Tripadvisor’s Greenleader certification: Leadership… or Greenwash?

tripadvisor greenleaders certification

I was pretty excited to hear that Tripadvisor was launching a ‘GreenLeaders’ certification scheme, announced, like so many green corporate initiatives in the US, to coincide with Earth Day on April 22. With many millions of users worldwide, Tripadvisor has clout, and if it is embedding ethics into its listings, there is real potential to bring these issues to a wider travelling public.

The second question in its questionnaire begins; “Do you have a towel reuse plan in place…?” It’s 2013. Sure, hotels should be getting the towel thing right, but to flag it up at the head of a  ‘GreenLeaders’ survey is like complimenting your partner for cleaning their teeth. By this stage, a towel and linen policy should be taken as read, along with such other low-impact fruit as lightbulbs and recycling. Combine this with the fact a hotel can call itself a GreenLeader Bronze if it “achieves a 30% score on the Green Practices survey” and the certification scheme risks being labelled greenwash.

The final question reads: “Do you offer guests access to charging stations for electric vehicles, either on-site or within 1 mile of the property?” Promoting charging stations is good – as far as it goes. But what about promoting public transport? And not only promoting it in terms of minimising negative environmental impact, but for three other reasons, which Tripadvisor needs to take on board to really be displaying leadership.

1) Connection to community
Taking trains and buses around destinations connects you to local people. And unless a green – or any other form – of tourism business is connected to its community, ensuring they benefit as much as possible, it does not merit being called a leader. Yet the only survey questions mentioning people are about staff education on green measures, and informing guests about them. There’s nothing asking how they invest in their community or what their employment commitments are for local people. You can build an off-grid lodge out of organic haybales and recycle 100 per cent of your waste, but unless your business brings tangible and sustainable benefits to the local people, it is only part way there.

peaks of the balkans

Peaks of the Balkans walking routes use responsible tourism to rebuild trust between communities

2) Maximise the positives
Too often the aspiration for tourism certification ends at minimising our negatives, typified by the old ‘leave only footprints’ cliche. This has to be done, but to stop there is to say we are by definition a negative force, looking only to do less bad. Yet the real leaders in tourism are the ones using our industry for good. Look at the inspirational winners of last month’s WTTC awards, the subject of my last blog – with Peaks of The Balkans trekking trails, for example, praised for “playing an important role in preserving the natural, cultural and spiritual heritage of the region, as well as restoring mutual trust, collaboration, and economic opportunities between these three Balkan countries”. That’s a walking route leaving a lot more than footprints behind.

3) The pleasure principle
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these awards are dull, and no one wants a dull holiday. Travel is about experiences and encounters. Not cooling towers and towel schemes. Yet these awards don’t acknowledge that many of the most responsible operators are also the ones providing the most memorable holidays. The guides and rangers who will most inspire you are those passionately devoted to conserving wildlife; just as the best hosts are those who care deeply about the wellbeing of the people that work for them. These are the characters with the best stories to tell, the ones proud to show you what happens behind the scenes, for whom openness and transparency is a chance to share what motivates their lives.

Actually, I reckon Tripadvisor gets this, even if it hasn’t quite put it all together yet. It already flags up Transparency and Traveller Feedback as key to its certification scheme. The scale of its networks gives it a unique opportunity to connect its users with the inspiring businesses doing it right. If it could make the links between environmental and social responsibility and the positive experiences that holiday makers have as a result, Tripadvisor wouldn’t just be assessing green leaders, it would be one itself.

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Jeremy Smith is a writer and editor specialising in responsible tourism. He is the editor of Travindy.com, an industry news site focussing on developments in sustainable and responsible tourism. He also works with ethical and sustainable travel businesses, developing their communications, brands, marketing and digital & social media strategy.

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