Greenwashing in tourism & tips to avoid it

How to identify the common signs of greenwashing in the tourism sector

Published December 12, 2023

As concerns about environmental and social issues increase, more tourism companies and destinations are stating that their products and services are sustainable, regenerative, responsible or environmentally friendly. But these claims are sometimes unsupported, misleading well-meaning consumers and counteracting genuine efforts to provide ethical practices delivering meaningful impacts.

Greenwashing in tourism: What is it and why it happens

What is greenwashing in tourism? The term describes a deceptive marketing tactic where consumers are wrongly led to believe their travel choices are positively contributing to the environment, local economy and the community. It happens when brands, products and services claim to be responsible, environmentally conscious or sustainable without actually taking any action or providing proof.

Common reasons for greenwashing include:

  • Enhancing brand image: By pretending to be responsible and ethical, businesses can repair a poor reputation or improve how consumers perceive their brand.
  • Boosting credibility: Appearing legitimate by only telling part of the story about their sustainability efforts—an effective strategy if there is no external verification. But if these claims are proven false, their reputation can be significantly damaged.
  • Unintentional or lack of information: Companies may unwittingly greenwash their offerings when they genuinely care about highlighting responsible options but don’t have the knowledge or resources to implement changes or assess impacts.

The far-reaching impact of greenwashing

Greenwashing adversely affects businesses, consumers and our efforts to advance responsible tourism, regenerative travel and sustainability. Here’s how:

  • Businesses guilty of greenwashing damage the credibility of products, services and experiences offered by responsible tourism providers.
  • Consumers no longer trust company claims so are reluctant to choose environmentally, economically and socially responsible options.
  • Genuine eco-friendly, ethical and authentic businesses can struggle for visibility because they focus on making positive changes without investing in a sustainable tourism communications plan to showcase their authenticity and commitment.

Because tourism intersects with and impacts many other sectors—transport, food, hospitality, logistics and supply chain—negative consequences can have a ripple effect.

How to identify greenwashing: The telltale signs

Identifying sustainable, regenerative or responsible tourism practices isn’t always straightforward, especially where efforts from different sectors are combined. This can make greenwashing difficult to spot.

The following questions will help gauge how honest and ethical a tourism business really is:

  • Is there more value on profit, or being authentic and responsible?
  • Do they contribute to, or reinvest in local communities?
  • Are their behaviours and practices really environmentally friendly, sustainable or regenerative?
  • How do their tourism offerings add value?
  • Is there evidence to support claims about positive social, environmental and economic impacts?

Also look out for these four telltale signs of greenwashing:

  • Lack of evidence: Ask for proof of their claims. Trustworthy businesses can always provide corroborating evidence.
  • Unclear claims: Association with an environmentally conscious brand or offering can sometimes be misleading. For example, promoting a well-preserved destination doesn’t mean the tourism company operating in that region actually helps to protect or maintain it.
  • Allusive images: Pictures can imply environmental action without any activity actually taking place. For instance, a travel ad showing people tree planting in the background doesn’t necessarily mean the company is actually involved.
  • Inaccurate labelling: Labels or logos using words such as ‘regenerative’, ‘green’, ‘all-natural’, ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘eco’ are slapped onto products and services that don’t meet the criteria, deceiving consumers looking for responsible options. If no proof of validity can be given, it’s very likely greenwashing.

Getting legitimate certificates and labels is a long and expensive process, so larger, more profitable companies are more likely to be in a better position to pay for certification. Smaller ethical businesses can’t always afford to become certified, putting them at a disadvantage to those who can pay for third party accreditation.

Examples of greenwashing

Companies can be creative with their deceptive tactics. Common greenwashing examples include:
Companies outwardly emphasise one responsible thing they do, but back-of-house practices tell a different story. For instance, publicising donations to local causes while underpaying employees.
In some coastal destinations, businesses are legally required to limit plastics usage. Some companies proudly state that they’re environmentally responsible because they’ve done away with single-use plastics, hiding that it’s a mandatory requirement.
Often we’re asked to pay extra or change our behaviour to ‘save the environment’. For example, a property advocates showering instead of taking a bath to save water, while failing to install water-saving shower heads and tap fittings, or putting the savings they make from your efforts towards eco-friendly changes. They don’t tell you that if you choose not to take their suggestions, they won’t be changing their practices–this double standard is a form of greenwashing.
Using buzzwords like ‘sustainable packaging’, ‘nature-based’ and ‘environmentally friendly’, and using images of people collecting garbage or planting trees are potentially misleading, causing consumers to believe sustainability and responsible tourism are involved when in reality they aren’t.
Making untrue claims about activities like local village tours or wildlife interactions helps travellers think they’re supporting locals and the animals, but the company hasn’t collaborated with or reinvested funds to help either. Even worse, these activities can be harmful to local communities and wildlife.
While bioplastics are considered an eco-friendly option, they don’t break down naturally and aren’t sustainable. Construction businesses using ‘natural’ resources may actually be using non-renewable materials. For instance, Amazonian hardwood over 100 years old won’t regrow in our lifetime. Natural materials aren’t automatically sustainable, ethically sourced or biodegradable.

Greenwashing legislation: Is enough being done?

Regulators are proactively enacting laws dealing with greenwashing. Proposed EU legislation aims to penalise European companies making unsupported sustainability claims. The UK Competition and Markets Authority can prosecute brands guilty of unfounded claims or order them to change their sustainability messaging. Proposed changes to rules at the US Securities and Exchange Commission intend to prevent misleading or deceptive environmental, social and governance claims made by funds.

The Australian government passed new anti-greenwashing laws after the securities regulator cautioned that companies were twisting facts needed by investors to make informed decisions. However, further legislation is necessary to protect consumers and regulate the tourism sector to ensure that facts are available about actions being taken to back up sustainable, regenerative and responsible tourism and travel claims. 

Challenges for consumers and how to overcome them

According to Booking.com’s 2023 Sustainable Travel Report, over 50% of travellers incorporate some form of sustainable practice when travelling. The time is ripe for tourism businesses, destinations and professionals to intensify their efforts to address traveller concerns by providing clear information about their initiatives and advocating for more authentic and responsible choices. Here’s how:

They know about the harmful impacts travel can have on communities and the environment so are cautious of unknowingly being complicit in irresponsible practices.

Solution: Be open and clear about business operations in your marketing. Offer simple, easy-to-access information about implementation and impact of your responsible and ethical practices. 

Limited sustainable and regenerative travel options coupled with added costs and difficulties in doing the right thing prevent travellers selecting ethical choices.

Solution: Intentionally design responsible, regenerative or sustainable offerings that are easier and more enticing for consumers to choose, while presenting alternative harmful options as inconvenient and unappealing. 

When a destination’s claims don’t match what’s actually being offered by partner brands and companies, travellers notice and immediately doubt the destination’s overall legitimacy.

Solution: Work closely with all community, supplier and partner stakeholders—even if they appear to be unrelated—to ensure consistency between destination claims and actual practices. That way, service offerings meet traveller expectations and deliver tangible impacts for the destination, community, environment and the economy. 

Trust breaks down when there’s a disparity between the claims of tourism providers and their practices. For instance, offering water stations to refill bottles next to a tower of single-use plastic cups.

Solution: Align internal practices with your regenerative or sustainable tourism claims. Make them visible to consumers and easily understood from their perspective of what responsible tourism looks like. 

Establishing a connection with consumers based on transparency and honesty is key to achieving transformative change that meets your organisation’s commitments, goals and efforts.

Communicating your commitment to ethical practices with authenticity

Ethical tourism providers and professionals who are dedicated to using their business as a vehicle to contribute towards community, environmental and economic health don’t always know how to tell their stories of impact. Sustainable tourism content marketing is a powerful set of tools that can communicate your responsible practices, goals and activities in authentic and transparent ways while helping you reach the travellers you want to attract.

Learn more about Mankind Digital’s customised training, workshops and courses specifically designed for tourism providers and destinations committed to sustainable, responsible and regenerative tourism. Contact us by submitting an enquiry on our website.

Published December 12, 2023

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