Avoiding Greenwashing While Making Authentic Advances in Sustainability

By Carl Kish Co-Founder, STOKE Certified | June 21, 2015

Co-authored by Dr. Jess Ponting, Co-Founder, STOKE Certified

Greenwash: ˈɡrēnˌwäSH,-ˌwoSH/
noun: greenwashing: Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.
Oxford Dictionary

In addition to market pressures, growing banks of research and statistics demonstrate an accelerating shift in consumer demand of sustainable products (see, for example, the annual collection of statistics published by Stanford University's Center for Responsible Travel), and sustainability leaders in hospitality are seeing real benefits, sometimes in unusual places. For example, Frits van Paasschen, former CEO of Starwood said recently, "Sustainability pays in three ways: guests are increasingly interested, so it's good for business; there are real opportunities to reduce costs and do things that are 'green' at the same time; and something not everybody realizes, there is so much passion and energy within the organization to do this that the ability to get people excited about the company they're a part of through the kinds of green practices we've been implementing is another source of success and payoff."

The question for many hoteliers has become, how do I make authentic and cost effective improvements in sustainability and then communicate these to my guests without being accused of greenwashing?

In 2009 Underwriters Laboratories collaborated with TerraChoice to produce a report titled The Seven Sins of Greenwashing which details the common mistakes (deliberate or otherwise) that companies make in claiming sustainability that leave them exposed. Firstly the hidden trade-off, where a sustainability claim is made based on very narrow attributes. For example, claiming to be a sustainable hotel based on in-room stickers suggesting that guests reuse their towels while failing to address any other issues. Other greenwashing sins include making claims and providing no proof; making claims so broad they are meaningless (e.g. 'all natural' products); creating fake third party sustainability endorsements; highlighting practices required by law as sustainability wins; promoting a management choice that was less bad than another option while still bad (akin to choosing organic cigarettes); and, just flat out lying about sustainability practices.

Taking the reverse position, the ISEAL Alliance has just released a program called Challenge the Label which outlines five truths of a good sustainability claim. According to the ISEAL alliance, an authentic and reliable sustainability claim should be clear, accurate, relevant, transparent, and robust. Producing authentic in-house, self derived sustainability claims can be a challenging proposition as these efforts are often met with suspicion. Most consumer product manufacturers have turned to second and third party sustainability certification and verification organizations to carry out this function and the same is becoming true of the hospitality industry.

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