While the rising concern about sustainability within the hospitality and tourism space was most likely intended to create good practices, more recently it has been seen that green claims do not always translate into genuine green behaviors. With the wide range of varying measures, indicators, and definitions of sustainability present within the hospitality industry, green execution can vary greatly between enterprises as it is next to impossible that every scheme upholds the same standardization. Moreover, because there is no one size fits all model for green practices within an accommodation, the degree of ambiguity makes it significantly harder for consumers to recognize green indicators. The shift in the market environment has caused it to become more and more frequent to see businesses turning to sustainability as a marketing tool in order to attract customers. This phenomenon is known as greenwashing, or the misleading promotional claims of responsible green business practices.
Whilst some companies follow a green agenda because they are genuinely concerned about issues surrounding sustainability, other companies have been purposefully using greenwashing to reap the socio-economic benefits of being perceived as “sustainable”. Such as competitive edge, profit advantages, and higher perceived Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Furthermore, because there is a lack of attention and technical competency over the matter, from both businesses and stakeholders alike, heavy confusion within the industry has generated and allowed room for greenwashing to occur. Greenwashing has become a centralized phenomenon within organizational environments, which has developed due to growing signals from both internal and external bodies.
Externally, the main greenwashing trigger seems to be societal pressures. This mainly refers to the relation between the growing environmental movement and the immense pressure that has been called on accommodations to transform to greener practices — from regulators, NGOs, consumers, investors, and even competitors. With the growing global demand for green consumerism, it is no surprise that this arising concern has extended into the hospitality and tourism field; yet, it is extremely difficult for stakeholders to evaluate the sustainable performance of the business from the outside, which has allowed for greenwashing to evolve.
As for internally, firstly, there is voluntary or solicited disclosure. Which is the practice where companies will selectively disclose only positive information in order to leave out negative aspects when attempting to shape their company image. Selected disclosure without obvious evidential reports regarding the environmental impacts has fueled justifiable skepticism between what firms say and do on environmental issues. Thus, it can be assumed that lack of transparency and failure to disclose information can be concluded as admitting to poor performance.
Secondly, marketing and communications can trigger greenwashing as there are times where it seems that, instead of using company expenses on green business transformations, funds are allocated towards heavy green-focused advertising and marketing instead to enhance their sustainability positioning. A common tool to promote accommodation’s green practices are certification schemes; which is a voluntary way for a company to undertake an educational procedure in order to better comprehend proper standards and criteria focused on sustainability. However, the oversaturated certification scheme market has led to the overall lack of credibility and legitimacy as they do not all follow the same degree of strictness over sustainable responsibilities. One side of the argument states that the motivation to undergo certification training is due to responsible intentions, while the other side of the argument claims that gaining competitive advantage and positive company image are the major driving incentives behind obtaining a green certification label. But with no question, the mass amount of labels is creating the murky legitimacy behind sustainable tourism-related attractions.
Thirdly, managerial issues can spark greenwashing as there can be a disconnect between a manager’s green plan declarations versus their commitment levels to actually follow through with the stated practices. Meaning, that although a manager may declare a green agenda, if they do not enforce the practices then it is less likely that lower-level positions will follow through with the new green procedures if it is not mandatory.
The last internal driver, on a bigger picture level, is policy and regulation. Relaxed and uncertain government regulations is arguably the biggest driver of greenwashing as there is a low chance of being punished for being guilty of this practice, which results in manipulation from firms.
Overall, the hospitality & tourism sector in terms of sustainability is highly unregulated and thought to still be far-reached. In order to achieve concrete clarity over greenwashing, policy-level regulatory steps are needed to be taken. It is necessary for stricter environmental regulation because, as of now, accommodation-level sustainability policy statements are easy to make, there is stakeholder demand for them, implementation is hard to control, and some companies do not have serious intentions.
Local vs. International
Aside from the root causes of greenwashing, it seems that there is also a disconnect in relation to greenwashing between the Smaller-to-Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) and Multinational Corporations (MNCs). This is likely because MNCs are able to afford heavy marketing and public relations (PR) to grant them the upper hand as ‘sustainable market leaders’ and mask their disingenuous green declarations, when in reality they could be using greenwashing as a strategy to capture more market share. This can be especially unfavorable to SMEs, as they are unable to compete with large tourism focused MNCs, monetarily speaking.
Furthermore, MNCs are mostly the organizations who can afford educational training and undergo highly recognized eco-label certification that enables them to be endorsed as industry “eco-leaders”. This matter makes it more unlikely that SMEs can compete with MNCs if they can’t afford certification labels or educational training, although they are particularly prevalent in the grand scheme of supplying accommodations.
Moreover, implementing a sustainability plan in SMEs can also be a challenge as it can initially cost a large amount of capital, which is particularly seen in developing countries when wanting to make a greener transformation. For example, in developing countries, focusing on the engagement in environmental measures can be delayed for reasons such as putting economic priority in other core aspects of accommodation operations; saving resources (i.e. energy, water) only can take place on a limited basis without impacting the quality of service, meaning the cost savings may be too insignificant to consider during slow periods; and because of the longer time period that it takes to see returns, this may be off-putting to some accommodations. In fact, it is believed that the financial position of the firm is the strongest internal factor that could influence a firm’s decision to green itself.
Aside from high cost factors, SMEs have also noted that limited knowledge, high levels of bureaucracy, lack of expertise, and seeing certification schemes/training sessions as PR exercises deter the enterprises from undergoing the process. This could be a contributing factor as to why SMEs, particularly in developing regions, have begun to endeavor into the green space, yet never proceed with eco-labelling or a standardization scheme. This can be noted and seen in the rise in businesses who label themselves as “eco” yet do not have access to resources or knowledge which creates sustainability imbalances. Moreover, when self-regulated, this poses to be more problematic in regards to regulating the industry as there are no trustworthy outside accreditors ensuring the green practices. However, even when recognizing this, in the developing world, monitoring capabilities of local organizations is less likely to occur. Therefore, with respect to the above, it can be seen that declaring green practices in SMEs is seemingly a more complex and difficult topic. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that these growing issues will be resolved without increasing regulatory pressures and until smaller scale organizations have ensured access to imperative resources to leverage a more fair and crucial position within the marketplace.
So What Now?
Without these measures in place, greenwashing discrepancies will continue to evolve. Greenwashing can be seen as highly unethical as not only can it impose long-term damage on the environment and society, but the businesses who engage in greenwashing may not realize that they can also be undermining the trust of government agencies and corporate environmental impacts.
Furthermore, they can also leave travel consumers overwhelmed and confused when trying to dig deeper into discovering business motives and CSR claims. While highly prevalent, as well as receiving major attention recently, greenwashing can still be considered a less focused area in the mainstream hospitality and tourism field.
Conceptualizing a solid idea of sustainable tourism is crucial in the pursuit of the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. However, with such an unregulated market, concrete clarity regarding sustainable tourism is still far-reached and in desperate need to take steps in seeking regulation.
But do not be discouraged 🙂
What Actions Can I Take?
As you can see there are many levels to the issue of sustainability in the hospitality and tourism industry and while we don’t want to overwhelm you, education and awareness is the first step. So we applaud you for digging into the information 😊 While you may not be able to change the entire industry overnight, we do believe you can play your part! Now that you have gained more clarity on the topic, what actions can you take?
BEFORE you travel
- Research to ensure you book with eco-accommodations and ethical tour companies.
- Route your trip to produce the least amount of carbon & buy offsets!
- Familiarize yourself with local customs/traditions.
DURING your travels
- Spend your money locally to support the people both socially and economically.
- Respect the local culture and heritage.
- Be conscious of where you dine and shop. Buy only ethically sourced products or locally made souvenirs/handicrafts.
- Opt for locally sourced food & lots of plants 🙂
- Protect wildlife – do not remove any objects from their natural habitat or purchase any animal related souvenirs.
AFTER you travel
- Leave constructive reviews.
- Report any human rights or wildlife exploitation.
- Educate others on sustainable travel.
- Commit to learning about the issues of sustainability and travel, especially while we have some down time & aren’t traveling as much.
- Join our ecomadic community and become a more sustainable traveler– we’re here to help you feel supported while you navigate changing your travel habits for the better. We’re here to answer questions and provide content that can influence a shift in a behavior and consciousness.
ecomadic is a sustainable tourism brand that empowers travelers to make more conscious decisions. By curating a marketplace to easily find and identify responsible businesses to support, and providing educational publications through our online green travel magazine, ecomadic is committed to helping empower travelers make responsible choices throughout their journeys.