How to spot greenwashing when booking a hotel

Some hotels are still hiding behind labels such as ‘eco-hotel’ or ‘planet-friendly’ despite being far from sustainable. Here’s how to tell the genuinely-adapting accommodation from the bluffers…

Karen Edwards
11 November 2023

When travelling more sustainably, there are three powerful ways to make a difference: There’s choosing to fly less frequently and more efficiently, making sure expenditure goes back into the local community, and seeking out accommodation that adopts sustainable measures.

Making changes towards a more sustainable operation takes time, and many hotels  big and small – are already taking steps to measure their carbon footprint, reduce food waste and employ locally, among other things. Sadly, however, there are still businesses jumping on the ‘sustainability’ bandwagon to look good, rather than to genuinely lower their environmental and social impact. This is known as ‘greenwashing’ – a term coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld to describe when marketing spiel is used to make something look much more planet-friendly than it is.

Prime examples that travellers will already be familiar with is the in-room declaration that the washing of linen every second night (instead of every night) is done in the name of saving energy, or the optional straw with your cocktail will cut down on plastic pollution. Both of these measures barely scratch the surface when it comes to lowering environmental impact, and are likely done as a cost-saving exercise rather than to improve procedures. Instead, the hotel is misleading consumers to believe a hotel is a holistically considerate and eco-conscious business. 

Looking for reports, figures, pictures, and videos to back up sustainability claims is one way of telling whether a hotel is genuine, says Hashan Cooray of Jetwing Hotels, Sri Lanka (Alamy)

Advertising the bare minimum

If a hotel is shouting about such minimal efforts – removing plastic water bottles falls into this category  the chances are its not doing a lot towards conserving the local environment. Genuine sustainability-focused accommodation will be undertaking basic green measures – from providing filtered water that is safe to drink (eliminating the need for plastic water bottles) to hygienically refilling shampoos and shower gels (eradicating all single-use plastics) – behind-the-scenes. Instead, it is likely to share more accountable measures online – such as reducing carbon emissions and water use and producing less food waste – in the form of impact reports and detailed timelines.

“It’s quite difficult to discern if a hotel truly “walks the talk” on responsible practices until you visit the property and witness their practices with your own eyes,” admits Hashan Cooray, Marketing and Development Director at Jetwing Hotels – a Sri-Lankan owned, family-run group that invests in local communities through youth development programmes, employment and by working with local farmers. “My tip for identifying genuine commitment to the local community and environment prior to visiting, would be to see if there is regular reporting – in the form of figures, pictures, and videos – to back up the hotel’s claims.”

To do this, Hashan suggests taking the time to look at the hotel’s sustainability policies online and absorb the detail shared. “At Jetwing Hotels, we encourage guests to review the dedicated “sustainability” section on our website, both at a brand level and property level,” he offers.

“We highlight a few of our key initiatives under six pillars of our sustainability strategy, giving guests the opportunity to learn more about how they contribute to the work we do when they stay at our hotels and villas around the island. When they do visit, guests are invited to join the property’s daily sustainability walk-through to gain first-hand insights on the Jetwing sustainability strategy and our commitment to making a positive impact through tourism and hospitality in Sri Lanka.”

Black Africans have very little stake in the safari industry, says Great Lakes Safaris founder, Amos Wekesa. Which is why locally-owned, culturally immersive accommodation benefits everyone (Alamy)

No local partnerships

A quick scroll through an accommodation’s official website should help decipher whether a hotel or guesthouse is socially invested in its local community. Those that are will be proud to share the partnerships with other businesses, charities and NGOs, whether that’s to transform local infrastructure, promote education or empower the community around them through employment and up-skilling. Those that aren’t will only highlight their facilities, and barely mention what lies outside their walls.

As a rule of thumb, locally-owned hotels do invest in the societies in which they operate, because local people understand and strive for a healthy, thriving community. Employing local people, working with local tour guides, sharing the work of home-grown artisans and keeping the majority of tourism income within the community are all signs of an ethical hotel owner.

In some parts of the world – such as the safari hotspots of Botswana, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia – those local roots are more vital than ever. “We employ locally for everyone’s benefit,” explains Amos Wekesa, CEO and Founder of Great Lakes Safaris – a Ugandan operator that owns and runs several safari lodges around the country. “Guests want to interact with local guides and lodge staff, learning their culture and background. Most employees support up to another eight people in their families, so one lodge can end up generating an income thread for hundreds of people.”

If you can’t find out whether a hotel is locally-owned, Amos advises asking a tour operator or even emailing the lodge directly. That small nugget of research that leads to booking socially responsible accommodation can make a world of difference to local people. With investment and uplift often comes much-needed infrastructure – such as introducing clean water and energy to remote areas. Many Great Lakes Safari lodges have their own gardens but also buy produce from local farmers, “further extending the trickle-down effect of the tourism economy”.

“Growing up in a poor, rural community, I had experienced the problems facing local communities,” adds Amos. “I knew we could not tackle conservation issues without first addressing the issues faced by the local people. Black Africans have very little stake in the safari industry but by booking locally-owned safari accommodation these barriers are broken down.”

room2’s recently-opened Belfast branch continues the brand’s commitment to 100% renewable energy use, proving even city-based hotels can possess a lower carbon footprint (Alamy)

Size does matter – but not in the way you might expect

Busy urban areas are the most difficult to expand and improve on when it comes to sustainable accommodation. The disparity in wealth and, often, overtourism leads to well-established foreign-owned hotel chains being opened to meet the increasing demand. With a large numbers of rooms, comes the inevitable force of unregulated energy use and water use, massive buffets resulting in large amounts of food waste, single-use plastics circulating for convenience and all-inclusive options that stop expenditure reaching the surrounding communities. As a general tip, avoiding these types of accommodation – regardless of sustainability promises – is likely to be better for the community and environment.

Some smaller city-based hotel owners, however, are embracing the challenge to build energy-efficient stays that also benefit the surrounding community. The room2 collection, run by brothers Stuart and Robert Godwin, is just one such urban model that does this well. Each of the company’s four ‘hometels’ run on 100% solar, wind and hydro power – and enjoys a zero-waste-to-landfill policy, ensuring all non-recyclable products are transformed into something useful. 

At room2’s recently-opened Belfast branch, upcycled fishing nets have been used to make the carpet and unused soap bottles form an elegant reception desk. Meanwhile, room2 Hammersmith teams up with local charity, SPEAR, to provide 25,000 nights of accommodation and festive meals to people facing or experiencing homelessness. “Being a part of a community, we wanted to make sure that we work with local businesses and our guests know this,” explains room2 co-founder, Robert. “We are all a big family – this is what we want our visitors to feel when they book a room with us.”

room2 provides a detailed breakdown of its sustainability projects online, ensuring guests understand the positive impact projects towards which their hard-earned money is going. By contrast, if a hotel doesn’t offer any firm examples about impactful change, it’s most likely to be because there isn’t much news to share. Even worse, displaying ‘green hotel’ or ‘eco-hotel’ labels, without the evidence to back them up, shouldn’t ever be taken at face value.

Ultimately, genuinely good practice speaks for itself. It oozes out of a hotel’s ethos – both online and in person – and that positive impact requires no greenwashing at all. 


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