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What is Greenwashing & How to Avoid it?

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

What does ‘green’ actually mean?

It’s one of the biggest communication minefields of the moment. The warzone analogies continue; the risks of sticking your head above the parapet to make any sort of sustainability claim, put you directly in the firing line from a media seemingly hell bent on ‘catching you out’, a social media frenzy for ‘out-outing’ one another, and a public cynical and sick of the greenwash flooding over them.

Where to start?

Well at the risk of sticking our own necks out. Trees4Travel want to clean up some of the myths and language so we can all avoid ‘greenwash’.

The term ‘Greenwashing’ was coined by environmentalist and researcher Jay Westerveld as far back 1986 over the practice of reusing towels in a luxury resort in Somoa and typifies the general use of the term to this day. Greenwash is a ‘smoke & mirrors’ technique employed to highlight one (potentially tiny) aspect of climate positive activity by a brand, to deflect notice from wider less sustainability sensitive practises, usually employed to gain loyalty and market share. Or as Adryn Corcione deftly described it in a 2020 article for Business News Daily Greenwashing is

“when a company or organisation spends more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on minimizing their environmental impact”

Of course, we all have to start somewhere, and yes in this case, anything IS better than nothing, but this is why having a road map, a corporate sustainability plan, looking at every element of a business is vital. Transparency garners trust and trust breeds not only customer loyalty, but an almost inherent will to do even better.

In Juliet Kinsmen’s recent Q&A for Forbes with Rooksana Hossenally she encourages the traveller to be more proactive, to “connect the dots of the socio-economic impact of each trip they make, from planning to the actual time we spend at the destination and being aware of the supply chains”. She goes so far as to suggest taking a tour of the resort complex to see how the workers live etc. If a resort isn’t proud of its ‘back of house’ then it probably isn’t as green as it claims to be.

In other words, don’t let the green, wash over you. We have to be less passive as consumers if we are going to force change. It is not enough to simply ‘tick the offset box’ and cross our fingers, we must ask ‘how, where, when and at what cost’ are our activities being re-balanced for us.

And talking of ‘Offset’ somehow that in itself, has become a dirty word. The science, and the damage is moving too fast for ‘offset’ to be anything like enough. It is now accepted that if we are going to halt the damage, we must do more to reduce the decades, if not centuries, of abuse that have gone before. We have to be more than carbon neutral. Yes - ensure we neutralise every future imprint, but if we are serious about reversing the accelerating damage to our planet; the extreme weather patterns, caused by the estimated excess of carbon in the atmosphere (419ppm) we must also take steps to absorb more (historic) carbon in every action.

So what are the myths?

Well one of the biggest is proportionality. Travel is so often portrayed as the poster child for pollution. How often do we see an image of an airliner as a symbol for pollution? The truth is that whilst, yes of course it is damaging, air travel only makes up around 2-3% of carbon pollution, and tourism overall is put at a maximum of 8%. This is green wash in action. An attempt to divert attention, presumably manufactured by the biggest polluters on to a soft target. Travel is something we are all ‘guilty of’ and a potential, ‘quick fix’, a luxury, that we could potentially all forego, yet we choose to enter the glass house (hotel?) and therefore, should have nothing to say on the subject. Whereas mass deforestation (20%), power generation, (25%), road transport (13%), Fertiliser production (6%) etc are ‘essential’, out of our control and just too big a problem to deal with.

What this ignores is the great good that travel does for the world. Travel educates, spreads wealth, increases international understanding. In short, travel is a vital asset. That isn’t to say we should treat it like the other big polluters either; just throw up our hands to another lost battle. Travel CAN be green. Travel can even be carbon positive (or should that be negative – see below!). If we can be transparent and mindful in our options and choices. Forgo unnecessary and wasteful ad-hoc journeys, instead planning and extending those taken, ensuring we ‘spend’ locally, make good choices about level and types of transport, and repair the damage - so reduce emissions where we can and compensate/offset what we can’t’.

Anyway, see the next blog for more on what to do. Let’s get back to recognising and avoiding the wash!

What are some of the words to watch for?

Environmentally/eco - friendly – slightly ‘catch all’/ nonspecific term intended to indicate a positive environmental impact, but really only indicates a non-harmful one.

Net Zero & Carbon Neutral – achieving balance between greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere and those taken out.

Climate Positive – confusingly also known as carbon negative – the practise of exceeding carbon neutrality or absorbing more carbon than outputting it.

Tree planting versus reforestation – reforestation is specifically intended for the regrowth of natural forest habitats with indigenous planting, as opposed to simply ‘tree planting’ to farm trees. Deforestation is one of the most significant causes of carbon release into the atmosphere.

Sustainable – practices that protect natural resources rather than damaging or depleting them.

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