Communication can overvalue or undervalue the real performance of a business. This is called “greenwashing” or “greenhushing” respectively.
It is interesting to note that the term greenwashing was first used for the hotel Industry. Indeed, the New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt used it in 1986 in a essay about the hotel industry practice of placing notices in each room to promote the reuse of towels, allegedly to “save the environment”. However, the same hotels did not make any effort to reduce energy loss and the goal of this “greening campaign” was indeed to make profit. Jay Westerervelt labelled this conscientious act “greenwashing”.
“Greenwashing” is used to inappropriately meet consumer demand for environmentally friendly products or services.
Greenwashing accusations have been divided in 7 types. You will find below the description of these “7 sins” with examples from the tourism industry (Kuehnel, 2011).
Sin 1 The hidden trade-off
A claim suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.
A hotel states that it uses solar panels for water heating, but the property has no water conservation program. They are therefore, depleting the communities’ water table making the tourism operation unsustainable in the long-term.
Sin 2 No proof
An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.
Many restaurants and hotels claim to serve organic food. However, they don’t state from where it is sourced.
They may also claim that towel re-use is good for the environment, but they seldom provide evidence of how this is measured, especially if housekeeping changes them daily anyway!
Sin 3 Vagueness
A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.
Tourism is about connecting people to beautiful places and it is mostly centered on nature, history and culture. To promote these locales, claims are often made about them being natural, pristine, and well-preserved. It does not mean however, that these areas are being protected or initiatives are being implemented to mitigate the impact of high tourism volume.
Sin 4 Worshiping false labels
A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists (fake labels).
There are hundreds of global tourism eco-labels, certifications, accreditations, guidelines and codes of ethics that are adopted by destinations, hotels, transportation and attractions. The lack of an easily recognized certification can lead to the impression that the tourism product is certified “green” when no proper information is provided as to how it is achieved and audited.
Sin 5 Irrelevance
An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.
Mega cruise ships spend a lot of time and money to collect recyclable plastic, paper and glass, but since they are unable to store it in the vessel, they often unload this cargo in ports with no recycling facilities where the waste ends up in a landfill. Although there are programs to build recycling facilities in the ports of call, if the final destination of the recycled material is not stated, it may give a false impression that the cruise ship has fully reduced its waste impact.
Sin 6 Lesser of 2 evils
A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole.
What emits less carbon, a car, a train or a plane? According to EasyJet’s ads, their planes! The assumptions used to make these claims were erroneous and EasyJet was reprimanded by the UK Advertising Standard Agency for false advertising. Bottom line is that all of these forms of transports are powered by non-renewable energy and it ultimately comes down to relative choices about which option is less harmful to the environment.
Sin 7 Fibbing
Environmental claims that are simply false.
According to TerraChoice this is the least committed sin. The delegates sincerely wanted to believe that no tourism business would willfully mislead the public. Then we thought that the process of trying to prove a lie is so time consuming and costly that we may never know anyway.
Greenwashing can occur when a top-down mandated approach for risk management fails to embed sustainability in the organizational culture or when enthusiastic grassroots bottom-up initiatives hurry environmental programs without proper capacity building or communication strategy.