Scrubbing the Greenwashers: Certification and Education May Help Separate the Eco-Experience from the Eco-Hype

By Johnson, Peter | Alternatives Journal, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Scrubbing the Greenwashers: Certification and Education May Help Separate the Eco-Experience from the Eco-Hype


Johnson, Peter, Alternatives Journal


"Return to Nature," says the travel agent; "Discover a Better Way to Travel," beckons the glossy brochure; "Come Back Green," promises the magazine advertisement. If this sounds more like laundry detergent marketing hype to you and less like selecting your next eco-friendly vacation, you are not alone. Many long-time ecotourists, operators and academics working in the field of ecotourism have been surprised by the rising popularity of so-called "eco" vacations.

In recent years, ecotourism has gone from a mere drop in the bucket to big business. According to the World Tourism Organisation, ecotourism now accounts for between two and four percent of the worldwide tourism market. (1) This rising importance is reflected in the christening of 2002 as the "International Year of Ecotourism" by the UN.

As with any expansion, the ecotourism industry has been forced to grapple with a number of new issues. Perhaps the most pressing has been the extremely varied use of the "ecotourism" label to define experiences that have little in common with the core ideals of ecotourism. Many so-called ecotourism operations use the term purely as a marketing label attached to a product with minimal environmental focus. Such "ecotourism" experiences are being greenwashed by superficial, feel-good rhetoric and minor cost-saving modifications that do not transform tourism into a tool that protects the environment, benefits local communities, and educates the tourist. (2)

The purpose, of course, is to attract those tourists who are willing to pay a premium for what they perceive as an eco-friendly experience. Imagine booking a week at an eco-lodge that promotes sustainable energy use (you think windmill), only to find out that their idea of "sustainable" means turning the diesel generator off at 8:00 pm. But such scenarios are, unfortunately, increasingly common. As the popularity of ecotourism experiences has increased, so has the glut of tourism operators and hoteliers attempting to cash in on the trend, with varying degrees of success. (3)

In response to ecotourism greenwashing, two broad approaches have surfaced: the creation of an industry certification system, and a redoubling of efforts to educate ecotourism consumers. The drive for certification seeks to control the type of product on offer, ensuring that only the operations that meet pre-defined environmental criteria can bear the "ecotourism" label. The alternative approach is to educate the consumer on choosing an authentic ecotourism experience. With this approach, ecotourists are expected to investigate tour operators, asking them questions about their standards of practice.

Within the ecotourism industry, it is thought that certification will provide a way for the consumer to identify a "true" product without having to undertake extensive research of their own. This desire for certification has resulted in much discussion and the creation of several separate systems. This is where the well-intentioned web of certification becomes tangled. With multiple certifying agencies in different countries using a variety of criteria, and operating under different definitions of ecotourism (a slippery concept itself), consumers and operators are in a state of confusion. (4)

For any certification scheme to be effective, it must amount to more than a simple logo for advertising use, automatically granted through membership in a "certifying" organization. The core benefits of accreditation lie in the detailed examination of all aspects of an operation and the subsequent improvement or alteration of items deemed sub-standard.

One such type of accreditation system is the Ecotourism Association of Australia's NEAP (Nature and Ecotourism Accreditation Program). This program is intended to "provide industry, protected area managers and consumers with the assurance that an accredited product is backed by a commitment to best practice environmental management and the provision of quality experiences. …

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