Beyond The Brochure: Unmasking Greenwashing In Travel

The phenomenon of greenwashing involves deliberately falsifying information about the green credentials of a product, service or company. What can travellers, the hospitality industry and tour operators do to flush it out?
Greenwashing is the act of making false or misleading statements about the environmental benefits of a product or practice
Greenwashing is the act of making false or misleading statements about the environmental benefits of a product or practiceShutterstock

Sustainable tourism is having a moment. According to a 2023 survey called “Sustainable Travel Survey” by the Outlook Group and Toluna, 63 per cent of respondents said they had become more aware of "sustainable tourism" in the past ten years. When asked to choose between an eco-friendly vacation or leisure travel versus a regular one, 66 per cent opted for the former, and a whopping 88 per cent of them were ready to pay a premium for that trip.

But riding on the coattails of the green movement across the tourism, energy and retail sectors is an insidious phenomenon that undermines the painstaking progress made: greenwashing.

It’s the act of falsely claiming that a product, service or policy is beneficial to the planet and that it minimises harm to ecosystems and local communities. This masks their business-as-usual approach and can make consumers lose confidence in tackling climate action when such lies are exposed.

In the tourism sector, greenwashing can be observed when hotel chains claim they are operating sustainably by asking guests to have their linens washed every two-three days or requesting they turn off air conditioning units when they leave the room—which only saves on their electricity bills rather than actually helping the planet; tour operators who supposedly rescue wild animals like elephants but offer people to ride them or make them do tricks; or so-called ecolodges that are built near sensitive sites like ancient caves or grounds important to indigenous peoples.

Paloma Zapata, CEO of Sustainable Travel, a not-for-profit based in Europe that works with local communities and tourism operators to protect and conserve vulnerable destinations, witnessed the latter scenario first-hand in Goa when she found herself in a remote area with lush vegetation that had a special cave associated with the Buddha. A new development was being constructed close to it and was being billed as an ecolodge. When she got closer to check out the wood they were using for its construction, she noticed that it was, in fact, cement being passed off as wood.

“Cement in a natural environment is damaging to that environment. The soil or water sources nearby will get eroded, and that’s just not good. This was the case just ten years ago," she says.

Uncertainty Of Certifications

In a bid to counter such falsities, there’s a growing movement towards promoting certification as the gold standard for assessing whether a lodge or tour operator practises sustainable tourism principles. The not-for-profit TOFTigers classifies nature-based and eco-friendly lodges through its PUG and Footprint certifications, which are recognised by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) and the Indian Sustainable Tourism Criteria (ISTC), respectively. However, certification overall has its fair share of problems, too.

According to C. B. Ramkumar, Vice Chairman of the GSTC, certification will only hold water if third-party auditors conduct the assessment process. He dismissed the Indian Ministry of Tourism’s Travel for LiFE Certification as a misguided attempt at greenwashing while acknowledging it could have started out as a sincere effort to bring the sector up to global standards. He points to Türkiye instead as an example to follow. “They have the fifth largest tourism market in the world and have launched a national program for sustainable tourism which has adopted GSTC standards. Theirs is a 10-year plan, and the certification that hotels need have to be verified by a third party," he says.

“In India, Gujarat Tourism is giving subsidies to those who certify themselves with GSTC standards. Governments should put these guidelines into policy. The days of greenwashing are over because consumers are more connected, and they will call you out. The reputation hit you will take will be disastrous”.

PaliGhar, a homestay in the small town of Kalimpong, West Bengal, has woven sustainability into every branch of its operations. Run by a sixth-generation Nepali family, its two cottages were built using mudbricks, bamboo, and slurry, which keep them cool in the summer and warm during the winter. The owners are mindful of the carrying capacity of the land and practise crop rotation, composting and mulching to grow 20 different types of seasonal vegetables and flowers, as well as herbs, spices and tea.

Ahana Gurung, present co-owner of the property, acknowledges that while greenwashing has become a marketing gimmick, its presence in the homestay sector is less marked than in other areas of the hospitality industry.

Ask The Right Questions

If certification is fraught with loopholes, then how can travellers spot greenwashing in action? Zapata says people need to dig deeper than what they see at first blush. “It’s not easy at the moment to decipher greenwashing in action, but look a little bit further at what else the organisation is claiming. Also, look at social media. People talk, and when people are somewhere, what they see is very telling as well. Are the places you’re going to overcrowded? What time can you go? Research a little bit more before going and what the impact will be. Don’t rely on pictures”, she says.

Ramkumar echoes these sentiments. He believes the more questions travellers ask, the better off we all will be. “Whenever a hotel makes a claim about sustainability, travellers should ask them to show their initiatives in person. ‘Can I see the rainwater harvesting, waste management and solar panels you talked about?’ Make this request. Do the same thing with homestays. Claims have to be verifiable. If a tour operator claims to be sustainable [in their operations], ask them about it: ‘Can you educate me about it please?’”

Gurung says word-of-mouth references play an invaluable role in sifting through greenwashing claims and welcome inquiries from curious travellers wanting to know more about PaliGhar. “Our biggest ambassadors are past guests who have stayed with us, and we’ve found that nothing works as well as references and word-of-mouth do. If nothing else, they can always enquire about our initiatives over a call before booking,” she says.

The Way Out

Building a sustainable tourism industry demands leadership that will commit to change and not buckle down. Ramkumar and Zapata both agree that while certification can be put on the backburner for now, committing to the principles of sustainable tourism and implementing them rigorously within the next decade is walking the talk.

Developing national standards that are crafted to serve local needs and offer incentives that remain up-to-date and change when norms and best practices change is key. A bottom-up approach can be ignored by governments, says Zapata, which is why leadership from the top-down is needed more than ever. “Even if a small business’s leadership says ‘This is where we want to go’ and they create a vision and their ‘why,' their employees will follow. It permeates through the organisation, and there’s motivation. That’s how real change happens," she says.

Sniffing Out Greenwashing

  • Investigate the claim. A company will be transparent about its sustainability processes and release reports regularly.

  • Ask questions. Call up the hotel chain, tour operator or organisation and ask them to explain their claims of being "carbon neutral" or "sustainable."

  • Verify certification. If something is billed as "organic," it should come with FSSAI’s organic logo, the PGS logo or the NPOP logo on the packaging label. Check whether independent certifying bodies have released any information backing up sustainability claims.

  • Check social media. Reading what other travellers have written about their experiences is a good way to separate the good from the bad.

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