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Hidden Greenwashing: 3 Tell-Tale Signs

There is nothing more dissatisfying than putting time and research into planning an eco-friendly getaway using responsible tour operators and visiting an unexploited destination only to arrive at your hotel and find that they’re a total fraud.

You know what I mean . . . the places where you see the cleaning staff dump the recycling bin into the trash bucket and the air conditioning blasts so high all the time that it feels more like you’re in the arctic than the tropics.

But some hotels are sneakier with their greenwashing.

They seem perfectly eco-friendly until they stealthily stab you in the back and make you feel guilty for spending your money there instead of the local family-run lodge down the road.

According to a survey by TripAdvisor, as reported in Where.ca:

“A majority of travellers (73 per cent) said they either “rarely” or “never” feel they have the necessary information to decide whether a hotel is eco-friendly.”

Here are three warning signs that your hotel may be greenwashing:

1. “Please reuse these towels” Signs

Washing towels
Via Green in a Sea of Change

Hotels management has realized that if they aren’t doing something “eco,” however small, they are out of touch with their customers, because recycling and paying attention to water or electricity usage have become commonplace.

Enter the towel signs.

They start with an inflated figure — 10 billion gallons of water are wasted each year washing towels that have only been used once — and move on to the standard advice: keep your towel on the rack if you intend to reuse it, and only throw it on the ground if you want it washed.

But have you noticed how often hotels take the towels you leave on the rack?

Try leaving your towel on the rack whenever you see the “Please Reuse” sign and see what the hotel staff does. If there are new towels when you come back, let the hotel management know they aren’t holding up their end of the bargain.

I can’t tell you how high a percentage of hotels (and I unfortunately stay in a lots of hotels) with really scary, intimidated, guilt-trip inducing “please reuse these towels” signs change my towels despite my best efforts.

2. Eco-hotel Certifications

Photo by Flickr user Anna Lee

Unfortunately, there is no universally-accepted standard for lodging eco-certifications.

Architect and academic Hitesh Mehta has published standards for eco-lodges, and the U.S. Green Building Council has established the extremely stringent LEED certification requirements for building design, construction, and operation, but neither specifically address hotels.

But many regional and national groups issue eco-hotel certifications based on voluntary qualifications and very loose standards. Even in Costa Rica — an ecotourism success story with a certification system that has been lauded and used as a model for other countries — the five-tiered “leaf” system has undergone criticism from academics claiming that many lodges do not check out in their certified categories. Nearly 10% of the country’s tour operators and hotels are certified by the system.

Before you choose an accommodation based on its eco-certification, check out the requirements for that type of recognition. If they look flimsy or overly-basic, choose a different hotel.

3. Carbon-Neutral Operations

solar panels
Photo by Flickr user Barefoot Photographers of Tilonia

Besides the “we care about the environment, please reuse your towels signs,” carbon-neutral operations are one of the biggest greenwashing trends popping up in hotels.

While, on the surface, it seems great for hotels to be investing in green energy research, reforestation, increasing industrial energy efficiency, and other places money for carbon off-setting goes, there are two big problems here.

First off, carbon offsetting has had its share of scandals in recent decades. Funds have been misappropriated or simply stolen. Or project have simply collapsed for a variety of reasons. So any time you’ll looking to carbon off-set, it’s important to research where the funds are going.

But unfortunately, hotels look to go green on a dime are more likely to choose the most cost effective option than the one that is necessarily the most responsible.

Secondly, and in some ways more importantly, many greenwashing organizations offset a portion of their operations — say their electrical usage — and call themselves carbon-neutral. They ignore their waste management footprint, HVAC emissions, supply shipping, and other practices that contribute to their overall carbon footprint.

What other warning signs of greenwashing have you run into on the road?

NB: Lead image by Flickr user Jeff Jacobson-Swartfager


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