It isn’t easy being green…

BRUCE PIPER looks at some of the vexed issues around claims of environmental sustainability.

WORLD Environment Day last week provided the perfect opportunity for travel suppliers to showcase their green credentials, and many did just that with the release of a host of Environmental, Sustainability and Governance (ESG) reports detailing how cruise lines, tour operators, aviation providers and more are working towards decarbonisation targets, diversity and inclusion and more.

Much more than simply marketing spin, ESG has become a key pillar for businesses in the modern world, as they tout their pursuit of a “triple bottom line” which makes them about much more than “Profit”. “People” and of course “Planet” are also now key benchmarks for companies wanting to do the right thing, and of course there’s a perception that consumers are seen to be increasingly making decisions based on more than simply price.

Be careful what you suggest…

Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel has long been a leader in this space – which makes a ruling by Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) last month into a salutary lesson about the pitfalls of making claims in the current social environment, where it seems being “cancelled” can be potentially just around the corner for anyone at all, no matter how well-intentioned.

A formal complaint was lodged about an Intrepid poster on the London Underground last November, which featured two women in front of the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, alongside the text “People & planet-friendly small group adventures since 1989”. The complainant challenged this claim, suggesting it “minimised the impact of Intrepid Travel’s holidays on the environment”.

Intrepid’s attempted defence noted that the average reader of the advertisement would interpret the tag line as a “limited claim related to their small group tour offerings, rather than an absolute environmental claim which included travel to and from the destination country” – and that the inclusion of the Giza Pyramids alongside two travellers further implied that the ad was a reference to their Egypt tour, rather than an overall package involving international flights.

The company also highlighted that the ad included a website link which contained qualifying information regarding Intrepid’s environmental credentials. “They considered that information was accessible and transparent, which allowed consumers to make an informed purchasing decision,” the ASA noted, with Intrepid highlighting its carbon neutral certification, support of carbon offset programs and carbon neutrality since 2010. Intrepid has long been a leader in this area and other travel businesses have followed in its footsteps. Intrepid has also long touted its B Corp certification, which independently verifies businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance and public transparency.

Despite all that – and probably to the delight of some of Intrepid’s competitors – the ASA upheld the complaint. “We considered that the claim ‘people & planet-friendly small group adventures’ was an absolute claim, which would be understood to meant that taking part in an Intrepid tour caused no environmental damage throughout its full life cycle,” the Authority noted in its ruling. “We therefore expected to see evidence which demonstrated that taking part in an Intrepid Travel tour, including the necessary travel to and from the destination location, caused no environmental damage over its full life cycle,” the judgement noted.

Intrepid’s multiple commitments to sustainability were discounted as only being “targeted to deliver results years into the future…we therefore considered that they did not relate to the claim as it would be interpreted by consumers,” the ASA noted – adding that the company’s carbon offsetting did not take into account high levels of emissions related to air travel.

“We concluded the ad had misleadingly minimised the impact of Intrepid Travel’s Holidays,” the ASA concluded, ordering that the advertisement not appear again in the future and ordering the company to “ensure that the basis of future environmental claims was made clear and did not give a misleading impression of the impact of their holidays”.

For its part Intrepid responded with good grace, with UK MD Zina Bencheikh saying it was a “positive step that regulators are becoming more stringent around advertising claims related to climate change and the environment and they will investigate even just one complaint”. Bencheikh described the ruling as a “good learning opportunity for us”.

Intrepid’s Leigh Barnes

Leigh Barnes, Intrepid Chief Customer Officer, also published a blog post addressing the issue on What We’re Learning Around Greenwashing in Travel Marketing, sharing some of the takeaways for the company including avoiding subjective and vague language such as “friendly” and “safe”, as well as considering the entire life cycle of the trip.

Barnes noted the “undeniable truth” that greenwashing has become a prevalent issue in travel and many other industries. “For Intrepid, navigating this new-normal in advertising as a brand that I genuinely believe creates positive change through the joy of travel is tough, to say the least,” he added.

Flights are definitely under fire

The same day that the ASA handed down its judgement in the Intrepid case there was a big moment across the Atlantic, where a potential class action is seeing a Delta Air Lines passenger formally challenge the carrier over its claim that it is “the world’s first carbon-neutral airline”.

Filed in a Californian federal court, the complainant alleges that Delta is simply buying “largely fabricated carbon offsets” rather than actually attempting to reduce its carbon emissions – and at the same time charging elevated prices to climate-conscious consumers.

Attorney Jonathan Haderlein, who is leading the legal charge, said “as public consciousness is raised, consumers are trying to make informed decisions that are trying to mitigate their own impact. Companies are trying to capitalise on that by saying they’re a green choice,” he told CBS News.

“If you think you’re flying the world’s most green airline, and you’re not, why wouldn’t that be actionable?” the lawyer asked.

Delta’s in-flight napkin making the environmental claim.

Delta has widely promulgated its claim, with court documents including an image of an in-flight napkin as part of the evidence. The case claims to act on behalf of anyone who flew on a Delta flight while living in California since March 2020, and insists the benefits from purchased offsets are only temporary, and would have happened even without the carrier’s investment.

A spokesperson for the carrier described the lawsuit as “without merit”, adding that “since March 31 2022 Delta has fully transitioned its focus away from carbon offsets towards decarbonisation of our operations, focusing on investing in sustainable aviation fuel”.

Whatever the merits of the case, it’s clear that aviation has a big battle to prove its environmental credentials. Speaking at last month’s TTF 2023 Outlook conference, Air New Zealand’s Chief Customer and Sales Officer, Leanne Geraghty, addressed the issue.

“I think it’s fair to say we’ve had quite a stringent sustainability roadmap for a number of years now, but we’ve very much pivoted our focus, and our focus is now on decarbonisation,” she said, noting that sustainability as an issue had “absolutely magnified over the course of the pandemic”.

“Previously it was all around wastage, single use plastics, the weight of aircraft and offsetting…it’s fair to say now that our core and primary focus is on how we can bring sustainable aviation fuel to life for our operation, as one of the levers that will actually take over 50% of the emissions out of our operation,” Geraghty noted. Other key NZ initiatives include bringing next generation aircraft into play, particularly on Air NZ’s domestic and regional routes.

Qantas has a similar approach, with outgoing CEO Alan Joyce last year noting that sustainability was one of the biggest challenges facing the airline. “A lot of our customers are very passionate about this,” he noted, with the carrier working hard to kick start a local sustainable aviation fuel industry and Joyce last week urging the Government to provide further backing for the fledgling sector.

Cruising into a green future

As another sector where the long-term future is absolutely dependent on environmental sustainability, cruising has also set ambitious targets. One of the leaders is Hurtigruten, which just this month revealed plans for its groundbreaking Sea Zero vessel, essentially a major commercial research project into how sustainable seafaring can happen in the future. Planned for launch by 2030, the futuristic vessel will utilise battery power, with recharging both in-port and from elevated “sails” holding hundreds of solar cells, which also enable the ship to utilise the wind.

Tudor Morgan, Hurtigruten’s VP of Sustainability and Industry Relations, told travelBulletin he believes transparency is key, with Hurtigruten detailing its environmental action in its own recently released ESG report. “We’ve very keen on being very transparent in what we do, and being accountable with that. That transparency and accountability allows us to have clear targets for the future, whether it’s increasing the number of science partnerships, reduction of emissions or elimination of waste,” Morgan said.

Other cruise lines are also heavily committed to ESG, along with Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). On the local stage CLIA Australasia Chair, Ben Angell from Norwegian Cruise Line (who is also a keen surfer), has spearheaded a partnership with Take 3 for the Sea – an initiative which made it into the Sail & Sustain 2022 ESG report recently released by parent company, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings – along with the successful Walk for Wellness initiative.

The ACCC and ASIC have their radar out too

Australia’s investment community (and the wider business sector) was firmly put on notice about environmental claims in March this year, when the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) launched Federal Court proceedings against a superannuation fund for allegedly misleading statements about one of its investment options.

Mercer Superannuation (Australia) Limited promoted a “Sustainable Plus” offer as being suitable for members who are “deeply committed to sustainability” because it excluded investments in alcohol production, gambling and carbon-intensive fossil fuels. ASIC alleges that investments were in fact made in a range of the purportedly excluded sectors, calling out funds put into AGL Energy, BHP, Whitehaven Coal, Heineken, Treasury Wine Estates, Tabcorp Holdings and Aristocrat Leisure.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) also has a watching brief on the issue announcing that it will prioritise consumer and fair trading issues in relation to environmental and sustainability claims, as part of its ongoing Compliance and Enforcement Priorities. The Commission undertook an “internet sweep” looking for potential greenwashing issues, and shockingly found that more than half of the 247 businesses it looked at had made “concerning claims about their environmental or sustainability practices”.

“Consumers are now, more than ever, making purchasing decisions on environmental grounds. Unfortunately, it appears that rather than making legitimate changes to their practices and procedures, some businesses are relying on false or misleading claims. This conduct harms not only consumers, but also those businesses taking genuine steps to implement more sustainable practices,” the ACCC said.

“We want to see businesses taking steps to ensure that environmental claims are accurate as well as meaningful for consumers,” the Commission added.

Truth above all

The overall conclusion for the industry must be that environmental sustainability, in all its forms, is non-negotiable. Not just because of how it will increasingly drive purchase decisions by a new generation of travellers, but because it’s the right thing to do.

But there’s also no doubt that with the microscope out right across the community, any sustainability commitments or claims must be able to be firmly backed up by hard evidence, rather than vague feelgood platitudes.

Subscribe To travelBulletin