The Travel Pro’s Guide to Greenwashing

The ESG Spot

There’s arguably no other consumer-facing industry where greenwashing is as rampant as in travel. And by that I specifically mean that the decisions made in the normal course of business are unnecessarily called “green” and “sustainable”. Make no mistake, there’s a huge difference between “green first” and “money first” (the latter is pretty much the defining criterion for greenwashing). And while I’ve (hopefully) grabbed your attention, let me elaborate.

“Sustainable” initiatives in travel usually take one or several of the following shapes and forms:

  • Waste reduction

  • Community management

  • CO2 emissions reduction

  • Business continuity

Let’s discover the wonderful world of greenwashing and common sense disguised as “sustainability”. Again, my argument is the following: the vast majority of “sustainable” initiatives are nothing more than improving operational efficiency, ensuring long-term business continuity, reducing costs, introducing new products (with the “green” hype as one of the selling points), etc.

I do have a theory that states the following: usually the ratio of capital expenditure earmarked for revenue growth vs costs optimisation is 10:1, and using the Sustainabilio magic spell helps to somehow address this disbalance without suffering the wrath of the board.

Waste Reduction

  • Elimination of single-use plastic items. Better appearance of the hotel due to less rubbish lying around (lower cleaning costs) and better image of the hotel (guests are more likely to come back, i.e. retention and word of mouth distribution).

    Lower garbage sorting and disposal costs —> cost savings.

Community Management and Engagement

  • Giving back to the local community. Better relationships with the local governments (less barriers to operate), encourage lower theft and vandalism by locals (cost savings), access to the pool of local employees with local knowledge (higher efficiency, business continuity). Needless to say, some communities are more grateful and responsive and some are less, so this has to be factored in, too.

  • Overtourism and going off the beaten path. Overtourism makes places unliveable and unbearable. No surprise locals are super unhappy about the lack of rentals (which have been converted to Airbnb-style accommodations), exorbitant prices for everything and hordes of tourists wandering around.

    Covid has helped solve the overtourism problem globally. Many places remain closed to the general public. Hence, it’s only logical for travel marketers to put a spin on things and call alternative tours the “off the beaten path”. There’s some degree of honesty here, too, as many companies are genuinely worried about the impact they have on local communities, though. Kudos to them.

    One more thing about overtourism: locals can fight back. It’s not wise to bring the crisis to the point of explosion (or like in Venice when you have two prices: one for locals and one for tourists; guess which one is much higher?).

  • Travel locally. There are several ways to put a spin on it, but it usually goes like this: “why do you need overseas locations when you can have lots of fun in your own backyard [meaning the city or the state]”. Local tourism supports local communities, and it’s a wonderful thing because friends support friends.

    Love this hypocrisy with all my heart. Local travel is a distinct kind of travel usually left for short breaks or very engaged tourists eager to experience everything in their vicinity (hint: they’re the minority, don’t discriminate against them). Another way one can look at local tourism is that it’s an alternative to no travel at all in this turbulent covid world.

  • Use local suppliers and entertainment. A very noble idea. The business case for both products is simple: more authentic experiences command higher prices. And if the local experience is actually good, it’s a retention mechanism, too.

    This is not true for all tourists: if a destination offers only local goods and tourists in reality are craving a mix of local goods and well-known international goods (Coke Zero, for instance), this makes the customer experience worse, not better.

CO2 Emissions Reduction

  • Partial switch to biofuels (airlines). Not a bad idea in general, but since SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuel) is way more expensive than the traditional one, it’s not reasonable to use it for general commercial flights. Unless the cost of SAF becomes comparable to the cost of regular aviation fuel, this whole thing will remain a PR stunt at best.

  • More tours on foot / bicycles. It’s a new “sustainable tours” trend nowadays. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the concept, it’s just a very different product from the usual tours. And please don’t tell me it’s something new – walking / cycling tours have been in existence for ages. The sad reality is that in 2021 many people are scared of being in a vehicle with other (possibly covid-infected) passengers. Hence, spreading people out and/or using individual mobility devices solves the underlying problem.

    But it’s a completely different experience, since many attractions are not reachable on foot / bicycle or not accessible to the less mobile. So this is a product diversification that has the CO2 neutrality as an afterthought.

  • Replacing short flights with trains. As a person who can pay extra for comfort but is not rich enough to fly private, I find it hard to justify unnecessary discomfort related to switching the transportation mode (if I have to, say, take a train to a city hub and then go to the airport to fly elsewhere).

    When it comes to point-to-point, for some people spending 2 hours at the airport + plane is unthinkably better than spending 4 hours on a high-speed train. So it’s a matter of personal preference, which at this very moment in time is being legislated away in, say, France.

Business Continuity

  • Work from home. It’s such a cliché topic that I’d leave it at that. Shifting company expenses (electricity, toilet paper, coffee capsules) to the employees and calling it “caring for people” as the main reason doesn’t cut it.

  • Move to renewables. This is interesting, because the whole concept is OK, but often it’s just possible to have a contract with an energy retailer with the percentage of renewable energy clearly stated. The price is usually the same or substantially the same, which gives a free bragging right without actually incurring a matching loss.

The list is definitely to be continued.