Smart tips for travelers looking for a sustainable getaway

It's important to know which companies' actions back up their marketing.
A woman in hiking attire and a large backpack standing on a cliff in a mountain range.
Just look at all that nature. Stephen Leonardi / Unsplash

Interest in sustainable travel has been high for the last few years, and the airlines, tour companies, destinations, and accommodations that serve these eco-conscious explorers seem to understand this. But while businesses tout the steps they’ve taken to mitigate climate impacts, it can be hard to decipher whether they’re taking sustainability seriously or simply greenwashing their meager efforts in a bid to secure the almighty tourist dollar.

If you count yourself among the 80 to 90 percent of travelers eager to do more good than harm across the globe, our hope is that this story will help you see through the marketing haze to understand what travel companies are really doing to keep the planet—and humanity—thriving.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a complicated issue, especially when you consider that a company’s intentions can determine whether its eco-endeavors are actually helpful or simply savvy marketing. In general, though, greenwashing refers to efforts and statements that draw attention to a company’s purported sustainability work but don’t actually do much measurable good in the world.

Consider plastic straws. At this point, most people know straws end up in waterways in astounding numbers, harm wildlife, and are incredibly difficult to recycle. That understanding is largely due to marketing, and this widespread knowledge is why companies like coffee shops and hotels may shout from the rooftops about how they have banished the vile things. But if those businesses are still using conventional plastic and hot beverage cups (that lining inside your disposable coffee cup makes it non-recyclable), wrapping sandwiches in plastic, and offering single-use plastic take-out containers, while failing to provide recycling bins, the lack of straws doesn’t matter. While it is a welcome and marginally beneficial effort, the full picture indicates the business cares more about marketing and its bottom line than actual sustainability.

Likewise, a hotel chain may post signs around your room announcing its “green initiatives.” These almost always involve asking you to hang up your towel and use it again to help the hotel save water and energy. But whether housekeeping leaves your towels alone or secretly washes them daily anyway, chances are the property still offers single-use plastic shampoo bottles, serves breakfast on polystyrene foam plates, and uses inefficient lighting, heating, and cooling systems. Not to mention they may not be tracking their carbon footprint.

In both cases, these companies are hyper-focusing on a single issue that has found its way into the spotlight, but isn’t enough on its own to cause significant change. If a company wants to be truly sustainable, it has to focus less on hype and more on results.

How to spot greenwashing

That said, travel is an inherently polluting industry. The transportation sector as a whole accounts for 27 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than any other industry, according to Environmental Protection Agency reports. And Kasia Morgan, head of sustainability and community at Exodus Travels, a travel company that funds, runs, and supports conservation and restoration projects in the places its clients travel, acknowledges that the business of exploration has “a lot of incredibly tough sustainability challenges.”

Not only is transportation a dirty business, climate-wise, but visitors can also negatively (or positively) impact the landscape and communities of the places they visit. So your first consideration while trying to identify potential greenwashing while investigating travel brands should be transparency: If a brand or business is truly sustainability-minded, it should be unambiguous regarding its current impact on the planet and destinations it serves and its specific goals for improving its own practices.

[Related: A guide to eco-friendly travel]

At the very least, Morgan says, the company should be honest and forthcoming about its role in the climate crisis and offer a statement of its intent to be part of the solution. That could include a specific list of efforts aimed at making the world a better, cleaner place, while simultaneously acknowledging industry challenges.

Be wary of vague language and terms like “eco-tourism” or “green travel,” warns Court Whelan, chief sustainability officer at Natural Habitat Adventures, a tour company that works with local and international conservation organizations in the areas it visits. It’s easy for companies to overstate their positive impact while focusing efforts solely on issues in the spotlight (like straws) instead of working toward actual change (like investing in communities).

So take a look at the company’s mission statement and focus. Does sustainability play into it at all? If so, does it cite specific studies, examples, and industry or operational challenges? Is the brand collecting information about what it has done and reporting its efforts and impact? Without that data, it’s hard to claim you’re moving forward if you don’t know where you started.

Also research if the brand mentions topics like economic impact in the destination (empowering and supporting local businesses), waste reduction in their normal operations (eradicating single-use plastic and disposable products), supporting natural biodiversity (planting trees or supporting ecological endeavors), and carbon reduction (reducing and/or offsetting emissions). If any of these topics are front-and-center (ideally most of them are), it likely signifies the company is on a mission to improve the lives of travelers, locals, and the planet. And if they talk about donating money, see if you can find out how much they actually give.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask companies tough questions. Does the brand offset their emissions or are they working to decarbonize? Offsets theoretically counteract emissions, but decarbonization eliminates them entirely. Are they testing alternative fuel sources or planning to transition to alternative energy? Both can reduce carbon footprints and lessen global reliance on non-renewable resources. Do they employ local tour guides and reserve stays at locally-owned accommodations? Keeping jobs local can help ensure tourism actually benefits the places people want to visit.

The answers you get won’t necessarily indicate the company is good or bad, but it should at least have a position and a plan, Whelan says, adding that if employees at the customer-facing level can’t answer questions about sustainable measures, there’s a good chance these practices aren’t a priority.

Don’t get tricked by certifications

One thing you shouldn’t count on to tell the story is certifications. “The tourism sector seems to be flooded with a plethora of seals and approvals,” Morgan says. “It’s very difficult to tell by looking at them what they actually mean.”

So google it. Research how robust the program is, how transparent the certifying body is, and what’s required for accreditation. Does the certifying organization use third party auditors to avoid bias? It will require a bit of homework, but what you find can be truly enlightening.

Despite the inherent challenges, travel and tourism has immense power to enrich our lives and the lives of the communities we visit. The choices we make can have a real positive impact—as long as we’re willing to take the time to separate greenwashing from actions that actually work. Quitting travel altogether isn’t a feasible solution, but finding out how to do it more responsibly is.