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Old 04-22-2008, 06:46 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Greenwashed! How to spot the travel industry's eco-lies

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Greenwashed! How to spot the travel industry's eco-lies
Greenwashed! How to spot the travel industry's eco-lies
Story Highlights
A survey found that nearly half of all travelers try to be "environmentally friendly"

Many travel providers try to appear more environmentally responsible than they are

Consumers should ask tour operators and hotels questions about their practices

By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services
(Tribune Media Services) -- Book an airline ticket, save the planet.

Re-use the towel in your hotel; stop global warming. Rent a hybrid car; reduce our dependence on fossil fuel.

Lofty promises made by airlines peddling gimmicky carbon offsets, resorts hawking convoluted green initiatives and companies with shiny new fleets of high-maintenance cars to rent.

And empty promises.

In fact, there's no credible evidence that the greening of travel is saving the Earth. But here's what we do know. A recent Deloitte survey found that nearly half of all travelers try to be "environmentally friendly" when they're traveling, and almost a quarter of them are willing to pay more for green hotels, resorts and rental cars. Another poll by Travelocity found that almost three-quarters of active travelers were prepared to pony up more cash for a greener getaway.

In other words, travelers want to feel socially responsible -- and the travel industry, true to character, is more than happy to take their money. Even if it's doing nothing meaningful to help the environment. There's a term for this clever repackaging of its polluting ways: greenwashing.

"Greenwashing is undeniably present in the travel business," says Hugh Hough, president of Green Team, a company that specializes in working with sustainable travel destinations and travel-related companies. "But there are steps travelers can take to distinguish travel providers who are legitimately cleaning up their act from the more cynical providers who are just cashing in on an opportunity."

Look at the planes -- not the airline

There's no deficit of green schemes in the airline business. The latest stunt is Virgin Atlantic's test flight of an aircraft burning a mixture of standard jet fuel and biofuel. But Michael Miller of the Orlando, Florida-based aviation consulting firm Green Skies, says a real alternative to jet fuel is a decade or more away. For an airline to be "green" today it needs to make a top-to-bottom commitment to saving the environment (a handful of carriers, among them Virgin Atlantic, Flybe and Continental Airlines, have, he says).

But most fall short. "We are at a stage right now where companies are trying to be environmentally responsible but also business responsible," he says. "They want to have it both ways, and they're having a hard time." Until there's a credible ratings system for green airlines -- Miller is planning to unveil one soon -- he recommends looking at the planes, not the airline. "If you have a choice, fly on a more fuel-efficient plane, like a newer Boeing 737, instead of an MD-80," he says.

Find the stamp of approval

Don't take a travel company's word when it claims to be eco-friendly. If it says it's green, check it out. "The key to differentiating sincere efforts from trend-hopping shams lies in the details," says Raphael Bejar, chief executive of Airsavings SA, which develops airline carbon offset programs. "Which carbon offset program is partnered with an established environmental group, or which car rental company's fleet has more fuel-efficient vehicles?"

For example, the U.S. Green Building Council certifies "green" buildings. Another group, the Green Building Initiative, markets a rating system called Green Globes to validate a resort's commitment to everything from greenhouse gas emissions to land-use planning. But there is no internationally recognized group that certifies travel industry products based on their environmental practices -- yet.

See the big picture

Hotels are figuratively falling all over themselves to out-green each other. Most of their efforts look sincere but have a negligible effect on the environment. So you're washing fewer towels? Good for you. That's not saving the planet -- it's saving you money. You're recycling? Nice, but in many places, that's just following the law. You installed water-saving showerheads? Great, now can you convince those Americans who insist on taking two showers a day to cut back? Being socially responsible, say experts, isn't just about adopting one or even several "green" practices, but changing the way a resort and its guests think about the environment and their limited resources.

Alex Pettitt, host of the TV show "Mainstream Green," says some eco-resorts have really "missed the boat" when it comes to being green. "They lower their water consumption, but don't have a sustainable design," he says. "Or they'll offer eco-trips, but the facility itself is an ecological wart." Pettitt and other experts in sustainable travel say you have to look at the proverbial forest as well as the trees when you consider a hotel's environmental efforts. A laundry list of green initiatives does not make your hotel green. Instead, it's something far more difficult to pinpoint -- something ingrained in the corporate culture, almost to the point where it goes without saying that everything it does takes sustainability into consideration.

Find out if it works

One question you must ask yourself when booking a green vacation is: How sustainable is each component? It's easy to write off a plane running on biofuel as unworkable, at least for now. But what about the golf resort that bills itself as green but then irrigates the desert in order to offer guests a lush lawn to play on? How about the full-service hotel that practically scolds you for not reusing your towels, but then stocks its minibars with overpriced water bottled in landfill-clogging plastic? And don't even get me started on cruise ships ...

Not all unsustainable green efforts are so obvious, says Tim Gohmann, the senior vice president of travel and leisure at the market research firm TNS North America. For example, several car rental companies now offer the option of renting a hybrid vehicle. "But these offers are few and far between because the cost of maintenance for these hybrid cars are higher and the car company then loses the revenues made from traditional gas-powered cars," he told me. "There is no immediate payoff for the car companies so they are more reluctant to put this practice into place, and it's not widely offered."

Be a skeptic

Don't believe everything you read. After seeing a recent announcement that Universal Studios in Orlando had gone "green" with an initiative called "Green is Universal," you might be forgiven for thinking the only theme park a socially responsible traveler could visit was Universal Studios. Among the initiatives: Universal would recycle more, use energy-efficient lights and switch to alternative fuels on its service vehicles.

But as I reviewed these steps, which are meant to turn it into "the greenest resort possible" I found myself chuckling at Universal's creativity. I mean why wouldn't a theme park want to recycle and use alternative fuels? Do they mean to tell me they weren't doing this before they announced this program? Besides, if Universal wanted to be the greenest resort possible, it would level Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure to the ground and plant trees. I'm happy the park cares about the environment, but show me a resort that doesn't recycle or use fluorescent lights. Brian Mullis, president of Sustainable Travel International, suggests that press releases are not necessarily the best place for environmental initiatives, anyway. "First and foremost," he told me, "their commitment to sustainability should be obvious."

Ask hard questions

If you're really concerned with saving the planet, and not just interested in feeling good about your travel purchase, you'll need to do some research of your own. "You should ask tour operators and hotels questions about their impacts," says Ronald Sanabria, director of sustainable tourism at the Rainforest Alliance, which also offers green certifications to the travel industry. "Ask about their environmental policy, the percentage of their employees that are local residents, whether or not they support any projects that benefit the local community and if they are certified." Also, find out how they support conservation, what kinds of policies they've put into place to conserve energy or water or manage waste, how they educate their visitors about conservation and local culture, and how they monitor their practices.

You probably won't read the answers to these questions in a tourism brochure, and if a resort or tour operator's sustainable tourism plan is half-baked, they certainly won't volunteer a response, even when you ask politely. But if you really care about the environment, you need to ask.

Traveling "green" is not impossible. As long as you pay attention to what other people are saying about a travel company's sustainability efforts, have a critical eye of your own and ask the right questions, you can avoid being scammed by the travel industry's greenwashers. And above all, don't believe everything the companies say when they claim to be green.

"At this point," says Thomas Basile, managing director of the marketing firm Middleberg Sustainability Group, "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. This column originally appeared on MSNBC.com. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org).
Personally I don't believe it. I don't buy it for a moment that any of these companies are really "saving the planet" via tourism.

I travel alot most hotels have this hang the towels, place the towels on the floor. etc. The person cleaning up doesn't give a crap. They want to do the least amount of work possible, does that mean taking off the towel and then folding it and replacing it? Hell no, it's taking the towel and replacing it with a freshly folded one.

The only places I know that do abide by such standards are extended stay hotels where housekeeping only visits the room once in the middle of the week, and then again to turn over the room.

I'd be interested in the feedback of others who travel frequently too.

I'm not interested in paying MORE for my travel. I don't care if that means I'm tossing off more carbon than the next guy. The plane is flying there with or without me, so adding it to my carbon footprint is a bunch of horseshit as far as I'm concerned. Same goes for packages sent ground versus air. The only real fuel saver there is by boat, and I can tell you most people don't get things by boat anylonger. Boat takes WEEKS to get things delivered. Yet that's the most "green" transport there is pound for pound.

Car rentals? I pay an extra premium to get a Prius? Hell no, that's just retarded. The only time I've paid for a premium rental vehicle was Las Vegas to rent a Z3 for 4 days. The amount of money I spend on a Prius as a premium rental I could buy several tank fulls of gasoline. The only saving grace for the "green collection" of Hertz is that they have some very good mileaged vehicles getting in excess of 24 MPG. But quite honestly depending on where I'm driving it may not make a difference. When we were in Chicago recently driving a Charger was nice, it didn't get great gas mileage and I had put about 100 miles on the vehicle over the course of the weekend. Quite different when going to Florida where I drove about 300 miles in a weekend from Tampa to North Port/Port Charlotte in a Jeep Liberty. That little SUV has a huge tank and it doesn't get great gas mileage. I would have been better off getting a smaller more economical car, but I don't drive very often so I like the idea of getting to drive various cars as the rental companies hand them out.

My point is that I personally am not going to voluntarily pay more for a plane ticket because they want to buy carbon offsets. I'm not going to change airlines because I have loyalty to American Airlines (1 round trip Business Class NYC - Manila - New Dehli and have enough miles to do it again.)

The only thing that I do agree with is being a locavore, or eating what's local to where you are. It makes sense and that's why I'm travelling to experiene what the far off place is like, not see tourist sites and eat the same food that's offered at home.

For me keeping green, means keeping the most green in my pocket. Sometimes that means being the ecofriendly green because it means I'd spend more if I wasn't being ecofriendly and thus more green out of my pocket.

Do you belive them? Do you care that they are? Are you loyal to the company or to the earth?
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Old 04-22-2008, 07:37 PM   #2 (permalink)
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"green" is the new Gucci.....
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Old 04-23-2008, 03:54 AM   #3 (permalink)
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"green" is the new Gucci.....
I was going to say "Kabbalah," but whatever. That works too.
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Old 04-23-2008, 04:10 AM   #4 (permalink)
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I think being aware of the issues is important but that said, I am not about to pay for carbon offsets.

That said, I can see the benefit (even if it is neglegible) to reusing the towels. Using less water is always good. At home I use my towels for a few days before I wash them. I don't see why I shouldn't live by the same standard when abroad.

Car rental issues? I can't see that the amount of driving I would do over the course of a trip would warrant the higher rental cost... and for me cost is everything.
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Old 04-23-2008, 04:35 AM   #5 (permalink)
 
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greenwashing is yet another space in which you have to read and look critically. it's not that all claims are entirely false; it's certainly not that all claims are entirely true. it's like corporate social responsibility audits and other such things more broadly--they're interesting, the raise important considerations and prompt the gathering of potentially important data, but there's little in the way of information that can tell you, sitting in a chair reading any such documentation, about what if any relation there is between them and what's happening on the ground. there just isn't.
it's obvious that many firms want to appear to be environmentally and socially responsible--but until this kind of information is integrated into information about cashflows, it's all to the side and so is as much or more p.r. as anything else.

but does that mean that therefore the gathering of csr-related information is worthless?

no.


green tourism is kinda funny--it's the logical extension of the spectator relation to everything, which seems to me a very american relation to information generally. so you can go look at green projects and get there in your relatively low-impact rental car and think nice thoughts about carbon offsets.

that one can be cynical about all of this is obvious: does the fact that one can be cynical mean that therefore the actions are worthless? i don't think so, and i don't think making that move goes at all past spectatorship--it's the same relation, except you stand the information you passively take in on it's head, using indices like price of a vacation to anchor it.
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Old 04-23-2008, 04:41 PM   #6 (permalink)
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I'm a very green person, travel a great deal and I don't think much of hotel claims. The main thing they are saving is money when they don't wash my towels and sheets. You rarely hear them bragging about much else that is green. they could be doing so many things like managin power use, the cleaning products they use - things like that. I feel most is bluff and marketing spin.
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Old 04-23-2008, 07:01 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by thingstodo
I'm a very green person, travel a great deal and I don't think much of hotel claims. The main thing they are saving is money when they don't wash my towels and sheets. You rarely hear them bragging about much else that is green. they could be doing so many things like managin power use, the cleaning products they use - things like that. I feel most is bluff and marketing spin.
Agreed.

European hotels use room card switches to make sure that when you leave the room, the least amount of electricity is used. I believe only the alarm clock stays powered.

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Old 04-23-2008, 07:14 PM   #8 (permalink)
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The main thing they are saving is money when they don't wash my towels and sheets.
I don't see how this is a problem. It reduces the impact on the environment and saves money. Many so-called green choices do this.

Many hotels I have been in have the key card system that Cyn mentions and they don't tout the "greeness" of it. It save the hotel money and helps reduce power consumption over all.
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Old 04-23-2008, 11:17 PM   #9 (permalink)
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"green" is the new Gucci.....
Wins.
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Old 04-25-2008, 10:54 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Greenwashing.... I like that word. It summarizes the whole BS movement.

The only green traveling is no traveling. Or perhaps a trip on a sail boat.

We aren't going to save the planet by buying organic cotton and paying for offsets. We save the planet by not buying crap we don't need, cutting back on power and water uses, and increasing the use of energy sources like solar.

Also, screw biofuels. They aren't as good as advertised and screw with food stocks.
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Old 04-26-2008, 06:04 AM   #11 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Charlatan
I don't see how this is a problem. It reduces the impact on the environment and saves money. Many so-called green choices do this.

Many hotels I have been in have the key card system that Cyn mentions and they don't tout the "greeness" of it. It save the hotel money and helps reduce power consumption over all.
Please understand - I'm not saying there is anything wrong with not washing my sheets every day. What I don't care for is the way they spin this to make it sound like they care when the main thing they care about is costs. The rest is a side benefit and not the primary motivation in my humble opnion. It doesn't cost them any money or trouble to go green this way although they do use resources to promote the spin! I feel the key card system is much the same as washing sheets and, as you said, they don't promote that since it's so obviously a cost management measure.
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Old 04-26-2008, 08:44 AM   #12 (permalink)
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Also, screw biofuels. They aren't as good as advertised and screw with food stocks.
I agree with you up until here. Biofuels don't need to screw with food stocks. They just happen to. There are alternatives to using corn that should be further explored.
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Old 04-26-2008, 12:57 PM   #13 (permalink)
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I agree with you up until here. Biofuels don't need to screw with food stocks. They just happen to. There are alternatives to using corn that should be further explored.
Unfortunately they do because it's the cheapest way to go for the farmers. They make more off of that than as food. Plus, it just becomes yet another fuel source and does nothing in terms of carbon because it takes more to make it than it saves to burn it.

We just need to get away from combustable fuel.
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Old 04-28-2008, 12:57 PM   #14 (permalink)
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perhaps we need to look a bit further down the chain at transport itself. we are moving over large distances which will always require large volumes of energy in any form. i drive 15 km to work. i could ride but i´d need a lot longer than the 15 mins it takes to drive there. i flew roundabout from australia to iceland in 2 days. i could walk and take the boat but how long would that take? the boat would still require energy and i still need food for that time. to me it´s a simple extension of the concept of converting one form of energy to another and in the conversion you can never gain energy from nothing and there will always be waste.
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Old 04-28-2008, 04:16 PM   #15 (permalink)
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It is rather simple to take the key off the tag if you want to leave something on. I remember staying in a resort in far north queensland that had these and we took it off to keep the air con running - we weren't going out for long but it was bloody hot outside...
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Old 06-06-2008, 06:25 AM   #16 (permalink)
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Cyn,

Despite spindles' point, I like the idea. A lot of times it's not a matter of WANTING to waste (though sometimes it is, in spindles' point... I've done similar things), a lot of times it's simply forgetting to turn off a light or this or that.

@Kutulu- Perhaps there is no "green travel" unless we went back to sail-driven wooden ships to cross the ocean and such. But the flipside is, there are a lot of good reasons to travel, even if only for personal experience and growth. Sure, jet fuel sucks... but you can also do a lot to make it not AS bad... things like the card-power for hotels. Plus if more hotels used solar to supplement power and/or water heating...? I think renewable energy, primarily wind and solar (water has a lot of drawbacks) could really fix a LOT (like seriously huge amounts) of the damage we've already done.

Step through it logically... less waste of energy created by burning. Less burning to create energy... those two things alone are huge. Use solar in conjuction with other methods for hybrid vehicles... tuck the solar panels along door frames and such where they aren't as obvious. Maybe it'll only net another 2-3 mpg... I'd take one in a heartbeat, ESPECIALLY with fuel prices so high.

I fully plan to put solar in my home when I can afford to. I think it's important AND it's a long-term money saver. win-win? I've also been thinking about putting anti-leeching devices on all my power outlets. Even something simple like a switch next to the light switch that kills all outlets in a room. You leave the room.... "click"

Little shit like that can be huge. My family recycles... but a lot do not. Recycling is easily as important an issue as fossil fuels. Everyone just needs to do a bigger part. Then we can all travel with a little more peace of mind.
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