Posted by: ecodestination | January 15, 2010

Fight greenwashing! (Wait, can we?) Pt. 2

See this post to find out about greenwashing and Fight greenwashing! (Wait, can we?) Pt. 1 here.

There are problems with environmental organizations or groups endorsing products and companies.

For one, consider that true green companies may not be able to afford certification from international organizations to avoid being suspected of greenwashing. That’s not fair.

Another issue is that sources like the deceptive Responsible Travel, “the world’s leading travel agent for responsible holidays,” is irresponsible in only listing companies that pay them for the privilege. Ahem, conflict of interest, ahem. This is not an organization that provides eco certification – it is a commercial travel agency. But by naming itself “Responsible Travel,” it easily misleads:

‘The issue I have is that a commercial travel agent has appropriated the name “responsible travel” and by so doing gives the appearance of being an official industry portal to find those kind of trips,’ says Roger Diski, founder of Rainbow Tours, a specialist African tour operator. ‘But they charge operators to be on the site, which means that only those who are prepared to pay them commission on sales are on there. Furthermore, monitoring of standards is rudimentary; much of what is on there has no particular claim to be responsible.’ (Emphasis mine.)

How can such businesses and groups be trusted to, for one, genuinely hunt for greenwashing in the eco industry and, two, truthfully report their findings?

image by The Telegraph

Not to mention that even well-known certification organizations often fail – as you will find if you take the time to dig – to fully clear the companies they endorse of greenwashing despite their promises because it’s too costly and the logistics crazy complicated (and other reasons may apply).

Consider it: an organization/group/agency would have to send someone to the actual store/hotel/headquarters/etc. to check for a complete absence of greenwashing: whether the food grown in the premises is really organic, if the light bulbs used are energy efficient, if the walls were painted with non-toxic paint, how much PVC is used, if eco hotel employees educate guests and strongly request that they remain quiet during bird watching tours and other activities in the wild, how they dispose of their trash, where they get their drinking water from if the location is remote (a well? Is it trucked in?), and a zillion other items. It would be nearly impossible to verify.

And what exacerbates this dilemma is the lack of international, ecumenical, and consistent eco standards for what exactly comprises an “eco lodge,” a “green company,” and so on. These labels are up for grabs by all bidders, greenwashing and not, because nobody checks up on them and there are no formal punishments for the crime that is greenwashing.

It’s a dire state of affairs for the eco industry.

‘Already the word “eco” has lost all power and meaning,’ says Guyonne James, senior projects manager at Tourism Concern, a UK charity which campaigns against exploitation. ‘In Brazil, if a bed-and-breakfast has a back garden, they’ll call it an eco-lodge. There has been such a proliferation of claims and green labels that as a tourist you really have no idea what’s going on.’

We may not be Wonder Wom[e]n, but we have power.

We may not be Wonder Wom(e)n, but we have power.

So, the best thing we can do?

Keep our own eyes open and dig deep. That alone is more than most people will do, whether due to lack of time, resources, or interest. And the land is fertile for greenwashing, my friends.

So let’s just do our best, until we can do better.

Even simple questions can allow for the prompt crossing out of options on one’s list.

Baby steps are better than no steps.

In the next post, I will consider frequently cited environmental standards employed to avert greenwashing.

Stay tuned, fellow greenies!

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Responses

  1. Personal judgement is always the best. There are businesses out there who care and if you ask a few questions you’ll soon find out whether or not they are genuine. We do our very best, and our favourite guests are the ones who think the same way we do – though we simply can’t afford to be too restrictive.

    But it would also be wrong to restrict the green movement entirely to the small committed companies. Frustrating though it is, a small improvement by a big company may well have a larger absolute effect than 100% committment to the cause from a much smaller operator. To those of us that work hard for a more sustainable world that’s a difficult idea to stomach!

    It’s inevitable that there will be shades of green, but you can still choose your own level and I want mine to be deep green.

  2. I agree, take small steps and do what we can.

  3. @ Devon: I think it’s good that you are not restrictive – you can always teach your non-eco-conscious guests something about being environmentally friendly, something about appreciating nature at a deeper level.

    Hey, a lot of little companies can have a big effect 🙂 I don’t see Monsanto or Exxon giving up their evil ways anytime soon…

    @ CE Webster: It’s all we can do for now, eh? So let’s do it!

  4. Hi Natalia

    Firstly I would like to say I am somewhat confused by your blog post.

    Yes, responsibletravel.com is a commercial business which charges a membership fee for most, but not all the organisations, we market on our website.

    We are not a certification scheme, ‘eco’ or otherwise, and we have always been clear and honest about that fact.

    Most certification schemes across all sectors do charge for their certification, in order to sustain their own operations (including but not limited to the Rainforest Alliance, or the Soil Association). I would recommend that if your concern is with the fee levied for certification, you address it to that large majority of organisations otherwise seldom criticised for their own commitments to ‘green’ issues.

    Secondly, I find it continually ironic and galling that the same people who told us that setting up a business called responsibletravel.com would fail because the name was irrelevant and that there would be no interest from the public, are now denying years of sustained commitment, effort and hard work on our part to try to establish a different choice for tourists based on the transparency of tourism impacts, now accuse us of ‘appropriating’ the term. If any of those people put in 1% of the effort we have in the last 9 years to try to broaden understanding and awareness of responsible tourism, I’d feel less affronted.

    Finally, I would request that you amend the caption on the image you have included in your blog. This image is actually owned by The Telegraph, who asked us to investigate greenwashing in the tourism industry and publish an audit of some of the biggest companies in the UK.

    Regards

    Justin Francis

    • Hi Alex,

      It’s good to hear your point of view.

      Yes, I made sure to emphasize that Responsible Travel “is not an organization that provides eco certification – it is a commercial travel agency.”

      Because it is a business, then, it makes sense that it will charge companies a fee. Thanks for explaining that you don’t charge fees to all the organizations on your site, however; I was not aware of that and I’m glad to hear it.

      That *is* ironic and I understand why you would find it galling – it’s like you can’t win!

      I’ll fix the caption – thanks for the head’s up.

  5. Hi Natalia and everyone else,

    Very interested to read this conversation. I think there are valid points from all sides. I agree with Justin’s response – Responsibletravel.com can rightly claim to have brought many of these issues into the public and industry consciousness, which is an incredibly important step and has led to many changes at all levels of the industry.

    I also applaud their efforts to offer free membership to some organisations. It is difficult for many small operations and initiatives with strong green credentials to afford inclusion in most commercial sites. Finding an answer to this dillemma forms the backbone of our own approach – to create an independent selection of truly ethical/green operators and accommodation providers that is based only on merits and NOT ON ABILITY TO PAY.

    The issue of a lack of international eco standards is also one that is not going to go away. Despite many efforts to resolve this dilemma, we seem to be no closer to a solution. Most would agree that it is not even possible or desirable to create such an international standard. Many ‘green’ acts are only locally appropriate, thus an international eco label is something of a paradox.

    It would seem that the only logical conclusion is for there to be a proliferation of commercial ‘green’ travel sites, whose selection criteria and membership are transparent and open to scrutiny from the public and industry alike. Competition should work to drive up green standards amongst them all. It seems this is now starting to happen, with greentraveller.co.uk relaunching, and our own site, although we do have a slightly different focus (adventure/activity)

    Sadly greenwashing is not going to go away, but people are more aware of it than ever, and it is becoming harder to get away with it. This will become more true over time as new sites establish their credibility and build a following.

    • Hi Alex!

      “… to create an independent selection of truly ethical/green operators and accommodation providers that is based only on merits and NOT ON ABILITY TO PAY.”

      WONDERFUL. Any ideas on who could fund such an organization? And that may make it biased. Oy. But maybe someone like Bill Gates, Al Gore? I would think Greenpeace and other such groups do not have enough cash to spare for such a feat, but people like the aforementioned do.

      What about regionalized eco certification? I think that would be doable! General standards applicable to most locations, and then region-specific standards developed over time to cover the globe. Wouldn’t that work?

      I will check out both of the sites you mentioned. Thanks!

      And I received your email. Will be in touch, Alex!

      Thank you so much for stopping by!

  6. Hi,

    To me regionalised eco certification does seem to have more going for it…there are a multitude of these schemes on the market now, from costa rica to eu flower to uk green business. Some have more credibility than others, but it is a start, and can be an assistance to selective sites like ours. Th eissue still remains that you have to pay a lot for inclusion in these certification schemes, and there is little tangible evidence that it translates into more bookings. Hard for many operators to therefore justify inclusion.

    as for who can fund such an organization…we are confident we have developed a business model that will allow this to work.

    Time will tell!

    Look forward to hearing from you,

    Alex


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