Travel companies are ‘greenwashing’ — here are 3 ways to find ones that aren’t

People said the pandemic made them want to travel more responsibly in the future.

Now new data indicates they’re actually doing it.

According to a report published in January by the World Travel & Tourism Council and Trip.com Group:

  • Nearly 60% of travelers have chosen more sustainable travel options in the last couple of years.
  • Nearly 70% are actively seeking sustainable travel options.

But finding companies that are serious about sustainability isn’t easy, said James Thornton, CEO of tour company Intrepid Travel.  

“You see hotels saying they’re sustainable, and then you’re using these little travel bottles for shampoos and shower gels,” he said.

It’s all just “greenwashing,” he said, referencing the term that describes companies’ efforts to appear more environmentally sound than they are.

For a company to say they’re “100% sustainable” or they’re “eco-conscious” …  doesn’t mean anything.
James Thornton
CEO, Intrepid Travel

The term has risen in popularity alongside the increase in demand for sustainable products and services.

The result is a mix of those who are truly dedicated to the cause — and those who sprinkle eco-buzzwords and photographs of seedlings, forests and other “green” imagery in their marketing materials, with no real action to back up their claims.

Finding companies that are sustainable

Be wary of these tactics, said Thornton.

“For a company to say they’re ‘100% sustainable’ or they’re ‘eco-conscious’ …  doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “I would urge travelers to be very cautious when they’re seeing these words, and to really dig in and look in a bit more detail.”

Consumer interest in sustainable travel has changed considerably in the past two decades, said Thornton. He said when he joined Intrepid travel 18 years ago, “people would look at us like we’re a bit 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. One third have “incredibly good intentions, and [are] working very actively on addressing the climate crisis … and they’re making good progress.”

Another third have “good intentions but [aren’t] actually taking action yet. And often … they’re not quite sure how to take action.”

The final third “is just utterly burying its head in the sand and hoping that this thing is going to go away, and the truth of the matter is — it isn’t.”

To identify companies in the first category, Thornton recommends travelers look for three critical things.  

1. A history of sustainability

To ascertain whether a company may be jumping on the eco-bandwagon, examine its history, said Thornton.

He advises looking for “a long history of association with issues of sustainability, or is this something that only just appeared?”

Intrepid Travel CEO James Thornton.
Source: Intrepid Travel

If the messaging is new for the company, that’s not a deal breaker, he said.

“But that would then encourage the customer to probably want to look in a bit more detail to see if what a company actually does has rigor behind it,” he said, “Or whether it’s something that’s just being done for marketing sake — and therefore greenwashing.”

2. Check for measurements

Next, travelers should see if the company measures its greenhouse gas emissions, said Thornton.

“The honest truth is that every travel company is ultimately contributing towards the climate crisis,” he said. “So the best thing any travel company can start to do is measure the greenhouse gas emissions it creates.”

To do this, Thornton advised travelers to check 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 that shows how they’re doing that,” 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 check if the company they’re booking with is serious about decarbonization,” he said, adding that more than 700 organizations are on the list.

Thornton said travelers can also check the Science Based Targets Initiative, which is a partnership between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Its website has a dashboard that details emission-reducing commitments made by more than 4,500 companies worldwide, including American Express Global Business Travel, the United Kingdom’s Reed & Mackay Travel and Australia’s Flight Centre Travel Group.

3. Look for certifications

Finally, travelers can check for independent assessments, said Thornton.

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 reviewed by the non-profit B Lab and a certification lasts for three years, said Thornton.

Kristen Graff, director of sales and marketing at Indonesia’s Bawah Reserve resort, agreed that B Corp is the “most widely respected” certification.

Graff also recommends the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, saying that it and B Corp are “actually … legit.” The GSTC does not certify travel companies, but rather accredits third party certification bodies that use its standards.

Bawah Reserve, a resort in Indonesia’s Anambas Islands, is applying for B Corp certification. The resort uses solar power and desalinates drinking water on the island.
Source: Bawah Reserve

Other travel eco-certifications are less exacting, said Graff.

“Many of them are just a racket to make money,” she said.

Bawah Reserve started the process to become B Corp certified in November of 2022, said Graff. “We anticipate it will take about a year to complete,” she said.

B Corp uses a sliding scale for its certifications 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.

Other advice

Thornton also advised travelers to ask questions like:

  • Are you using renewable energy sources?
  • Is the food locally sourced?
  • Are employees from local communities?
  • Who owns the hotel?

He said there are places that are perceived to be sustainable but that are “actually owned by a casino.”

Lastly, Thornton recommends travelers look to online reviews.

“Often a little bit of research on Google … can give you a really good indication around whether a hotel or a travel experience is doing what it says it’s doing — or whether they’re actually greenwashing.”

Clarification: This article has been clarified to reflect that the Global Sustainable Tourism Council accredits third party certification bodies that use its standards.

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