Earlier this month our Account Manager Kyle wrote an article discussing what is greenwashing and how it can affect your brand. This led me to investigate the topic further, and specifically in relation to the travel & tourism industry, a sector in which we specialise.
He explained that ‘Greenwashing is defined as, projecting, or presenting misleading information, about how products or services are more environmentally friendly than they actually are'. He also shares various statistics and trends about the growing interest in sustainability, including the rise of the keyword 'greenwashing' in terms of search volume. Potential customers are showing an increased interest in information surrounding this controversial topic which could ultimately lead to harming your brand through misleading marketing messaging.
In researching this topic, I started with this article written by Tom Robbins for The Guardian way back in the summer of 2008. He asked the question ‘are you being greenwashed?’, an issue that had already been identified within the sector. Within the article he looked at companies who were advertising their products as more ethical, sustainable and environmentally friendly than they really were.
He reported on Responsible Travel, commercial tour operators who had appropriated a company name which falsely gave the appearance that they were specialists in responsible travel (i.e. sustainable and eco-friendly). They were in fact greenwashing potential clients by using the company name to attract customers.
'In Britain, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is reporting a boom in the number of complaints about environmental claims - up from 117 in 2006 to 561 last year. 'What we are seeing is claims about being carbon-neutral, zero-carbon emissions and use of words such as "sustainable", "organic",' says Lord Smith, chairman of the ASA. 'Many are exaggerated or misleading.' Examples of greenwashing extend right across the travel industry, from a tiny family-run boat trip business on Skye, which was censured by the ASA for claiming its boat was 'friendly to the environment and wildlife', to giants such as Boeing, which was criticised for overstating the environmental credentials of its latest 747 in an ad headlined 'Our commitment to a better future'.
Consumer information about greenwashing
If you look, there's plenty of information widely available for potential customers to consider before making a decision, and consequently booking a holiday.
There's also lots of advice about actions the consumer can take if they suspect they're being falsely advertised to by greenwashing, and this Earth-changers.com blog is a great example which pops up on page one of many of my search terms.
But before you dismay, this area offers a significant opportunity for travel brands to attract bookings, as long as the company, the brand, their messaging and their advertising are authentic, genuine, proven, credible and honest.
Great examples of travel & tourism companies using the greenwashing subject in a positive way
If you can get it right, there is an opportunity for a triple win, for you as a company, for the consumer and their conscience, and most importantly for the planet.
In my opinion, tour operator 'France Ecotours' succeed in their blog, which covers the most important factors to consider before booking, clearly detailing their research in the area. They offer sound advice on certifications to look out for as well as clear consumer 'do's and don'ts' for whilst on holiday, alongside their extensive product offering which includes everything green, from tree house holidays to vegan travels.
Also a strong message is communicated by 'Pure Breaks' who go into even greater detail. They clearly recognise that there are companies within the industry who are capitalising off people's good nature despite its repercussions. They state that these businesses that are 'being run on profitability over local community and environmental support are conveniently forgetting that sustainability is intersectional; it must consider social and environmental sustainability as well as the economic benefits'.
For a company to be fully sustainable they must integrate social, environmental and economic issues into its business. Economic sustainability is not simply about profit; it is about how it benefits the local community and where that money is then reinvested that matters. Many companies that promote eco-tourism places do not necessarily ensure that local communities are empowered. The ethics that surround these multi-national resorts are where things start to become less transparent. What makes a resort truly sustainable is reflected in where the profits are distributed.
Pure Breaks also go into great detail giving advice on questions consumers should ask such as:
- Is profit reinvested into the local community and conservation?
- Are companies profiteering or protecting the environment?
- Does the company empower the community with local employment and sourcing of produce?
In this particular article they focus on the Maldives as a destination, giving advice to the consumer on how they can avoid companies that are using greenwashing as a sales tactic.
Only then do they suggest their holiday recommendations of credible resorts that fulfil their promise.
Top travel publications offer their opinions
Times Travel also reported on their top ten sustainable travel companies that they felt are going the extra eco friendly mile. Their article included Intrepid Travel, G Adventures and Regenerative Travel and included links through to each of the featured companies.
They do clarify that the article contains affiliate links through which they will earn revenue, but personally this doesn't sit well with me when talking about this particular topic. They also include a link to Responsible Travel, who we mentioned earlier in the blog, but without delving further into this particular company, I'm now even more unsure of their credibility.
Finally, I read an article by renowned Conde Nast Traveller, published last month and covering ‘what is greenwashing and how can we avoid it while travelling’. The author states that they aim to ‘support the heroes actually making a difference, not just talking a good sustainability game, with a guide to seeing past the eco gloss they do offer’.
It’s understandably full of solid advice all pulled together in a nice glossy package, as expected by CNT, and it does empower their consumers. However, it didn't sit quite right with me that the article was peppered with adverts for brands and companies I wouldn't necessarily label as eco-friendly.
Over the course of the last few decades it has become increasingly important to consumers that there is a transparency about the product or service they are purchasing. Unfortunately it is likely that there will always be companies that are so unethical they are willing to use any messaging and tactics required for commercial gain.
As a travel or tourism brand, it is possible to use greenwashing messaging to your advantage in your marketing communications. Just make sure that it is honest, credible and relevant to our ever changing macro-environment.
Opportunities definitely exist within paid media, content marketing and organic search optimisation if you genuinely offer a product that fulfils the environmentally sound criteria, an area which will only ever become more contentious as the years go by.