports of call, if the final destination of the recycled material is not stated, it may give a false impression that the cruise ship has fully reduced its waste impact.
Carbon offsets are the airline greenwash tool of choice because they put the onus on the customer to cut emissions, and the airlines do not have publicise any information on the quantity of emissions offset. Most airlines suppress this information and understandably so given the very low purchase rates.
This generally means false claims of certification, such as use of Energy Star logo for which product has undergone assessment, but has not passed. However, fibbing could also be a factor if environmental or social claims from a company’s advertisements, policy and/ or communication with consumers are not followed through. For instance, fair trade coffee and tea promises not fulfilled in hospitality tray sachets; claims to ‘minimise waste’ not reflected in the purchase of overpackaged items such as bottled water and single portions of food; smudging the line on ‘locally sourced’ food, which implies it comes from a local producer, by buying it at a nearby supermarket.