Greenwashing in the travel industry: Is your hotel really sustainable and eco-friendly?

A few months ago, I had an overnight stay in a city hotel. It had been so long since I slept in a hotel I almost wept.

But I almost wept for another reason – despite a printed card on the bed suggesting I could help the planet by having the room cleaned every second day, there seemed to be little concern for the environment.

The bathroom was full of small plastic amenities and there were plastic water bottles by the bed.

That card on the bed felt an awful lot like greenwashing, a marketing ploy where companies use deceptive measures to convince consumers their products are environmentally friendly.

"I think that we're in a new age of greenwashing, along with our new age of travel," says Costas Christ, founder and president of Beyond Green (staybeyondgreen.com), a portfolio of 27 hotels, lodges and resorts which have been chosen on their strong leadership in sustainability.

In partnership with Preferred Hotels Group, which has 650 hotels in 80 countries, Beyond Green aims to connect travellers with hotels and experiences that align with their sustainable travel values.

Member hotels include city, country and remote islands, such as andBeyond Mnemba Island in Zanzibar; The Brando on distant Tetiaroa in French Polynesia; Cavello Point, a hotel and spa a few minutes from downtown San Francisco, and Ashford Castle in Ireland.

While the style of hotels in the collection are quite different, all are leaders in good environmental practice. Both Ashford Castle and The Brando, for instance, operate on 100 per cent renewable energy.

"There are a lot of good people doing a lot of good work," Christ says of the global hotel industry. "Some hotels are at the start of their journey, just trying to figure it out, some are at the intermediate level, some are advanced, and some are representing leadership, the true definition of aspiration of what's possible."

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It's particularly tricky for a consumer to determine what's just talk and what's true action when checking a hotel's eco credentials. It's de rigeuer now for a hotel group to have a stated sustainability policy.

But there are more pillars to sustainability than just getting rid of single-use plastic. Even big city hotels have a major role to play in supporting local culture and heritage and improving the urban environment rather than just extracting from it.

That's where the rigorous vetting policies of collections such as Beyond Green come in to play. To be considered for membership, a property is judged according to more than 50 sustainability indicators that align with global sustainable tourism standards and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. That includes initial inspections with a follow up every two years.

"With Beyond Green we hope to show what's truly possible at the far ends of innovation in how travel can be a force for good,'' Christ says. "This is why an onsite inspection is so important. I conducted an inspection of an unnamed property and we discovered that they were burying plastic on their island under palm fronds and saying they were plastic free. That's about the worst thing you can do."

And they shouldn't expect to get away with it. "Unlike 20 or 30 years ago, we have a much more sophisticated traveller today. They're aware. We also have a much more sophisticated travel media today. So the days when you think you can hoodwink people, whether it's travel media or a traveller, proceed at your own risk."

Beyond Green had its genesis in the late 1970s when Christ was in his 20s. A New Jersey native, he was working in Kenya on a Harvard-supported wildlife project when the local people burnt down a safari lodge because they felt it was profiting from their land without sharing any of the wealth with the community.

"I realised something was fundamentally wrong, the idea that conservation wouldn't work if local people weren't our allies," he says.

That lightbulb moment led to the creation of Beyond Green. He helped establish the United Nations criteria for sustainable tourism best practice and is widely considered a visionary in the field.

"If there's one message for all of us to think about as travellers our travel choice does really make a difference," he says. "And when we choose to travel, this may sound self-righteous, but when we choose to travel the right way, which I call the sustainable way, then we are contributing to a new vision of travel and a more enlightened vision of travel."

Consumers have other allies in helping them wade through the greenwashing and make better choices. Small Luxury Hotels has just launched the Considerate Collection (slh.com/considerate) of 26 actively sustainable hotels (the emphasis is good) to spotlight exemplary places to stay, from the Domaine de Manville in rural France to the Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary.

I've long been a fan of Bouteco (bouteco.co), established by British eco warrior and journalist Juliet Kinsman, a collection of "sustainable hotels with style and soul" which includes Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, Bankside in London and Arkaba Conservancy in the Flinders Ranges.

If I want inspiration for where to stay next, I simply log onto these sites and dream.

Twitter @missleetulloch

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