How do you know if a hotel is actually eco-friendly?

Greenwashing among hotels is everywhere. Here’s how to spot it.

Illustration of a hotel bellhop pushing a luggage cart followed by a person coughing from the black ...
Peter Gamlen

As more of the world gets vaccinated and travel restrictions begin to lift, world leaders gathered in Glasgow, Scotland to talk about what is possibly our last chance (for real this time) to stop the worst effects of climate change. Although I’m personally extremely eager to get back on the road, this is a good time to acknowledge that travel is a significant contributor to climate change. In fact, according to a 2018 study, tourism is responsible for up to 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, and that number is expected to rise.

That doesn’t mean you have to cut out vacations completely to avoid eco-guilt — but you should take sustainable travel into consideration when planning your trips. The good news: There are plenty of ways to travel more consciously, and choosing a sustainable hotel is one of them. The not-so-good news: The growing demand for green travel alternatives has also led to an increase in greenwashing — which is when corporations eager to capitalize on that demand make themselves appear green through marketing without truly backing it up.

So how do you know if a hotel you’re interested in is actually worth supporting? I spoke with some experts about common greenwashing tactics and methods we can all use to help determine whether a hotel is genuinely eco-friendly or just another greenwashing sham.

Pay attention to environmental reports

Jessica Blotter, the CEO and co-founder of sustainable travel platform Kind Traveler, says that although there are dozens of criteria travelers can look for when determining the eco-friendliness of a hotel, ultimately the most reliable and straight-forward one is the hotel’s environmental report. “Ideally, hotels should have a sustainability report and clearly stated initiatives visible on their website,” she tells Mic. “While sustainability certifications are great and help move sustainability forward, not all hotels — especially smaller, boutique hotels — can afford such certifications.” Blotter says that certifications like the B Corp Certification are better at working with a hotel’s budget, but it can still take up to a year for a hotel to get that certification.

Sustainability or environmental reports, meanwhile, are the most direct record of a hotel’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint — and they tend to be free of the fluff and self-congratulatory language you’d find on a hotel’s website. A full sustainability report might include a record of a hotel’s carbon emissions throughout the years and a track record of water reduction efforts. The report should also include a section where the company explains which frameworks it used to measure sustainability, as well as an assurance statement from a third party company that confirms that the data reported by the hotel is accurate. Of course, the latter is still a potential problem for hotels that don’t have the resources to invest in such oversight.

If a hotel does have a sustainability certification, do some research about the legitimacy of the organization it’s coming from — hotels can pay for accreditation by pseudo-environmental organizations that don’t measure anything significant. While these businesses are pretty savvy, you can often identify them by vague guidelines or the lack of oversight by a larger organization, like the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with credible ecolabels and certifications, like those listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website. Blotter also tells me that actual sustainability can’t really be reached in isolation, so if a company doesn’t have a sustainability director or work with outside organizations, it’s likely they’re not taking eco-friendliness too seriously.

Be wary of “wellness”

Wellness hotels certainly have their merits; but Louree Maya, the founder of eco-friendly hotel booking platform Kynder, warns against hotels that conflate wellness with sustainability. “Sometimes a veil of ‘cool factor’ can obscure the view, so always look closely at the details,” she tells me. “Don’t confuse wellness travel with sustainable travel, as they are not always one and the same.” Although your personal wellness is essential, a hotel doesn’t reduce its environmental impact simply because it promises to make you more zen.

Greenwashing hotels that hide behind that wellness branding often freely use buzzwords like “all-natural,” “eco-conscious,” and “organic,” that can easily confuse consumers. But if it’s all calming color palettes and talk of “clean” living without specifics on what makes the hotel eco-friendly, it’s probably a mirage.

Don’t be swayed by small steps

Sure, every small step toward sustainability is important, but solely using energy-efficient light bulbs (which, by the way, saves businesses a pretty penny) or organic shampoos does not an environmentally responsible hotel make. If a hotel boasts about efforts to reduce their environmental impact simply because they made one or two of those changes, they’re probably in the business of greenwashing. Look for a bigger-picture, holistic approach to sustainability — and think critically about the small things. Is the hotel offering organic shampoo, but in mini single-use plastic bottles? Are they encouraging you to reuse towels to save water, but are mum on their energy usage? Hotels that truly care about sustainability take measures to invest in renewable energy, reduce plastics, and cut down on unnecessary water waste, according to the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance. Some hotels, though, go way above and beyond that: The Brando in French Polynesia, for example, collects rainwater for plumbing, produces its own renewable energy and is carbon-neutral.

Look for evidence of sustainability outside the hotel walls

Tourism doesn’t exist in a bubble, and irresponsible hotel practices have a real impact on local communities — that’s why conscious travel companies and influencers increasingly view sustainable travel not only through an environmental lens, but also through a human rights one. For example, if a brand new eco-friendly hotel is built in the middle of a working class community and displaces the people who live there— even if the hotel itself is saving water and reducing its plastic use— then that hotel isn’t sustainable in a broader sense. “By looking through a lens of kindness that considers the health and wellbeing of communities, the environment, animal welfare, and even our own individual wellness, it’s possible to live and travel more consciously and sustainably," Blotter says.

Truly sustainable hotels support local economies by sourcing food and other materials from local businesses. As part of its criteria for recommending eco-friendly hotels, Kynder looks at where hotels source their food, as well as their efforts to reduce waste — but they also consider the treatment of a hotel’s staff before including any hotel on their site. “We can stay at an eco hotel and enjoy a lovely cafe with a sustainable garden; but if that eco hotel and cafe are not treating their staff well, or if we are rude guests, then we are not sustainable travelers,” Maya says.

And being a sustainable traveler shouldn’t be a passive thing. If a hotel you’re interested in doesn’t offer information about their own practices, it’s worth it to ask. “Travelers must use the power of their voices to speak up and kindly ask hotels to be transparent about their sustainability as a step forward in making sustainability a priority,” Blotter says.

Ultimately, though, staying at a sustainable hotel is only one part of the equation of reducing our carbon footprint — and climate shadow — when we visit somewhere new. We also need to be mindful about factors like where we shop, how we spend our money, and the transportation we use. As the United Nations states on its website, sustainability is “the practice of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Holding on to this philosophy as you go forth and travel can prove to be the best guiding light.