Ethically spending your travel dollars is a lot harder than it seems
In early April, Ellen Degeneres, Billie Jean King, George Clooney and several more celebrities publicly announced a boycott of a group of hotels in London, Paris, Beverly Hills and beyond. The properties in the luxe Dorchester Collection, ranging from Paris’s Hotel Plaza Athenee to the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel, filter profits directly to the Sultan of Brunei, who owns the hotel group under the government-led Brunei Investment Agency. Brunei recently imposed a new law to punish LGBTQ people to a violent and painful death by stoning, and while that may stop conscientious travelers from visiting the small country in Southeast Asia, the nation’s leader’s connections to well-regarded hotels in California and France were perhaps not as clear.
Conscious consumerism increasingly surrounds many of our purchasing habits, from the American-made, up-cycled clothes some elect to buy to the fair trade coffee and chocolate others prioritize eating, but when you’re away from home, how do you know what the cash you’re spending is supporting? And how do you maximize your travel time to not spend the entirety of your trip Googling who owns what and where certain items are sourced?
In the case of something like the Dorchester Collection, the answer isn’t always as obvious. The hotel group’s “about” page has no mention of the Sultan of Brunei, who profits from the hotels and condones torture of LGBTQ people, nor do, of course, any of the individual sites of the properties in the hotel group. And for the average traveler, the exclusive pricing of these hotels — a room at the Plaza Athenee runs about $600 per night — eliminates the option of ever sleeping in one of the Dorchester properties (perhaps splurging on a drink at the fancy bar, however, may be on an itinerary).
Still, the boycott is relevant to travelers spending at all price points. Because of the celebrity-fronted news, the Brunei connection is now apparent on search engines and social media, bringing to mind other issues that may arise with seemingly innocuous, more affordable brands all over the globe. Motel 6, for example, has been under scrutiny for showing guest information to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Keeping up to date on major brands’ values and transgressions may be helpful but idealistic — who has time to remember what companies stand for what and who has apologized and which disgraced owners have stepped down from where (free app idea!). Especially when you’re on the road and away from your neighborhood, how can you ensure your money is going to causes you believe in, and not the opposite.
“When traveling, especially when abroad, it can be harder to know what your money is supporting,” says Trish Tetreault, financial analyst at FitSmallBusiness.com. “Spend some time reading current news from the area you will be visiting. Are there businesses that are being criticized on a local or regional level for their values, or lack of? We can’t expect all transgressions to make international news, and generally, only the most blatant violations of common values do. However, a company’s values may have raised alarms locally.” She recommends doing advance research on any hotels you may consider staying in (same goes for companies you may be touring with, renting vehicles from or even dining with) to determine their corporate values. But still, large companies may always have a shield of mystery.
“Often, these values aren’t transparent until the company is outed publicly in the media for a transgression,” Tetreault says. “However, if one takes the time, you can get a sense of the values prior to such publicity. Most large corporations have a formal statement of their corporate values.” You can typically find these statements on a corporate website, or if, not, the company’s annual report. “Additionally, the internet provides a nearly unlimited supply of consumer feedback on the company. A little bit of research can help you determine if your values match those of the business, and if it’s a business that you want to support.” Reading the comments on peer-sourced travel and hospitality sites may clue you in to all you need to know about a certain brand.
And while local businesses rarely receive the same media attention as corporations, making their values perhaps less transparent, being able to interact with owners and perhaps employees can reveal the values of the business, be that via diverse and supportive hiring practices, a business’s support of local or larger organizations, or, sometimes, just the atmosphere of a specific spot. “If understanding the values of the business is important to you, contacting the company and asking questions about their values is an option,” Tetreault says.
When building a travel itinerary, you can add restaurants, bars and other diversions with ownership you trust and want to support — perhaps you opt to book an outing with an LGBTQ-owned tour company or have a special dinner at a restaurant led by a female chef. Unfortunately, because these specific examples are less common, if you don’t plan ahead to include them on your itinerary, they may not happen.
“Conscious consumerism takes place quietly by individuals who look to support businesses that support their personal values,” Tetreault says. In any case, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to save the world with every swipe of your credit card. “Ultimately, conscious consumerism is a personal choice. It involves making your purchases based on your own personal beliefs, and how those beliefs align with the company that you are buying from. While your decision to buy eggs from a local farmer may not save the world, it will give you a clear conscience knowing that you supported values that were important to you.”