Time to clean up our act

The ACCC has stepped in to put a stop to misleading sustainability claims, but how guilty is the travel sector of greenwashing? ADAM BISHOP jumps into these murky waters to find out.

THE travel industry is awash with companies clambering to reposition themselves as more sustainable. While there are many who are no doubt driven by the moral imperative of climate change and the social good, the power of an increasing consumer appetite for sellers and suppliers to be more environmentally responsible can’t be underestimated.

With both virtuous and self-interested commercial incentives at play, it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that the scourge of greenwashing has become an insidious problem in the sector. Several high-profile studies have suggested that consumers are prepared to fork out more on trips with brands who lead with their moral compass or claim to be conducting themselves sustainably, with some data even suggesting a cohort of Aussies hinge their entire purchasing decision on a supplier’s eco credentials. However, the obvious challenge for the humble traveller is how effectively they can distinguish between brands who are genuine and those who are cynically using the green movement as a cheap platform for financial gain.

The growing conundrum has already raised the eyebrows of the consumer watchdog, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) last month feeling compelled to publish a Draft Guidance to clean up the soup of spurious sustainability boasts flowing through most Aussie sectors.

The ACCC found a concerningly high level of businesses in Australia (57%) were guilty of making potentially misleading environmental claims to consumers, with Chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb reaffirming that more “honesty and transparency” was needed to avoid a rising number of Aussies from being duped into dubious purchases.

“False or misleading claims can undermine consumer trust in all green claims, particularly when consumers are often paying higher prices based on these claims,” she argued.

“Similarly, businesses that are taking genuine steps to adopt sustainable practices are put at a competitive disadvantage by businesses that engage in ‘greenwashing’ without incurring the same costs,” Cass-Gottlieb (pictured below) added.

While travel was not singled out as one of the industries of most concern, that shady mantle went to the cosmetics and food and beverage industries, travel services formed part of the recent ACCC sweep because of its strong reliance on positive reviews for future transactions.

Hurtigruten is one cruise brand considered by many to be at the vanguard of positive sustainability change, with the line’s Managing Director for APAC, Damian Perry, not mincing his words when speaking to travelBulletin about changes needed in travel, claiming the sector should start by first “cutting the crap” around green claims.

“I suspect we have a number of businesses in the travel industry making such claims, some may have the intent to be positive sustainable businesses but they often do not have, nor have been willing, to invest in the infrastructure and resources to deliver genuine sustainable solutions and therefore may be making claims that are fictitious,” Perry believes.

“The travel industry is a carbon-intensive industry, and few operators can today deliver a low-carbon solution, but it’s not all doom and gloom, there are steps being made to deliver low-carbon, low-emission, sustainable solutions to the consumer,” he added. When asked about the effectiveness of the ACCC’s new draft guidance and potential legal action against companies found to be misleading consumers, Perry described the review and change of tack as “a good step forward”, even though he lamented that in an ideal world companies would simply act in the best interests of the planet.

“It is a sad day that we need ACCC to establish this policy and monitor businesses due to the high percentage who are making misleading environmental claims,” he said.

“Until now there were few, if any, barriers to making these claims as operators were not required to share data or offer any transparency to meet these claims, under a new policy they will most likely fall short of the ACCC expectations.

“It is critical that we are transparent, honest and genuine as even the best performers in the industry have recently been picked up making misleading claims…this is the first opportunity for our industry to be accountable and transparent,” Perry added.

Hurtigruten is one company that believes transparency in sustainability policies is important, recently unveiling plans for it’s first zero-emission cruise ship as part of their Sea Zero project, with a visualisation pictured here. Credit: VARD Design

Similar views were expressed by Adventure World’s Managing Director Neil Rodgers, with the chief of The Travel Corporation brand telling TB that he had “little doubt” that any business guilty of greenwashing was causing significant damage to consumer trust.

“[Greenwashing] erodes the validity of legitimate sustainability claims and, ultimately, erodes the consumers’ trust in any sustainability claims,” Rodger observed.

“The former we’re somewhat accustomed to, sadly, and Adventure World’s response aligns with the eight principles outlined in the ACCC’s guidance on sustainability, the most important of which being that companies must have evidence to back up sustainability claims. This is precisely why we put the full weight of our business behind our annual sustainability impact reports – the most critical tool that we have to reassure the consumer that our claims have weight.”

Rodgers also pointed out that some companies may not be deliberately deceiving travellers with their credentials, but rather may not have a full understanding of what sustainability entails or wrongly feel the topic should be dumbed down for the consumer.

“The topic of sustainability and the litany of issues it covers are complex, there’s no changing that, and so it’s seductive for businesses to oversimplify the topic,” Rodgers contends.

“As the ACCC rightly points out, this oversimplification leads to broad and unqualified claims that do little to enlighten the consumer.

“We need to give the travel consumer the information they need to understand what these claims mean. An excellent example is our goal of achieving net zero – the appropriate words here being ‘goal of achieving’ – this is a transition that will take us years, and the more the public understands this the better chance we have of gaining their support in the transition, ideally encouraging greater change.”

“There’s power in bringing the consumer along on the journey, rather than being seduced by sexy, but oversimplified marketing jargon,” Rodgers concluded.

It’s also worth noting that even the some of the high performers in this area have been skewered by the evolving landscape, with Intrepid earlier this year forced to take down billboards in the UK promoting its “planet-friendly” tours in Egypt. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found the Aussie company was culpable of making a false “absolute claim” about causing zero impact on the environment, which was not entirely true when factoring in the practicalities of getting there.

In making its decision, the ASA said the billboards implied that taking part in an Intrepid tour caused no environmental damage throughout its full life cycle, however, most of its customers would need to fly to Egypt to take part, therefore contributing to carbon emissions.

In its draft guidance and sweep, the ACCC identified several areas of specific concern in Australia, these included: the overuse of absolute claims like the term ‘non-polluting’; vague and unqualified claims; a lack of substantiating information; aspirational goals with little or no detail as to how they will be achieved; the use of images which falsely appear to be trustmarks; and misrepresenting third-party certifications.

Consultation for the draft guidance is now open and closes on 15 September – access the results of the ACCC sweep HERE.

Subscribe To travelBulletin