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If the data is to be believed, the public is increasingly interested in having sustainable travel options.A survey conducted by Booking.com in 2022 revealed that 81 percent of global travelers want to travel sustainably, and 50 percent say recent news about climate change has influenced their decision to make more sustainable travel choices.All of which is an important step forward. But how can consumers who possess such noble intentions ensure that the travel industry providers they select are adhering to sustainable travel practices? In an era when greenwashing—or making misleading claims about environmental stewardship and practices—is rampant, how can consumers separate fact from fiction?
To get to the bottom of this question, we asked some of the travel industry’s most well-known sustainability experts, as well as travel advisors who’ve recently undergone leading-edge sustainability training, how consumers can identify companies that are truly following eco-friendly business practices. Here are their top 10 pieces of advice.
Perhaps one of the best ways consumers can determine whether a travel company is following sustainable business practices and operations is by looking at whether it has received any sort of certifications on this front. There are several well-known organizations offering certifications related to sustainable business practices.“Some of these include Green Globe, which has been around for more than 30 years, Green Key, and Ocean Global, which focuses on the preservation of the ocean,” says Nelly O. Gedeon, whose own company, Wayaj, provides a hotel sustainability rating (HSR) that’s based on evaluating properties in seven key categories from water and energy use to waste management and support for the local community.
The first organization Gedeon mentioned, Green Globe, is a leader in sustainable tourism certification. It works with hotels, resorts, conference centers, attractions, restaurants, spas, and other providers, to certify sustainable operations and management. The Green Globe Standard is based on 44 criteria and 385 indicators based on business type.Green Key, operated by the Foundation for Environmental Education, has worked with 4,000 hotels and other establishments across 60 countries. A certificate from this organization represents a commitment from the hotel or business that their practices adhere to strict criteria, including undergoing rigorous documentation and frequent audits. The Green Key certification is meant to convey to travelers that they are helping to make a difference for the environment by supporting the hotel or business that has achieved this status.
B Corp Certification is another one of the leading indicators to be on the lookout for. Earning B Corp status means a company has completed an exhaustive and often year’s long review process. “This means that the company is meeting a high level of social and environmental sustainability practices at every level of their business,” says Annie Jones, owner and travel advisor with Telos Travel. “The certification process is pretty rigorous, so most B Corp-certified companies will have this proudly displayed on their website.”
Interest in sustainable travel is on the rise. (photo via horstgerlach / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
Researching and requesting information about the carbon mitigation efforts of travel companies you’re considering booking with—whether it’s a tour operator, hotel, airline, or some other industry player—is another key way consumers can separate greenwashing from reality.Ask a company whether it’s actively engaged in efforts to monitor its’ carbon footprint in order to reduce the negative impacts of climate change, says Susanne Etti, global environmental impact manager for Intrepid Travel.“Find out how they’re minimizing their global impact and carbon offsetting. Look beyond bold claims and great media coverage,” explains Etti. “Do a little digging to find out how they’re tackling their environmental impacts. If they say they’ve banned plastic, investigate if they’ve provided details on how they’ve implemented that, and look for more transparency.”If a travel provider is claiming to be carbon neutral, ask what that really means. Do they say they are merely offsetting their carbon impacts? For example, by planting trees. Or are they actively taking steps to reduce their consumption? This would include such efforts as switching to alternative and more eco-friendly forms of power generation, such as solar power, says Jones.
Some of the buzzwords used in marketing these days to attract eco-conscious consumers include “green,” “kind to the planet,” “sustainable,” and “recyclable.” While these terms may sound great, they may also be hollow promises.When you hear or see these words used by a travel company, be on the lookout for "a lack of substantiation information or evidence to corroborate environmental and sustainability claims,” advises Etti, who also suggests being suspicious of “the use of absolute and highly impressionable claims, such as '100% plastic free', '100% recyclable', 'non-pollution' or 'zero emissions' in marketing products.
Cheetah resting in the Savannah. (photo via Nilesh Rathod/iStock/Getty Images)
Before engaging in any animal-related activities with a travel provider, do your research and steer clear of tour operators or any other travel-related providers that take you to places where animals are doing something other than their natural behavior. This includes riding elephants, swimming with dolphins, or taking selfies with tigers. The best companies in the industry have turned their back on these types of offerings as they involve a life of cruelty and captivity for the animals involved. The best way to see animals is in the wild, in their natural habitats. If you can swim with, wash, ride, or take a selfie with a wild animal, it likely should be avoided.“As a rule of thumb, if there’s any form of physical interaction with wild animals – like holding, patting, or riding – or animals dancing, painting, or playing sports, that’s indicative that they’re being used as a lucrative source of entertainment,” says Etti. “Places like the tiger temple and activities like lion walks and elephant rides pose risks for both the animals, as well as travelers.”
Looking at a travel company’s past behavior can also be very revealing and helpful when trying to confirm the legitimacy of their claims or their concern for the environment and local communities.“They can look at the travel providers’ history of sustainability efforts, the community-based projects they support, the way they manage their operations, and how they get travelers involved in social and environmental initiatives that they employ,” says Gedeon. “Look for examples of past actions."
Many companies will have some kind of mission statement on their website. As your considering travel providers and companies, track down this mission statement to see if it mentions a commitment to sustainability. And look for proof regarding how they support their mission.
“Look for those that offer specific metrics or current projects they are working on to improve their sustainability efforts,” says Jones.
It can be difficult to find out what actions travel providers are really taking just based on their web or social media presence. Working with a travel advisor focused on sustainable travel can help guide you to vendors who are also placing a focus on this issue.
“How do we know who to work with?” says Jones. “We do the research for you and leverage our relationships with our partners to dig into the nitty gritty of their sustainability efforts, so we can guide you appropriately.”
Two women of Peru's Sacred Valley Ccaccaccollo Women’s Weaving Co-op teach a traveler their techniques. (photo via G Adventures) (Photo Credit: (photo via G Adventures))
Examine a company comprehensively. In the case of tour operators, for instance, look to see whether they’re consistent in their sustainability message on each and every tour, suggests Jennifer Spatz, founder, and CEO of Global Family Travels, a company that’s provided community-based adventures for more than 13 years—using not just sustainable travel practices, but also a regenerative travel framework.
Tour operators dedicated to truly sustainable and regenerative tourism will include many of the following efforts on all of their tours:
And while you’re at it, research the affiliate partners that are listed in a tour itinerary, suggests Spatz “Identify the lodging, transportation, and food accommodation partners listed in the travel company’s tour or itinerary and ask how they also practice sustainable tourism,” says Spatz. “Follow the same research guidelines with affiliate partners to confirm that their sustainable travel practices align with your sustainable travel principles.”
A family working with a travel advisor. (photo via South_agency / getty images)
Whether it's via phone or email, don’t be afraid to reach out to a travel company of any kind and get your questions answered. You might also ask to see reviews about a travel company if you can’t find any yourself online. And while you’re at it, ask for stories or examples of how a company’s sustainability practices are in use.
“Ultimately, the traveler is responsible for researching travel companies and their affiliate partners—lodging, transport, and restaurants— regarding their sustainability practices and how they align with the traveler’s sustainable travel goals,” says Spatz.
If there is one common thread throughout all of these expert tips, it is this: Search out and do business with providers that are transparent and specific. Those are the two key words to remember. Transparency and specificity.
“I encourage consumers to make sure the hotel or travel company’s sustainability strategy is specific, measurable, and driven by data,” Kaleigh Kirkpatrick, CTA, and founder of The Shameless Tourist. “For example, do they measure waste and do they have reduction targets in place? What percentage of staff specifically, is locally hired?…If the company publishes an annual impact report that includes metrics and specifics goals, this is a great sign.”
Look for claims that are backed up. Seek well-known and reputable industry certifications—not certifications from fly-by-night organizations that are barely known. And review a company’s history.
It may take a little more effort on your part as a consumer. But there are many ways to piece together just how dedicated a travel company really is to operating sustainability and in the best interests of the planet, not to mention the communities in which it does business. And finally, you don't need to do all the things on this list. Even taking just a few of the vetting measures before selecting a travel provider, can go a long way.
Mia Taylor is an award-winning journalist who has two decades of experience. Most recently she worked as a staff writer for...
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