Travel companies are greenwashing — here are 3 ways to find companies that aren’t
People said the pandemic made them want to travel more responsibly in the future.
Now new data indicates that they actually do.
According to a report published in January by the World Travel & Tourism Council and Trip.com Group:
- Nearly 60% of travelers have opted for more sustainable travel options in recent years.
- Nearly 70% are actively looking for sustainable travel options.
But finding companies that take sustainability seriously isn’t easy, says James Thornton, CEO of travel company Intrepid Travel.
“You see hotels say they are sustainable, and then you use these little travel bottles for shampoos and shower gels,” he said.
It’s all just “greenwashing,” he said, referring to the term that describes companies’ efforts to appear more environmentally friendly than they are.
When a company says they are “100% sustainable” or “environmentally conscious”, it means nothing.
CEO, Intrepid Travel
The term has grown in popularity alongside the increasing demand for sustainable products and services.
The result is a mix of those who are genuinely committed to the cause – and those who throw eco-buzzwords and photos of seedlings, forests and other “green” imagery into their marketing materials, with no real action to back up their claims.
Finding companies that are sustainable
Be wary of these tactics, Thornton said.
“If a company says they are ‘100% sustainable’ or ‘environmentally conscious,’ it means nothing,” he said. “I would urge travelers to be very careful when they see these words, and really dig into them and look into some more detail.”
Consumer interest in sustainable travel has changed significantly over the past two decades, Thornton said. When he joined Intrepid Travel 18 years ago, he said that “people would look at us like we’re a little crazy” when the company talked about sustainability.
Now many companies are doing it, whether they are serious or not.
Thornton said he believes the travel industry is currently divided into three categories. A third has “incredibly good intentions, and [are] very actively tackling the climate crisis… and they are making good progress.”
Another third has ‘good intentions but [aren’t] not really taking action yet. And often… they don’t know exactly how to take action.”
The final third “just sticks its head in the sand and hopes this thing will go away, and the truth is – it’s not.”
To identify businesses in the first category, Thornton advises travelers to keep an eye out for three crucial things.
1. A history of sustainability
To determine whether a company might be jumping on the eco bandwagon, you need to examine its history, Thornton said.
He recommends looking for “a long history of association with sustainability issues, or is this something that has only just emerged?”
James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Travel.
Source: Intrepid Travel
If the messages are new to the company, it’s not a deal breaker, he said.
“But that would then encourage the customer to probably want to look into a little more detail to see if there’s rigor behind what a company actually does,” he said, “or if it’s something that’s done just for the sake of marketing — and therefore greenwashing.”
2. Check for dimensions
Next, travelers should see if the company measures greenhouse gas emissions, Thornton said.
“The honest truth is that every travel company ultimately contributes to the climate crisis,” he said. “So the best thing a travel company can do is measure its greenhouse gas emissions.”
To do this, Thornton advised travelers to consult the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism.
“The Glasgow Declaration website lists the organizations that have agreed to actively reduce their emissions… and actually have a climate plan showing how they are doing it,” he said.
Signatories must publish their climate plan, which is monitored by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, he said.
“Consumers can use this as a way to verify that the company they are booking with is serious about decarbonisation,” he said, adding that there are more than 700 organizations on the list.
Thornton said travelers can also check out the Science Based Targets Initiative, a collaboration between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, the World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature.
The website has a dashboard detailing the emissions reduction commitments of more than 4,500 companies worldwide, including American Express Global Business Travel, UK’s Reed & Mackay Travel and Australia’s Flight Center Travel Group.
3. Look for accreditations
Finally, travelers can check for independent accreditations, Thornton said.
One of the most rigorous and impressive is the B Corp certification, he said.
“It took Intrepid three years to become a B Corp,” he said.
Other companies with B Corp status include Seventh Generation, Ben & Jerry’s, Aesop — and Patagonia, which Thornton called “arguably the most famous B Corp in the world.”
To get it, companies are rated by the nonprofit B Lab and certification takes three years, Thornton said.
Kristen Graff, director of sales and marketing for Indonesia’s Bawah Reserve resort, agreed that B Corp is the “most respected” certification.
“The other is the Global Sustainable Tourism Council,” she said. “These actually do an audit and are legit.”
Bawah Reserve, a resort in Indonesia’s Anambas Islands, is applying for B Corp certification. The resort uses solar energy and desalinated drinking water on the island.
Source: Bawah Reserve
Other travel eco-certifications are less demanding, Graff said.
“A lot of them are just a racket to make money,” she said.
Bawah Reserve started the process of becoming B Corp certified in November 2021, Graff said. “We expect it to take about a year to complete,” she said.
B Corp uses a sliding scale for its certification fees, which start at $1,000 for companies with less than $1 million in annual revenue.
“The cost is fairly minimal,” said Thornton, especially “if you’re serious about sustainability.”
He said Intrepid pays about $25,000 a year for the certification.
Thornton also advised travelers to ask questions like:
- Do you use renewable energy sources?
- Is the food locally sourced?
- Do employees come from local communities?
- Who owns the hotel?
He said there are places that are considered sustainable but are “actually owned by a casino.”
Finally, Thornton recommends travelers look at online reviews.
“Often a little research on Google … can give you a really good indication of whether a hotel or travel experience is doing what it says it is doing — or if they’re actually greenwashing.”