Greenwashed! How to spot the travel industry’s eco-lies

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-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.”