With brands getting ever cleverer at sharing heart-prodding claims about the environmental benefits of their products or the supposed social impact of their practices, many companies are coming across a good deal more sustainable than they are. So it’s up to us to be more alert to greenwashing than ever. The term ‘greenwashing’ originates from those notes we’ve all seen in hotels suggesting us guests reuse towels as a way of saving the environment – when the hosts real motivation is to reduce laundry and housekeeping costs. Hotels and travel agents are busy polishing their halos and talking the right talk, so it’s becoming harder to tell who the true heroes are. Greenwashers are those who shout about their do-gooding loudly to distract us from what they might be doing that is not so considerate, they overstate the little token-gesture acts of sustainability when behind the scenes they’re less than innocent or haven’t got a clue about what it means to be responsible. As ever, we hope to help hone your instincts with our inspiration to travel better.
What is greenwashing?
The term was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay in response to those little signs we still see in hotels that suggest that if we use fewer towels it helps them save the planet (or rather, cuts their laundry costs).
Beware buzzwords and feel-good fluff
Don’t be hoodwinked by hotels and travel companies that speak in eco-friendly platitudes. Transparency and honesty are critical. More than declarations of hope and expressions of feeling, we need substantiated facts and hard evidence. Just as ‘all-natural’ and ‘ocean-friendly’ are meaningless on beauty products or in the supermarket, stay alert to hotel websites full of wishy-washy green talk. If a group uses the strapline ‘responsible luxury’, ask them: ‘responsible in what way?’ Don’t be afraid to tackle companies when it comes to the technicalities. ‘Soft language such as “positive luxury” or “nurturing” belongs in a self-help class, but not in a sustainability strategy,’ says Xenia zu Hohenlohe of Considerate Group, which advises hospitality businesses on how to operate more responsibly. ‘Saying “we care for our planet and try and reduce our impact” without any evidence as to how is not good enough. My advice is always: don’t talk about your green actions or ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance] practices until you have something solid to show for them and you can back them up with stories, facts and figures.’
What does being green actually mean?
As a colour it evokes flourishing leafy environments and yes, better biodiversity and a respect for nature are key, but when it comes to being ecologically friendly, consider the bigger picture. When the United Nations listed its 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, it provided a compass to consider how businesses are helping to improve water quality and renewable energy, boost health and tackle hunger and poverty, among other issues. So guys, don’t just tell us you care about the UN’s Global Goals (as they’re also known) – show us what you’re actually doing to support them.
Check the small print
It’s a wonderful thing that so many people are finally talking about travel being a force for good and nudging us towards eco-friendly this and sustainable that. The challenge now, though, is how do we really know who’s walking the talk? Third-party certifications can be helpful. But when there are hundreds out there, in the travel sector alone, it helps to know which badges mean what. It requires a lot of verifiable activity to become Earthcheck certified, for example, making it an eco-credential worth noting. I recently spotted a B Corp logo on someone’s website (indicating a certain guaranteed level of social and environmental performance) and when I asked them about it they said, ‘we’re thinking of applying’. Not cool. Or even legal?
Disposing of throwaway culture
A reduction of stuff is the ultimate goal. Many eco ‘solutions’ transform one problem into another. Beware cutesy pseudo-eco amenities – wrapping a shower cap in panda-poo paper doesn’t make it sustainable. In fact, paper or bioplastic packaging just means more junk destined for landfill. Since the paper-making process still involves greenhouse-gas emissions and bio-based polymers are engineered using petrochemicals (fossil fuels), they’re only a slightly lesser evil. Biodegradable or compostable waste is still waste, plus it only degrades in special digesters – and the reality is most folks chuck everything in with regular recycling, which ends up contaminating systems. So it’s kind of lose-lose. The main takeaway is the need to beat our addiction to things and convenience. I’m all for being surprised and delighted, but it isn’t landfill-fodder that sparks joy, it is a spirit-lifting feeling that I’m leaving less in my wake.
‘Socialwashing’ is also a thing
When big property developers try to atone for their land-grabbing sins and guzzling of natural resources by gifting cities big shiny public artworks, it’s called ‘artwashing’. Cutesy PR stories and polished images from big corporate hotels about token-gesture community initiatives could betray ‘socialwashing’. Hospitality enterprises need to qualify how their operations are genuinely achieving a far-reaching positive socio-economic impact that’s built into their overall business plan. Don’t be seduced by talk of solar panels or rabbit sanctuaries – have a think about what they could and should be doing for the community on their doorstep. It’s all about the back-of-house, behind-the-curtain integrity.
A quick greenwashing checklist
Look for a section on the website dedicated to genuine sustainability credentials or logos denoting reputable third-party endorsements. Accountability and assessment are everything. Do they have meaningful long-term interactive partnerships with local NGOs and grass-roots initiatives, rather than token percentages paid to pet charities?
Energy and water efficiency
The real eco heroes give clear information on how much electricity, lighting, heating or air-con is powered by renewables (solar, wind, etc) and clarify the use of low-flow showers and low-consumption toilets and the recycling of greywater. As for housekeeping: are they the kind of luxury hotel with an air-conditioned spa that ‘lavishes’ you with endless materials that will require washing with detergents and water galore and then energy-sapping tumble-drying? No bathing or sleeping experience is relaxing for me if you can’t reuse towels or hang onto the same bedlinen.
What do they do with their glass, paper, card, plastic, metal or food leftovers? In the past we didn’t tend to choose our hotels based on who was best at minimising solid waste to landfill, but now seeing mention of an anaerobic digester or glass crusher is as much a spirit-booster as how charming the public spaces look.
Employment, inclusivity and human policies
It’s not only socially responsible to hire from the local community, it means a more authentic ambience for guests. Sustainable hotels also fling open their doors to all travellers regardless of age, gender, sexuality or physical ability. Turtle tagging on an island resort is all very sweet but unless that island prioritises diversity in terms of who it hires and who it speaks to in its marketing, it is not green. An honourable preservation of human culture is as important as caring for wildlife conservation. For example, in less-developed tropical destinations that have experienced a lot of foreign investment, check that they’re supporting indigenous people beyond selling a hand-woven bag or two made by local artisans in the gift shop.
Gardens and greenery
Have they been stringent about not introducing foreign species to their grounds, and do they actively work to boost biodiversity? Or have they shipped in that pretty, water-thirsty bougainvillaea to brighten up their semi-desert landscaping? Impressive floral displays in photographs could mean imported cut flowers a-gogo. Plants are better – as is hosting rewilding or land-preservation projects that pay it forward rather than strip it back when it comes to the wellbeing of our ecosystems.
Food and drink
On the menu, you want to get the sense that all ingredients are sourced locally. Or, even better, grown on site or supplied by a neighbouring small, biodynamic producer. Do they keep a low-carbon ‘foodprint’ with an all-organic, zero-beef, no-imported-anything policy? Celebrate hyperlocal and quality over quantity when it comes to what’s on offer in the minibar or the dining room. And if they boast a massive sprawling buffet – then they just aren’t all that eco.
From Conde Nast Traveller