What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing refers to companies and organisations that spend more time and money on claiming to be green than actually minimising their environmental impact. The term was coined in 1986, when environmentalist Jay Westervelt revealed that those little cards – the ones asking hotel guests to ‘hang up your towel and save the world’ – were often more profit-seeking than energy-saving.
Why it’s a problem
As people grow more sustainability conscious – and brands scramble to align themselves with this shift in consumer mindset – the scale of greenwashing offences have been vast, from sending out press releases overstating environmental commitment to spending $10 million launching the “healthier and kind-to-the-plant” Coca-Cola Life.
The result of all these brands talking the green talk and not walking the green walk? Cutting through the greenwashing noise has now become a challenge for experts, let alone the consumer.
But don’t let this cramp your sustainability style: remember that adding a ‘green sheen’ to your business is practically guaranteed to win you praise, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with making money from your sustainable initiatives. In fact, the definition of sustainability requires income generation. But sustainability is a complicated beast, and it takes years of commitment to achieve real results.
Avoid greenwashing by committing to this 3-fold approach
For travel brands, sending out one, unified message requires a cohesive and multifaceted approach in three key business areas. By avoiding any common errors within in-house operations, front-of-house branding, and all external communications, you’ll be well on your way to building brand loyalty – and a sustainable future for us all.
Remember: addressing all three elements is key. Commit to only one or two, and your brand’s message will be diluted.
1. In-house operations
Avoid: Asking your guests to adopt sustainable practices with no impact
Although a lot of green messaging has become more sophisticated – think everything from passive-aggressive pleas (‘join other guests in saving the polar bears”) to outright bribes (‘here’s a £5 voucher to spend at the bar’) – the motives behind these sustainability-focused messages are, well, rather phoney. For while the electricity saved by not washing towels is worthy of note (23710 kWh per year), the benefits of such measures are quickly undone when lights, TV and air-con are left on by housekeeping all day.
Try to: Be transparent about what you’re trying to achieve
If you save money, say so – and pass on some of the savings. If you save energy, share why, and how much, in a way that guests will feel inspired by (e.g. ‘that’s a double-decker bus of carbon’).
2. Front of house
Avoid: Investing in needless, short-term community outreach
Working with local communities is a vital part of any sustainability policy, but if poorly managed, the effects can be detrimental. Building a school, slapping your hotel or tour operator name on it, and taking some photos of kids running in and handing it over to the local community isn’t going to do any good if there’s a perfectly serviceable, government-run school down the road. Likewise, multiple groups of tourists interrupting school lessons and taking photos of children engrossed in learning is intrusive at best, damaging at worst.
Try to: Establish your community’s needs and provide long-term solutions
Making a long-lasting commitment will require establishing strong relationships and mutual respect with your community – so it’s best to provide support through existing infrastructures where possible. It’s also worth noting that even the most ‘woke’ of guests may need guidance on how to behave appropriately when interacting with the local community.
3. External communications
Avoid: Sending out misleading green messaging
Misleading use of buzzwords – specifically ‘eco’, ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ – should no longer be entertained as an option, as customers become increasingly savvy about what authentic sustainability looks like. Yet there are still plenty of egregious examples.
It’s tough to imagine, for instance, that the primary motivation for building Dubai’s latest, uber-luxe mega hotel was sustainability, as they implied in their recent press release. Despite placing ‘sustainable tourism’ ludicrously high up the list of things on offer – above its 11 swimming pools, eight dining venues, 293 rooms and vast spa – the only mention of anything that could fit the bill was a vague claim to be plastic-free, and even that only entailed banning straws and water bottles.
Try to: Focus your energy on doing more and talking less
There’s no such thing as a quick win – so drop the spin and practise more, preach less. It’s better to underplay your game and leave guests pleasantly surprised than overplay it and distil mistrust.
Since returning from a two-year circumnavigation of the world without flying, Holly Tuppen has worked as a responsible travel expert. As a freelance writer, researcher and consultant she advocates that having a positive impact on the environment and local communities is what makes good travel experiences into life-changing ones.