Greenwashing: How To Spot an Eco-Fake

greenwashing graphic by Erin Elliott
Is your hotel truly environmentally friendly or are they greenwashing? Aren Elliott graphic

How Green is Your next Vacation Really? Here’s how to tell

By Christopher Elliott

Travel consumes precious natural resources, pollutes the environment and punches a hole in the ozone layer. You probably already know that most vacations are not green. But does the travel industry know?

A 2023 study by Booking.com found that 74 percent of travelers believe people need to “act now” to make more sustainable choices to save the planet for future generations. That’s up from 66 percent the year before. Yet hotels continue to act like scrapping single-use soaps and sourcing their restaurant food locally will reverse climate change. 

And airlines are making often outrageous claims that they’re “sustainable” even as travelers feel the effects of climate change.

It’s gone too far, say experts.

Gotta Be More than That

“It can’t just be an impressive sounding goal on a reusable water bottle,” says Kathleen Hetrick, a sustainability engineer at the design firm Buro Happold and contributor to the book “The Regenerative Materials Movement.” “There needs to be intention — and of course, measurable action behind it.”

That’s a nice way of saying, “Enough is enough. No more greenwashing.”

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing, or making exaggerated claims about your sustainability to attract visitors, is everywhere.

Last fall, Austrian Airlines lost a case brought against it by a consumer organization, which accused the carrier of advertising carbon-neutral flights that used 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel. A lower court found the advertisements to be misleading.

In December, the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Air France, Lufthansa and Etihad had published ads that promised passengers would “fly more sustainably” and that they were  “committed to protecting the environment.” Regulators said the ads were false and misleading — and pointed out that air travel produces high levels of both carbon dioxide and non-CO2 emissions.

Closer to home, one of the biggest greenwashing cases in recent years happened at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego County, a resort that had won numerous environmental awards. Activists found that the resort was trapping and killing wildlife, including skunks and opossums.

It’s Hard to Tell

And here’s the thing: It’s really hard to tell if an airline or hotel is greenwashing. It’s not as if there are environmental cops patrolling a resort. Your resort could make outrageously false claims about how it loves the environment, and you’d be none the wiser. Or would you?

How can you tell if a travel business really cares about the environment?

Look, let’s be honest — there’s no such thing as a “green” vacation. You’ll leave a carbon footprint, no matter what. But your trip can be green-ish. Here are a few questions to ask:

Is it a B Corp?

B Corps are businesses that meet a strict set of standards by the nonprofit B Lab. They include requirements for governance, workers, customers, community, and the environment. You can search the directory of these forward-looking companies online. You’ll see some fairly well-known brands, like Intrepid Travel. But you won’t find the names of any major airlines, car rental companies or hotel chains — at least, not yet.

Does the company have any other environmental certifications?

Third-party certifications from Green Key, LEED and WELL can be signs that a travel company means business about the environment. Transportation companies may also offer verified offsets from organizations like Terrapass or the Gold Standard Foundation. These certifications aren’t a guarantee the company is green, but it’s a good start.

What’s the company saying to everyone?

If the company claims to be green, don’t just take its word for it. Listen to what it says. If you see nothing but bikini models lounging around a pool on its Instagram channel or ads for online discounts on its site, perhaps it’s a shade of fake green. “A company’s social media strategy is generally a reflection of its current ethos and goals,” explains Julia Carter, founder of Craft Travel. If you see posts about sustainability and conservation, it can be a positive sign.

How deep is its commitment to the environment?

Look for reliable reports on sustainability from a travel company.  For example, The Travel Corporation publishes an annual impact report that charts its progress against 11 sustainability goals developed by the United Nations. Many cruise lines also publish detailed reports that allow you to check their commitment to the environment against several objective standards. For instance, Carnival shows which goals it has completed and which ones are still in the works. 

Looking for a green vacation? Be skeptical

Allow me to go off-script for a minute. Most of the environmental claims made by the travel industry are nonsense. The only green they care about is the color of your cash. I, on the other hand, care a lot about the environment. That’s why I recycled that line from a previous story.

Seriously, though, as someone who is literally always traveling, I find there are two consistent truths: First, no matter what the travel industry claims, it’s always profits over planet. In other words, if it’s a choice between doing something that will help the environment versus earning money, the money wins. 

Second, travelers lie about what they want. They tell pollsters that they want to make a difference and that they care deeply about the environment. And then they turn around and book the cheapest hotel room they can find. (Is it LEED certified? Who cares!). They choose the least expensive airline. (Does it use biofuels? It doesn’t matter!). 

And that has created an environment where travelers pretend they want a green vacation — and the travel industry pretends to give it to them.

Meantime, if you’re thinking of taking a green vacation, you might want to think again. Travel harms the environment no matter how you get there. If you want to be totally green, just stay home.

Elliott’s tips on spotting a travel company that’s greenwashing

It’s difficult to exaggerate, but almost everything in the travel industry has a tinge of fake green to it. Here’s how you can spot the biggest offenders and avoid them:

Look for sleight of hand

Some companies highlight eco-friendly initiatives that are unrelated to their main environmental impacts. For instance, an airline might promote a small recycling program but fail to address its massive carbon footprint. “It’s irrelevant,” says travel advisor Kristin Winkaffe of Winkaffe Global Travel.

Beware of a hyper-focus on one program

Greenwashing companies focus on a single initiative but miss the bigger picture, says Justin Smith, owner of The Evolved Traveler, an agency that focuses on sustainable travel. For example, a hotel that touts its commitment to abandon single-use plastics or utensils may be missing an opportunity to create a truly sustainable product by also supporting the local population. “Such practices indicate there is not a full or authentic commitment to sustainability,” he says.

Watch for vagueness and buzzwords

Be skeptical. Any hotel that calls itself green — or, worse, an “ecolodge” — deserves extra scrutiny. But even so, many of the terms thrown around aren’t just buzzy, they’re also fuzzy.  “Vague, unverifiable claims can be a sign of trouble,” says Shannon Guihan, who heads The Travel Corporation’s not-for-profit TreadRight Foundation, an environmental organization focused on supporting nature-based solutions to the climate crisis.

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