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How to Avoid Being Fooled by Greenwashing on Vacation | Frommer's Lightspring / Shutterstock

How to Avoid Being Fooled by Greenwashing on Vacation

Is that travel business as eco-conscious as it claims to be? Here's a beginner's guide to figuring out which ones are just full of hot air.

Perhaps you’ve been that well-intentioned traveler who booked a vacation at a resort claiming to be eco-friendly—it even had fancy certifications validating it—only to find that your room’s air-conditioning is running at full blast upon arrival and recycling bins are M.I.A. across the property.

Don’t feel bad. It’s likely that your “eco-resort” is engaging in what’s known as greenwashing: the misrepresentation of how a business promotes its sustainability efforts and green practices.

“It ranges from outright lies to, more commonly, being overly selective in talking about the one or two things that you’re doing well without taking a holistic approach,” says Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). 

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If you’re among those trying to be more sustainability-conscious, it can be overwhelming to sift through all the jargon and know what to ask so that you aren’t the next well-intentioned traveler who gets duped. Durband offers some simple things you can do to prevent being fooled by greenwashing so you can assert yourself as a sustainable traveler of intention and action.

Be critical of green certifications.

You can’t always trust certifications, says Durband. If a business has a giant logo that claims to certify it as eco-friendly and sustainable, pause to question it. 

Here’s why: GSTC found that there are roughly 180 different types of sustainable certifications floating around the tourism industry, and they have a wide range in quality. Some certifications were even found to be fabricated by the same companies proudly touting them as badges of honor.

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“There hasn’t been a lot of policing of it,” says Durband, who says the GSTC is currently working to set standards for sustainable travel and tourism certifications. In the meantime, look for certifications given by the state or official tourism authority, or ones that are GSTC-accredited

You can also feel confident booking with a company that is a Certified B Corporation, as the distinction is among the hardest seals to obtain due to the rigorous standards of verified social and environmental performance. Major brands that have been Certified B include Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia as well as travel operators such as Intrepid Travel, OneSeed Expeditions, and Bodu Surf & Yoga Camp in Costa Rica.

Recognize that certifications aren’t the end-all.

Many local businesses, small hotels, and small tour agencies may not have the resources nor the bandwidth to obtain a certificate, even if they meet all the requirements. 

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A little due diligence on your part is called for. At the very least, look for word of sustainability practices on company websites—and focus on the actual implementation.

That last part is key. Companies that are truly doing something will want to explain what they are doing, and they will also be honest about where they fall short and aspire to do better. 

On the other hand, if they have something to hide, the language will be vague and lacking real examples. Consider that a red flag. 

Another red flag: an absence of any mention of sustainability on the company website. “If they say nothing about it, move on,” advises Durband.

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Ask pointed questions before booking.

Don’t shy away from putting travel companies on the spot before forking over your hard-earned vacation money.

“Travelers can make an impact by opening their mouths,” Durband says. 

He encourages prospective travelers to ask how their prospective vendor is promoting sustainable practices. This not only gives consumers relevant information to weigh, but it also tells the company that sustainability is important to customers. 

If the mission is truly important for the business, representatives in every department should be able to discuss it, including the people taking the bookings.

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Some of Durband’s favorite questions include:

• Have you removed single-use plastics, including water bottles?
• Do you monitor and control energy usage, especially for heat and air conditioning?
• Is your owner committed to a holistic approach to sustainability?

Ask questions while on vacation.

Help travel companies make sustainability an ongoing practice by asking about it once you’re on your trip. 

According to a recent Booking.com survey, nearly half of respondents believe that there aren’t enough sustainable travel options available, with 48% admitting that they get annoyed if somewhere they’re staying prevents them from being sustainable (like not providing recycling options).

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But the industry will make it more of a focus if we all open our mouths and ask about it, Durband says. Ask the front desk, the maid service, the janitorial staff—and pay attention to how they respond. 

If travelers aren’t asking, some companies will be less likely to make sustainable practices a priority. 

Do your part proactively.

Carbon emissions from aircraft are the Achilles' heel of the travel industry given the amount of damage they do to the environment, says Durband, so businesses increasingly purport to pay someone else to balance CO2 emissions via websites such as Carbonfund.org or Cool Effect.

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Airlines such as United Airlines and Lufthansa even make it a choice as part of their respective booking processes. There's a lot of debate about how much effect carbon offsets have—Greenpeace says the effect is impossible to verify—but the more passengers demand it, the more the carriers might move to curb their emissions in other ways.

Durband recommends bringing your own drinking bottle while on vacation (to reduce the reliance on single-use plastics) and refill it by using the global app RefillMyBottle (Google Play and iOS), which provides GPS locations to where safe, filtered water can be found.

Small choices such as these won't solve the problems we're facing. But they signal an appetite and a growing market for change, and if they are made en masse, they could dial up to a much bigger impact that ultimately benefits everyone, including future generations of travelers.

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