Increasingly there are travel firms that claim to be more environmentally friendly than they really are so they can cash in on the green pound. That’s “greenwashing”. Be warned – and find out how not to get caught out.

Greenwash and whitewash – they’re much the same thing. Claiming one thing but not delivering on the promise. A number of pressure groups have sprung up highlighting the pitfalls for green consumers. These don’t necessarily restrict themselves to travel and tourism products but provide useful wake up calls nonetheless. For instance:

Across the pond and for those who want to delve quite deeply into the topic “What is Greenwashing, and Why is it a Problem?” is an informative article written for the Encyclopedia of Business Ethics & Society (Sage, 2007).

Focusing on travel, the UK based pressure group Tourism Concern agitates on the issue and brought out a report in mid 2006 accusing a well known global hotel chain of greenwashing. It criticised Hilton Hotels Corporation and Hilton International for specific instances of “short changing local communities and habitat destruction, despite its claims to be clean and green”. Paradoxically, Hilton had earlier been “highly commended” in the acclaimed and completely separate Responsible Tourism Awards.


What practical steps can you take to pick your way through the claims and counter-claims and avoid greenwashing? Here are some tips.

1. Be clear what is meant by ecotourism.
One useful definition comes from the International Ecotourism Society which sets out to be the global source of knowledge on the subject and says ecotourism is "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Naturally enough its website offers lots more detail and guidance.

2. Decide how green you are.
There are lots of shades from lite green to dark green. Which one are you?
You can find enjoyable and revealing online questionnaires like these from National Geographic to discover the environmental impact of your holiday choices.

3. Find out what tourism companies say they do to be eco-friendly.
Ask exactly how do they conserve the environment? What exactly do they do to improve the well-being of local people? How exactly do they help the community? Do they offer visitors informative and educational activities to increase awareness?

4. Ask how they can back up their eco-friendly claims.
Are their businesses inspected and accredited? Have they won any major awards? What do guidebooks and other visitors say? Unfortunately there isn’t a single set of standards for eco-friendly tourism and dozens of bodies provide inspection and certification. Some of these have rigorous standards while others just require payment of a membership fee. There’s even one that provides recognition for hotels providing the right kind of electric kettle! Fine - if that’s your cup of tea.


Some certification schemes and awards are more meaningful than others. If you want to investigate further here are some starting points:

VISIT (which stands for Voluntary Initiatives for Sustainability in Tourism) is a European umbrella body for organizations providing certification schemes.

The International Ecotourism Society website includes links of similar ecotourism bodies around the world.

The Responsible Tourism Awards are held annually with the winners announced in November.

ISO 14001 is an environmental management standard. ISO is the International Organization for Standardisation, a network of national standards institutes of 157 countries coordinated in Switzerland. An IS0 14001 certificate is awarded when organisations show they meet a set of requirements that protect the environment, prevent pollution and improve their environmental performance.