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Is greenwashing taking travellers to the cleaners?

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaWhy holidaymakers should follow airline and hotel efforts to save the planet and learn to separate scams from sustainability.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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This could be the future if trash takes over our beaches

This could be the future of travel. Many hotels are taking steps towards sustainability while others continue greenwashing customers. It is time for travellers  to become part of the solution.  

EVERY HOTEL wants you to save the planet. The messianic messages are everywhere — on little tent cards on the desk, proud notices on the bathroom door, and in dolorous the-end-is-nigh letters from the GM. Every hotel is saving the Yanomami Indians, Atlantic salmon, and mountain gorillas. This mighty corporate conscience salve comes at some inconvenience to travellers who are urged to use less water, turn off the lights, reuse towels and sheets and eat less but pay more for organic produce on the menu. 

Go vegan. Eat less red meat (unless it’s at our speciality steakhouse where grass-fed cows have been sustainably refashioned into methane-free bite-size morsels). Do no evil. Love your kids. Eat your celery. Try yoga. The religious intensity of all this virtue signalling distracts from the cost-saving sleight of hand that is slipping into the business. 

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To be sure, many establishments are keen to follow a work culture that reduces their environmental footprint. Others simply follow their beaming accountants into all manner of mischief. It is here that travellers may find themselves victims of greenwashing and it is good to keep a sharp eye on potentially bogus sustainability claims.

Environmental awareness is not a new phenomenon. When we were kids we learned the hard way. Tap still running after brushing your teeth? SMACK. Food wasted on the plate? Sit there till it’s all finished. Bed unmade? WHACK. This was parenting 101 for many.

Today, growing awareness about climate change has spawned useful debate, pointless distraction, and devious marketing ploys playing on customer fears. 

{Governments can offer incentives and tax breaks for companies developing biofuel or opting for green certification like LEED and ISO 14001...

The next season of Survivor may not be shot on a deserted Pacific isle but at a hotel close to you. In its ultimate iteration this may be a derelict building with no staff or service, no beds, running water, lounge, or evening cocktails. Guests would forage for food outside and pray for rain at bath time.

Greenwashing is something travellers need to be aware of when searching for deals and scrolling through hotel sustainability boasts.

Several hotel groups and individual players have put in sterling performances when it comes to serious conservation. Mandarin Oriental’s Kuda Huraa and Landaa Giraavaru Maldives, were among the first to bring marine biologists onto their teams to work on reef regeneration, protection of manta rays and turtle rehabilitation. In the same archipelago, Kudadoo is an entirely solar-powered escape demonstrating that luxury need not be entirely compromised when it comes to eco-friendly design. 

Peninsula similarly has a baked-in ‘sustainable luxury’ strand in its business DNA. The Peninsula Beverly Hills has waterless urinals and a waterless car wash and operates plastic-free. The Peninsula Bangkok’s wastewater treatment generates water for reuse and across the group LED lights are replacing old light fixtures. 

The Indian Taj hotels are largely plastic-free and are investing in waste water management, recycling, and sustainable designs. In 2023 French chain Accor teamed up with Ecotourism Australia to green certify all its hotels across the country. This alliance has generated further awareness of climate issues and threatened biodiversity in areas like Northern Queensland, which hosts the Great Barrier Reef.

Ovolo Hotels’ ‘Do Good Feel Good’ philosophy hopes to impact beneficially on people, the community, and the planet. It offers to plant a tree for each direct booking in partnership with the Eden Reforestation Projects, an NGO that works to restore landscapes, create jobs and protect ecosystems in places as diverse as Ethiopia, Nepal, and the Philippines.

Singapore’s PARKROYAL COLLECTION Marina Bay, an all-caps mouthful, represents a minor triumph for sustainability. The lobby is awash in green and real birdsong. Normally staid conventioneers love the place and there is no quibble about energy saving and filtered water — in glass bottles. It is well worth a visit. Sister hotel Pan Pacific Orchard offers similar green features with a stunning, if sweaty, open-air check-in where guests imagine themselves at a tropical resort rather than a city hotel. In Hong Kong, the reimagined and refitted Lanson Place Causeway Bay is back with a substantial investment in its Swedish Nordaq water filtration system. No plastics. Just glass bottles.

But sustainability need not be just for the rich and famous. In India, Airbnb has teamed up with the Ministry of Tourism to bring out an attractive Soul of India site focusing on paths less trodden and heritage sites that richly showcase the country’s cultural diversity. A useful by-product of this, possibly unintended, is a diversion of tourist traffic to low carbon footprint areas. Lower cost accommodations in rural areas tend to have a less wasteful manner and travellers visiting a heritage site in the desert or at a wildlife reserve are often more willing to conserve water and electricity and opt for a ceiling fan instead of an air-conditioner.

According to the World Tourism Organisation, travel as a whole accounts for an estimated 5% of global carbon emissions with hotels accounting for just 1%. It may seem a small number but every percentage point makes a difference. 

With KLM making the move to Sustainable Aviation Fuel with a 1% SAF charge passed on to passengers (who seem receptive to the idea) it seems the world is reaching a tipping point where travellers finally realise they are part of the solution. Singapore’s Changi Airport is at the forefront of this stimulus and wants all departing aircraft by 2016 to utilise at least 1% of sustainable aviation fuel in the mix (going up to 5% by 2030). This could mean slightly higher ticket prices as airlines make the shift. Creating demand for aviation biofuel — estimated at over US$100bn in value in 2022 — in turn prods producers into action and brings in funding for research and development. It is a beneficial cycle.

Carbon offsets (with a few trees planted here and there to assuage business class guilt) don’t really encourage constructive thinking on this matter, or lifestyle changes. 

Governments can do more to come up with incentives and tax breaks for companies developing biofuel or opting for green certification like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and ISO 14001. While these terms mean little to most travellers, they’re a starting point for an environmentally friendly future. 

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