Ecotourism 101: What is greenwashing?

With a projected value of $474 billion by 2012, ecotourism is fast becoming a growing niche market with hoteliers and destination tour operators promoting their products as environmentally conscious when upon closer inspection, they are greenwashing.

Along with the term green sheen, greenwashing is the insincere promotion of green business practices that are advertised as reducing carbon emissions or limiting the use of scarce resources, for example, when the actual objective is to increase profits by implementing some easy, cost-saving measures.

The environmental marketing firm TerraChoice published a study called The Five Sins of Greenwashing which found that more than 99% of 1,018 common consumer products randomly surveyed for the study were guilty of the greenwashing sins of:

Hidden Trade-Off

Examples are a hotel that uses “energy efficient” light bulbs that contain hazardous materials or the hotel restaurant that advertises the use of “locally-sourced ingredients” that are purchased at a local supermarket.


Examples are a tour operator that uses “fuel-efficient” SUVs when the vehicle itself is not an efficient mode of transportation.


Examples are an airline company that claims the use of planes is “better for the environment” than driving a hybrid car to your destination or maintains a “carbon-offsetting program” that only makes up for a small fraction of the company’s overall energy use.


An example is a hotel hair product claiming to be “CFC-free”, even though CFCs were banned 20 years ago.


An example is a company that falsely claims to be “certified” by an internationally recognized environmental standard like EcoLogo, Energy Star or Green Seal.

A recent United Nations Environment Programme report indicated that “Many travel and tourism businesses have found it convenient to use the term ecotourism in their literature, and governments have used it extensively to promote their destinations, all without trying to implement any of its most basic principles. The problem of greenwashing has undermined the legitimacy of ecotourism. Some greenwashing, though certainly not all, is the result of a lack of understanding of the underlying principles of ecotourism…ultimately, certification will be a fundamental tool to ensure businesses are meeting standards.”

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