As consumer concern over environmental problems has increased, we have witnessed a push to make almost every industry "greener." The travel industry, as we all know, has not ignored this trend. From hybrid car rentals to carbon offsets, green hotels to conservation oriented vacation packages, the number of options now available to the environmentally conscious traveler are numerous.
While I appreciate these efforts, the reality is that, at this point, much of it is greenwashing.
This greenwash, which describes any good or service that is misleading about its environmental virtue, often comes at a premium, adding several additional fees to a vacation. To save our budgets and our conscience, we must filter out the truly green from the imposters.
The first step is to define ecotourism, or green travel, in a way that is meaningful to you. In order to do this, you must decide what shade of green traveler you are. Decide to what lengths you are willing to go in order to make your trip easier on the environment before you start shopping around for hotels and packages. If you are looking for a more concrete definition, perhaps the best place to look is the International Ecotourism Society, which defines ecotourism as:
"Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."
When evaluating an element of your holiday, whether it is a carbon offset, eco-hotel, or environmental tour, compare its promises to your definition. If they do not match, than it is probably not a good option for you. If it does match your definition, than you should check to make sure it holds up against the "Six Sins of Greenwashing." These "sins" offer an excellent framework for evaluating, not only ecotourism options, but all "green" products and services.
- Hidden Trade-off: Make sure that one green initiative does not cause other problems. For example, a hotel may advertise that it is heated with wood instead of oil, but harvesting local wood for fuel may be contributing to the deforestation of the region.
- No Proof: Many hotels and operators will claim to be doing things to help the environment, but cannot offer any evidence of their efforts. Don't hesitate to ask if a hotel or tour company has a written policy concerning environmental initiatives and relations with local people. If they don't have it written down, it probably isn't happening.
- Vagueness: This likely goes without saying for Wise Bread readers, but you should never take a claim of "green," "environmentally friendly," or even "ecotourism" at face value. Look for specific definitions of terms and actionable policies that produce measurable results.
- Irrelevance: It takes a little effort, but it is a good idea to do some research to verify the relevance of claims. For example, if a hotel boasts that it has a "property wide recycling program," it is worth checking to see if, in fact, there is a citywide recycling program mandated by law.
- Fibbing: It is easy to say that a building was constructed from "environmentally friendly materials," but it is harder to know what this means. For the traveler, the best way to sniff out fibbing is to look for widely accepted certifications, or their absence. Some common ones include Green Globe, Energy Star, and the U.S. Green Building Council.
- The Lesser of Two Evils: A carbon offset flight is still harmful to the environment in several other ways. Whether you give up certain unavoidably impacting activities or not depends on what shade of green traveler you are. Either way, consider the true benefit a green upgrade has in comparison to the damage done by the activity before you pay extra for it.
As the travel industry clamors to turn green, it will, at times, settle for the appearance of environmental friendliness. It is important for us, as consumers, to take a little effort to make sure these initiatives are all that they seem.
More importantly, it is necessary for travelers to define their own understanding of eco-travel, one that takes into consideration individual tastes, tolerances, and budgets. By doing this, we may help make the travel industry one that is genuinely concerned with its impact.