In ninth grade our Citizenship class required us to do a service project. We were allowed to choose our own project and our own non-profit that it would benefit. We’d then have to give a presentation about the non-profit and what we did. My friends and I organized a car wash, and I can’t remember for the life of me what we raised money for—I wanna say saving the children? As we got up to present, this other girl got up with us and acted like she had been part of our group! I was pissed off, but I wasn’t going to sell her out to the teacher—I was too meek. And so this sugar-snorting sneak in ninth grade Citizenship (that’s not a euphemism—she really did snort sugar) got an A on her presentation, and I got a valuable lesson in being in high school.
Suffice it to say, people who cut corners & pretend to be something they’re not still really grind my gears. What’s so hard about doing the work?! This is why I despise greenwashing. (Vocab primer: greenwashing means spending more money on marketing that you’re “eco-friendly” than actually spending money on changes to become eco-friendly—oh, and you probably kick puppies.) I know it comes from my overachieving school days, where I’d put in work and then other people would cheat or BS their way through an exam and get just as good or (heaven forbid) a better grade than me!
Please excuse my painful high school flashback. I did manage to get chiller in college. And now, taking shortcuts doesn’t always bother me. We see cool shortcuts all the time, but we know them as lifehacks. And I’m all for maximizing your full potential—take as many shortcuts as you need! But I still hate those shortcuts that businesses take just for your money, and I’m afraid that will never change.
Sorry I’m regressing into high school anger, but please understand that greenwashing doesn’t just ruffle my feathers, I believe that greenwashing can be damaging. So how does greenwashing harm us and our planet?
Supporting the Wrong People
I hear lots of people complain about the state of the world, and maybe that’s because I’m drawn to people complaining on social media, but we’re actually gradually improving. Between 2009 and 2010 the amount of “green” products purchased increased 73%! That’s amazing—in one year this happened! If that’s not evidence people are trying to vote with their dollar and make better choices for the environment, I don’t know what is. If you’re a savvy business person, you’re going to want to get your business in on this. But, unless you’re a business whose intention is to be more eco-friendly, you’ll find making those changes unnecessarily costly. Some businesses conclude there’s only one way to tap into this new market and continue to make money: by cheating.
Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
I’ve taken this term from TerraChoice’s “The Sins of Greenwashing.” (They offer lots of stats from 2010 about home and family products if you are interested.) The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off is offering one benefit such as “locally-sourced seafood” without paying attention to other important parts of fishing. For example, you may buy “locally-sourced” shrimp in Thailand, but this ignores whether or not the shrimp is sustainably harvested or if slave labor is being used to harvest it.
This doesn’t mean that seeing something labeled “locally sourced” is bad—it’s just not giving you the whole picture.
Sin of Irrelevance
I like TerraChoice’s definition a lot: “committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.” We see this in hotels almost everywhere these days, proudly announcing their commitment to the environment because they don’t wash your towels every day. That’s like asking me to give you a pat on the back every time you brush your teeth—yes brushing your teeth is important, but it’s something you should be doing without expecting accolades.
When I gave a presentation to the Sierra Club last year, I had a woman ask me how I determined if a hotel was eco-friendly or not. My two tips are: check if they’ve been certified by a third party company & notice if they’re doing something eco-friendly you’ve never heard of. Are they unplugging all of the lamps & appliances while people aren’t staying in their rooms? Are they using reusable soap & lotion dispensers? Are they committed to an organic food selection in their restaurant?
Tweet me some eco-friendly things you’ve seen hotels do—I’d love to hear from you.
Greenwashing & Voluntourism
Just thinking about writing this next section makes we want to yell, “Hold me back, Rocky, I’m gonna whoop ‘em if you don’t!!” I have neither a friend named Rocky nor a thick Southern accent, but that should illustrate how revolting I find it when voluntourism companies greenwash. (Vocab primer part deux: voluntourism is traveling with the intention of volunteering at said location when you arrive.)
Greenwashing voluntourism companies are not only robbing you of your money, but also your time—time you could have spent making a difference with a different company who actually cares. Even worse, you may actually end up harming the people you’re trying to help. I am not an expert on voluntourism so I recommend reading these two blog posts: one by Uncornered Market and one by Bemused Backpacker. The consequences of greenwashing aren’t so dire when you’re not working directly with people. But that can change when you volunteer. If you’re not planning on reading the Uncornered Market article, here’s a quick excerpt. To set it up, someone tweeted at the author if she should volunteer at an orphanage in Haiti. The author asked her Haitian guide:
“What do you think?”
“I would advise her to be very careful, perhaps choose to do something else,” he said.
He wasn’t talking about her physical safety, though.
“Especially after the earthquake, many of these orphanages were set up just to make money from foreign volunteers. Traditionally in Haiti, we didn’t have orphanages. Once people realized they could make money from this, the orphanages began to appear. In some cases, the children there actually have parents.”
I’m not overstating how little I think of greenwashers (particularly those that are voluntourism companies). I really can’t stand them. But we have a way of choking out these greenwashing vines that are reaching towards the profitability of sustainability. We can use our money to vote with our dollar elsewhere. All it takes is research and the knowledgeable guidance of someone familiar with companies that are actually sustainable.
If you ever need help with your sustainable travel (or just want to vent about greenwashing—trust me, I understand), send me a message!
Now get out and go!