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5 Top Tips for Green Marketing

better tourism sustainable tourism
5 Top Tips for Green Marketing

With sustainability right at the top of the tourism agenda now, one of the most challenging areas for businesses is how to market, promote and speak about their sustainability activities.


Greenwashing and Greenhushing

Rightly or wrongly, a perception has developed over recent years that there can be a big gap between what a business says it will do and what the business actually does. This takes one of two forms – greenwashing and greenhushing. The first is when a business overstates or deliberately misleads on their sustainability activity. The second is when the business sweeps its ‘green’ work under the carpet lest it reduces the potential visitor’s perception of the quality of the experience.

While many consumers are sceptical towards the claims of businesses regarding sustainability activity, businesses also have a genuine fear of:

a) being perceived as greenwashing if they say too much or

b) missing out on promoting a really important message if they say too little.

I found myself in a discussion about this with two business owners this week, both of whom were grappling with this topic. I was reminded me of an experience I had in the USA a couple of years ago. I’ll share the story to give an insight into a visitor perspective of greenwashing. The story is not unusual and it offers 5 Top Tips to take into account when considering how you tell and promote your green story.


Once upon a time I felt GREENWASHED

In late 2019, I attended a professional development event in the USA. I chose to stay in the hotel where the event was taking place, part of a reputable global hotel chain. The location was my primary deciding factor in choosing accommodation. That said, earlier that year, I had noticed a lot of publicity and social media activity around this chain’s efforts to reduce single-use plastic throughout their global chain. In my mind, the thought had developed that this hotel chain is taking a lead on implementing more sustainable business practices. I felt good about choosing to stay there. Here’s the rest:

When I check in, I am gifted two tiny plastic bottles of water by the receptionist, as was every other guest checking in at that time. I’m told I can come back for more whenever I want. In fact, I notice a full pallet of water behind each person at the front desk. (This was California - the space was huge!)

When I get to my hotel room, the lights have been left on to greet me on arrival, as has the TV with a welcome message. In the bathroom, I find a selection of single-use toiletries. Not exactly what I was expecting, I think.

I find a card beside the TV with the heading ‘Where Commitment meets Conservation’ advising that the hotel policy is to conserve resources by not changing bed linen and towels if guests so wish. I’m thinking it would also be a good idea to turn off the lights and TV when nobody is there. I’m also wondering about the single use plastics policy I heard about – there’s no mention of it on this card and, between the water and toiletries, I’ve already got 8 little bottles of plastic in my possession.

Nonetheless, I go down to the lobby and let them know I’m fine using the same sheets for 3 days and I’ll probably manage with the 6 towels that are in my room as well. In the lobby, I notice a poster that tells me if I decline room service, the chain will plant a tree. That’s good, I think.

The receptionist makes a note of my request on the system and then says she can sign me up for the hotel loyalty card and that I’ll get 500 extra points because I’ve declined room service. “I thought you plant a tree for that?” I query. “Well, if you don’t want the points, then yes we can plant a tree. Are you sure you don’t want the points?” comes the reply. “I’ll go for the tree.” I say, somewhat sceptical.

Back at the room, I put on the Do Not Disturb sign on my door – it’s 11am, I’m jet-lagged, have been awake all night and need to get some sleep. At 2pm, there’s a loud banging on the door. I stumble to the door, not really dressed for guests, thinking it must be an emergency. Outside is the lady who’s job it is to clean the rooms. I say that I’ve declined the room service. She says ‘Oh but you must still need towels! Do you need some shampoo or conditioner? I’ll give you some. Here, take these. You need these. Everyone needs fresh towels and fresh hair. Take them. Take them please.’
It was like having my Irish Mammy at the door! You know, when she insists that you have more chicken and gravy and broccoli because it’s good for you - when, despite your protests that you’re already stuffed, she physically wrestles it onto your plate. I realise that resistance is futile and, out of respect for well-intentioned Mammies everywhere, I accept 2 more towels and 6 more bottles of toiletries. (I realise later that this lady would normally get a tip for every room she visits and so there is a strong incentive for her to clean the room every day.)


When visitors dig a little deeper

Later on, I googled the detail of the Single Use Plastic announcements by this particular hotel chain. I then got past the headline and first paragraph and find the finer details. It seems that the announcement is that the chain hoped that all of its 7000 properties will have eliminated single use plastics by the end of 2020. 18 months away from when the announcement was made in August 2018, when just 20% of the hotels had replaced single use toiletries with larger, pumped containers!

So it seems the publicity was around the INTENTION to introduce more sustainable practice. I wonder: since when did having an intention become newsworthy or something to congratulate?

One can argue that the media coverage was accurate, that I just hadn't read all the detail. However, the headlines and extensive hotel-initiated PR campaign were, in my view, entirely misleading. As a guest, instead of being impressed, I felt entirely misled. To me, it seemed the policies and practices on the ground lacked integrity and were self-serving. I felt well-and-truly greenwashed!


5 Top Tips for Green Marketing

The point is that this is not an unusual experience – I’ve experienced different parts of this story over and over again. I hear others speak and write about similar experiences. It’s a common story.

Here are the 5 Top Tips for Green Marketing that this story illustrates:

  1. Start with internal marketing. Ensure every single person on the team knows what your sustainability policies are and the role they have in implementing them.
  2. Wait until you have done something and actually had an impact before you start shouting about your green credentials.
  3. If you save money through green initiatives, figure out a way to pass some of that on to the guest or, in this case, your staff.
  4. Get someone to mystery shop your experience and tell you what it feels like from a visitor perspective. This will help uncover where practice might deviate from the promotion. It will highlight unintentional inconsistencies and contradictions, as well as small and easy adjustments that can add green value.
  5. Get rid of single-use plastics if you want to have any real credibility around calling yourself green or sustainable.


Tina O'Dwyer


Tina is an expert and mentor in sustainable tourism with an array of experience in the field. She has delivered training and talks on the topic for several years now. The Tourism Space™ offers training to tourism and hospitality businesses and professionals, and as part of destination training programmes, on topics relating to Green Marketing and Sustainable Tourism.

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