Analysis - February 27, 2014



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February 2014


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Green hotels confuse consumers

Although there are many statistics claiming the consumer is interested, there is one fundamental issue – information is not standardized and making choices for green hotels is not easy for consumers.

Marketing or public relations?

According to Cronin, Smith, Gleim, Ramirez and Martinez (2011), businesses are expected to commit to green marketing strategies because of the increasing public pressure and declare that subscribing to the triple bottom line can increase consumer demand.

With the increasing demand for sustainable tourism comes the increase in green marketing. Consumers wanting to make the ‘right’ choice are bombarded with green options but must be wary and have the ability to decipher between green tourism and green wash. Within the tourism industry, green, sustainable or eco has gained considerable attention in the past few years and the number of green programs in hotels have increased. These programs claim to offer operational efficiencies, cost savings, employee values connection, marketing, and improved public relations. The question, however is – is it working with regard to marketing and public relations?

There have been numerous studies done to ascertain sustainable tourism behavior (see for numerous studies). For example, a study done in 2012 by TripAdvisor stated that 71% of those surveyed would make environmentally friendly choices in the next twelve months. In 2012, TUI, the worlds largest travel provider found that 54% of those surveyed were highly familiar with sustainability and 40% very interested in it. In 2011, 93% of Conde Nast Traveler readers thought travel companies should be responsible for protecting the environment and 58% said their choice of travel is influenced by the support it gives to the local community.

Confusing information

To determine green hotel practices, an in-depth Web search was conducted between September and December 2013. Over 100 pages of Google were analyzed on five different occasions using terms such as ‘Green hotels’, ‘Ecohotels’ ‘Sustainable hotels’.

A number of discrepancies result from the findings. Results show that some hotels that come up on Google searches for ‘eco’ or ‘green’ do not offer very much in terms of ‘green’ practices. One hotel in British Columbia for example, markets itself as an ecoresort but they are not even off the grid and their biggest environmental practice is recycling and composting.

There is also no clear ‘green hotel’ site globally accepted ranking system. Currently in the tourism industry there are a number of certification programs yet none have critical mass. Alternatively, some programs that are gaining ground do not show up in search engine results as they are named something other than ‘green’ or ‘eco’. With so many different terms in the industry such as ‘sustainable’, ‘responsible’, ‘eco’, ‘green’, etc – the industry, the consumer may be getting confused.

Websites from searches fall primarily into four main categories:

  1. Individual hotels promoting their own green programs. These are mainly large hotel groups (e.g. Kimpton, Marriott etc.)
  2. Websites that certify hotels on a specific set of criteria and award a ranking. Within this category there is a distinction between:
    1. Organizations that provide specific, quantifiable, and detailed criteria  – Green Key, Green Globe, LEED, ISO 1400, Green Seal, Energy Star GSTC and;
    2. Organizations for which the criteria are vague and hard to quantify – Eco Luxury hotels, Eco hotels of the World etc.
    3. Websites that list environmentally friendly hotels based on other providers criteria (e.g. Expedia, TripAdvisor)
    4. Websites that list information and tools on how to become more environmentally friendly (e.g. usually magazine articles providing advice to hotels on how to reduce their footprint)

The majority of Web search results listed environmentally friendly hotels based on other provider’s criteria. For example, Eco lodge, Element, and Green Tourism are all Websites that list hotels that had been awarded LEED certification, or used energy star appliances. In this case the Website was not independently certifying the hotels rather providing a list of green hotels based on established certification systems. These criteria were almost entirely environmental and did not necessarily touch on community or other social issues that many consumers wish to see. Other search results included Websites that list information and tools on how to become a more environmentally friendly hotel (or g ‘greener’ traveler). In this case actual hotels were not listed rather training materials and service providers for implementing sustainable solutions.


From this research, two things are clear. First, many claims of ‘green’ may just be ‘greenwash’. Green wash, or green washing is a term used when referring to business operations that utilize marketing tactics to create the perception of being green through deceptive or exaggerated environmental claims [1]. The primary objective of this marketing ploy is to convince consumers that the businesses or hotels in this case, are implementing sustainable initiatives when in reality they may be doing very little. Today, much of consumers awareness is still around towel washing and hotels have not yet increased awareness about other issues such as waste, electricity, heating/cooling or social and community elements.

The second thing that is clear is that ‘green’ is gaining traction. Although information may be confusing – there is more of it. It is potentially good news that TripAdvisor now has a ‘green’ rating ( as it has become powerful enough to force hotels to improve quality or whatever element reviewers complain about. With over 40 million monthly viewers, it can be a strong influencer for consumers to make more sustainable choices. Unfortunately it only rates hotels based on environmental choices rather than social or community criteria. As many travelers want to know what the hotel is doing for the local community, this is unfortunate.

Although the benefits of capturing the revenue and business of the green-oriented traveler is an attractive prospect  – many consumers may struggle to make informed green choices based on the information currently available. Hotels shouldn’t just rely on attracting the green consumer though as green programs also improve operational efficiencies, save costs and attract, retain, and inspire employees – worth implementing even if marketing is not necessarily working.

If the tourism industry truly wishes to influence the consumer to make ‘green’ choices, then some key elements need to be addressed:

  1. Websites should be transparent for consumers to determine what is green
  2. There is a need for one main website compiling all hotels globally so that a search is easy
  3. Criteria must be consistent so that the consumer knows what is being evaluated

[1] The term was first used by environmentalist Jay Westerveld when objecting to hoteliers’ practice of placing notices in hotels rooms, which asked their guest to reuse towels to ‘save the environment’. In practicality this initiative was more likely motivated by a cost concern that would be reduced by washing fewer towels (Motavalli, 2011).

In collaboration with Julie Ellefsen

Julie graduated from the University of Western Ontario with an honors specialization in Geography before going on to complete her post graduate diploma at Niagara College’s Environmental Resource Management and Assessment Program. She has worked as an environmental consultant completing on site waste, energy and water audits for retail and commercial office spaces and assisting properties with certification process for LEED and BOMA Best. Julie also spent a year abroad in Melbourne Australia working for a solar energy company in sales and business development. Julie’s passion for travel and the environmental issues has naturally sparked interest in sustainability and how it is incorporated into the tourism industry. She has deepened her knowledge of the industry and sustainable tourism through personal travels throughout over 20 countries. She currently is working in as a Marketing Analyst.


Rachel Dodds

Professor, Ted Rogers School of Hospitality & Tourism Management

Dr. Rachel Dodds has worked extensively in sustainable tourism development in both the academic as well as government and private sectors. Her recent research programs examine sustainable touri[...]Lire plussm innovations (awarded a SSHRC grant in 2011), island tourism development and planning, and corporate social responsibility among tour operators. She received both the award for Scholarly Research and Creativity Award as well as the Hospitality and Tourism Management award for Outstanding Contribution to the Student Experience in 2011. Dr. Dodds's work employs a variety of methodological approaches including surveys, interviews, focus groups and mixed-methods. She is currently a member of the editorial board for Sustainability as well as Teoros and on the Board of Directors for STI Canada. She is passionate about change and travel. Currently she has visited over 78 countries. Julie Ellefsen, CEPIT, LEED GA Julie graduated from the University of Western Ontario with an honors specialization in Geography before going on to complete her post graduate diploma at Niagara College’s Environmental Resource Management and Assessment Program. She has worked as an environmental consultan


- Cronin, J.J, Jr., Smith, J.S., Gleim, M. R., Ramirez, E., Martinez, J.D., (2011) Green Marketing Strategies: An examination of stakeholders and the opportunities they present. Journal of Academic Marketing Science. 39. Pp158-174

- Motavalli, J. (2011) A History of Greenwashing: How Dirty Towels Impacted the Green Movement. Last accessed Dec 2, 2013 from

  • Statia Elliot

    Great article Rachel!

  • Heidi van der Watt

    Rachel, you are right that there is a lot of scope for customer confusion. Having said that, there is in fact one benchmark that consumers can look for, and that is whether the property is certified under a certification scheme accredited by the GSTCouncil. The GSTCouncil is not a certification programme as indicated in your article. Our role is to accredit certification standards against the benchmark GSTC – developed through a multi stakeholder process, and backed by the UNWTO and UNEP.

    Your are absolutely right on:
    1) that properties must be transparent about what they’re doing. This is in fact one of the GSTC requirements – See A5. South Africa’s standard for responsible/sustainable tourism includes a general claims clause – which means a consumer can report a property to the Advertising Standards Authority for claiming to be sustainable and then not comply with the national standard.
    2) There is a need for one website that compiles all certified properties – we are doing exactly that through the DestiNet platform. Here in Africa, we’ve also started building a google map that will feed into a global map.
    3) Consistent criteria – standards that are recognised by the GSTC are proven to use the same set of criteria. Some of the largest certification schemes e.g. GreenGlobe are GSTC recognised.

    Thanks for an insightful article, and please do mail me should you want o know more about the GSTC.

    Warm regards,
    Heidi van der Watt
    Board Member – GSTC

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