What is Greenwashing in Tourism?

An airplane wing amongst the clouds

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The travel industry is far from eco-friendly. We know that jetting to far-flung destinations is a problem and many initiatives across the globe do more harm than good.

But, as we get clued up on sustainability and turn to eco solutions in our lives, it’s no surprise that the travel industry is taking note. 

Whether it’s choosing an eco destination or hotel, opting for a responsible tour or ditching flying in favour of train travel, there are many ways that travellers can reduce their impact on the environment.

As a collective, we’ve become more mindful of how our choices are affecting our planet – and this is amazing progress.

Sustainability has become big news and we’re finally seeing some steps in the right direction. But it’s as more consumers look for eco options, that we’re seeing the rise of greenwashing in tourism. 

What is greenwashing in tourism?

In simple terms, greenwashing is when businesses make misleading ‘green’ or environmental claims in their marketing campaigns to attract more customers.

And it’s something that’s happening across the board – not solely in the travel industry.

For many people, travel comes with a lot of guilt. And because foregoing travel completely isn’t a realistic option, we’re seeing more and more companies springing to action – filling their marketing with sustainable terms that aim to make us feel better about our choices.

And in theory, it seems like a good thing if businesses are prioritising the environment and trying to do good.

But, unfortunately, these marketing claims are often exaggerated and come from companies who have no real interest in benefiting the planet. 

Instead, those who use greenwashing are capitalising on the demand for sustainability and cashing in on our guilt. 

They’re jumping on the bandwagon to promote sustainability without doing any of the heavy lifting.

So, rather than being genuinely concerned about the planet and minimising their footprint, they’re spending more time on their marketing efforts and misleading customers to make themselves a profit.

Irazú Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

In deceptive marketing like this, companies make claims without providing evidence to back them up. And in many cases, greenwashing companies make environmental claims that hide a second motive – often one that boosts their bottom line. 

In fact, the term ‘greenwashing’ comes from environmentalist Jay Westerveld who wrote in 1986 that hotels were claiming to help the environment by reusing towels when, in reality, it was a way for them to reduce their laundry costs.

And while some companies are deliberately greenwashing for their own benefit, others aren’t even aware they’re doing it. Which makes it even harder for consumers to decipher the barrage of messages.

In these examples, businesses might promote something that they think is positive and eco-friendly when it isn’t a true eco solution because they lack the knowledge to investigate its real impact.

Similarly, some businesses want to do good but exaggerate their eco stance and end up misleading their customers.

In the case of travel agents or tour providers, greenwashing can also happen if there are any misunderstandings between suppliers. Because of this, greenwashing in tourism can get complex.

Why greenwashing in tourism is a problem

Green tourism means so much more than reducing energy consumption and recycling.

It also includes a business’s contribution to their local community, their conservation efforts and the excursions they promote. Not to mention their employment ethos, supply chain, food sourcing and infrastructure. 

And this means that greenwashing and false claims can cause significant damage if consumers fall for misleading information and spend their money on companies that aren’t doing good things.

El Nido in the Philippines

Yet, with so many businesses now using green terms in their marketing campaigns, it can be really hard to decipher what’s trustworthy. And if you want to be an eco traveller, this is a huge problem. 

On top of that, greenwashing in tourism is impacting the companies that genuinely are trying to make a difference.

Why? Because greenwashing has made consumers sceptical of green marketing, so the companies who are brilliant might not get their messages through.

And worse still – it’s caused some to hold back on promotion completely out of fear of being accused.

How to avoid greenwashing and travel more ethically

Greenwashing in tourism can be really difficult to spot. There are many levels to this and it can feel overwhelming and tricky to keep up.

I won’t claim to be an expert but, as we vote with our money, we have the power to drive sustainability and try to support the businesses that are doing good whenever we can.

As consumers, we have a lot of power and if you want to make a difference, it’s a good idea to thoroughly investigate your options.

This means taking the time to examine green marketing claims to see if they have enough data to back up what they’re saying.

Moraine Lake in Canada

Ask yourself – is an initiative or travel company genuinely sustainable and are they committed to being eco-friendly? Or are they doing the bare minimum and using false marketing to benefit themselves?

The businesses that are genuinely supporting the environment will be able to back up what they say. Their information won’t be hidden from customers and their claims won’t be vague.

You’ll also notice that their messaging will be consistently aligned and they’ll be able to answer your questions – both about what they’ve done in the past and what they’re hoping to improve on.

Don’t be afraid to question your travel agent, tour providers or hotels if you need more details.

You can also look out for travel companies that are certified or vetted through credible companies such as GSTC or B Corp.

Greenwashing in tourism can feel like a minefield. It won’t always be easy to decipher false or exaggerated claims. After all, greenwashing is a complicated subject.

But, knowledge is our power and understanding what greenwashing is is an important first step in the right direction!

Together we can help drive good in this world. We might not always get it right, but here’s to playing our part, sifting through the noise and trying to do the best we can to preserve our planet.


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