Study eyes hotel industry ‘greenwashing’

How green is your hotel really?
How green is your hotel really?

Consumers catching on to self-serving industry practices

Staff Report

Environmentally savvy travelers aren’t necessarily buying the hotel industry’s green claims, according to a trio of Washington State University researchers, who said there’s growing skepticism that towel re-use programs and other superficial measures are truly a sign of sustainable hotel operations.

The study, published in the Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, suggests that some of those practices are nothing more than greenwashing, referring to the “deceitful practice of promoting environmentally friendly programs while hiding ulterior motives.”

The researchers — Imran Rahman, Jeongdoo Park and Christina Geng-qing Chi — investigated the consequences of greenwashing in the lodging industry and suggest ways hotels can establish credibility in consumers’ minds, increasingly important, because as many as 79 percent of travelers worldwide agree that implementing eco-friendly practices is important to their choice of lodging.

The biggest step hotels can take is to participate in an independent green certification program like Green Seal or the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, the two major certification programs in the lodging industry.

“Having a comprehensive green program, certifications by independent and widely accepted green agencies and communicating the message to customers are key strategies hotels can use to appear more credible in the eyes of consumers,” said Chi.

The researchers surveyed more than 3,000 consumers to see whether recognizing a hotel’s hidden motive of profit caused them to be skeptical about the hotel’s environmental claims and if it influenced their intention to engage in a linen reuse program or to revisit the hotel.

Since environmentally conscious guests are often willing to pay higher premiums for green hotels, the researchers also examined whether their sense of moral obligation would override skepticism and willingness to participate in a linen reuse program or revisit the hotel.

Results indicated that recognition of a self-serving motive indeed made consumers skeptical and unlikely to participate in the green practice or revisit the hotel in the future.

However, researchers found that consumers with high levels of environmental concern still felt morally obligated to participate in the hotel’s green initiative, despite realizing its greenwashing tendencies.

“We were surprised to discover consumers with high environmental concern don’t have an ‘all or nothing’ attitude,” said Chi. “Our results showed when ecologically conscious consumers know a hotel is not truly green, they will still use the linen reuse program but they will not revisit the hotel.”

The study also shows that consumer skepticism grew when travelers noticed that hotels don’t integrate practices throughout their establishment — for example, advertising a linen reuse program but not having recycling bins available.

Consumer skepticism also may build when hotels engage in simple practices, such as discarding disposable toiletry containers, changing the bedding and towels less often or asserting they are green by simply hanging a sign that says they are green.

Additionally, if consumers realize hotels have joined commercial green marketing and central reservation associations that don’t inspect the credentials of the applicants, they may view this action as unethical, deceptive or even corporate hypocrisy, said the researchers.

“Having a comprehensive green program, certifications by independent and widely accepted green agencies and communicating the message to customers are key strategies hotels can use to appear more credible in the eyes of consumers,” said Chi.

Additionally, the researchers suggest hotels use positive word of mouth to attract customers by posting favorable reviews on websites and social media channels and by training staff to follow the establishment’s green practices and be able to inform guests about them.

“Today’s consumers are not always buying the green claims made by hotels,” Chi concluded. “It is imperative that hotels go the extra mile in integrating environmentally friendly practices to develop credibility in consumers’ minds.”

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