Over the years, an increasing number of people have become aware of their harmful impact on this beautiful planet. People trying to turn over a new leaf are looking for ways to make their lives more sustainable and eco-friendly. As tourism remains something most people wish to enjoy, more and more people are opting for environmentally friendly vacations. Such people choose new eco-hotels that are springing up worldwide, promising an experience free of guilt. Additionally, they participate in wildlife excursions that have begun to cater to more responsible travelers. However, as this positive shift has progressed, so have harmful, damaging marketing tools that capitalize on people’s good intentions. One such tool is greenwashing in tourism.

What is greenwashing in tourism?

To effectively tackle this problem, we must first understand what this term entails.
Greenwashing is a type of deceptive marketing in which a product, service, or company is presented as being superior in terms of climate change and the environment without providing sufficient evidence to support these claims.

Simply put, greenwashing occurs when a company makes a lot of noise about the significance of sustainability but doesn’t actually do anything about it. As an example, travelers who were misled wind up wasting their money on false advertising in the name of supporting sustainable practices. They may go on a tour that is more harmful than previously stated or stay at a hotel whose values don’t align with what was promised.

On the other hand, responsible businesses work hard to build common values for themselves and society as a whole. They strive to genuinely give travelers an experience that is guilt-free, eco-friendly, and memorable.

A small group of people sitting on top of a hill looking at a sunset in the distance.
It is fully possible to have an eco-friendly tour of a new area when traveling. Photo by Arthur Poulin on Unsplash.

Reasons why greenwashing in tourism occurs

There are many reasons why greenwashing in tourism occurs and why it is getting more and more popular. One purpose is to improve their brand image by claiming to support a worthy cause. Greenwashed, non-environmental, and unsustainable services exploit a positive cause to cover up their dishonesty or mend an already tarnished brand. For example, a travel business may state to be environmentally friendly while not recycling, using sustainable practices, or helping the local communities.

In some cases, such companies offer (limited) disclosure to boost their legitimacy. This approach may work in the absence of external monitoring or verification. However, if such claims are later revealed to be untrue, they can be far more harmful.

On the other hand, many companies may unintentionally engage in greenwashing. They may just wish to talk about a service (or product) that they believe is part of the solution to climate change, but they lack the information to thoroughly investigate its impact. Although this may appear to be harmless, it can have a long-term and damaging effect on the goal of a sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle.

A man exercising out in nature with a couple of trees on the right and a body of water on the left.
Avoid greenwashing in tourism and have a truly sustainable travel experience. Photo by Josh Collesano on Unsplash.

Impact of greenwashing

Many greenwashed businesses are fully aware that doing good is something that customers value, and they will take advantage of this wherever possible. Customers aren’t the only ones who suffer as a result of this. Such irresponsible businesses jeopardize the credibility of future products and services provided by other companies. They may singlehandedly make it so that consumers are unable to make environmentally conscious decisions without the fear of being duped. This has negative consequences for a variety of industries, not simply tourism. Additionally, businesses whose goals and actions are in sync may be at a disadvantage. In many cases, they might be too focused on achieving a change to invest in marketing.

How to identify and avoid greenwashing in tourism

Lastly, but most importantly – how to identify and avoid this harmful marketing strategy in order to experience the virtues of sustainable tourism? Unfortunately, greenwashing in tourism can be pretty difficult to spot (and avoid) since sustainability is quite a complex topic.

To properly differentiate between greenwashing and sustainable tourism, we, as consumers, must carefully examine marketing claims to see if there is sufficient data to back them up.

A man sitting on the grass in a park while using his laptop.
Do your own research any way you can. Photo by Malte Helmhold on Unsplash.

We must research questions such as:

  • Is the profit from the service more important to the company than the actual environmental benefits it promises?
  • Does the company reinvest the profit earned from the service back into the local community?
  • Is the service they offer genuinely sustainable and beneficial?
  • Is the company committed to environmentally friendly practices?
  • Are their words backed up with actions?

Some telltale signs of greenwashing in tourism:

  • Vague claims – Customers may easily misinterpret the true meaning of such claims. Therefore, if a company promotes well-preserved destinations, that doesn’t mean they contribute to keeping them that way.
  • No proof – The company is most likely greenwashing if there is no supporting proof behind their words. Customers should have easy access to such verification. A genuine, trustworthy business will have no trouble demonstrating its legitimacy with sufficient evidence.
  • Suggestive images – If a company has suggestive photos that depict a certain message that is not clearly stated otherwise, be wary. For example, an advertisement for a tour might show a person planting a tree in a forest. However, the said company might not contribute to such beneficial actions.
  • False labels – Many companies may have undeserving labels such as “green”, “all-natural”, and “eco.” These companies greatly benefit from these labels since conscious consumers are more likely to pick services with such labels. Simply said, avoid services with such empty labels with no significant proof behind them. This is one of the most common forms of greenwashing in tourism since customers readily believe such descriptions.

Author’s bio

Barbara TurnerSince discovering the impact humans have on the environment, Barbara Turner has been a dedicated sustainability and eco-lifestyle specialist. Her life objective has been to find different ways to make this type of life simpler for people of all ages and groups. She has contributed to a number of websites in recent years, including Fairfax Transfer and Storage. When she isn’t writing or educating others, she is traveling the world sustainably with her children and teaching them to do the same.


Cover image: G-R Mottez, via Unsplash