Let's get this out of the way: The greenest way to travel is not to. Spare the jet fuel, the cruise waste, the gas-guzzling rental car. Just stay home and recycle.
Clearly that's not going to happen—nor should it. Tourism produces 5 percent of the world's carbon emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, and contributes to the depletion of natural resources, the degradation of ecosystems, and the proliferation of the waste found from shorelines to trekking trails. But the $1.5 trillion travel industry is also crucial for economic stability, development, and the conservation of natural and cultural heritage.
The answer is to travel responsibly. That’s getting easier, because the industry has upped its eco-game. “What was seen as good practice ten years ago would not be good enough today—which proves progress is being made,” says Fiona Jeffery, founder and of the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, a sustainability initiative by the World Travel & Tourism Council, an international trade group. It’s no longer enough for hotels to screw in low-flow showerheads. Now they’re installing in-room recycling bins and tending rooftop beehives.
With all the offerings out there, it can be difficult for travelers to understand what’s really responsible—and whom to trust. “The industry does get a bit confused at times,” said Stewart Moore, CEO and founder of EarthCheck, an Australia-based program that provides environmental advice and certification to travel companies. “Many words are used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be.”
Some of the most important areas to focus on are air and water pollution, says Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health. Last year, about 50 million more people traveled to international destinations than in 2014, according to the UN's World Tourism Organization. The rapid growth of tourism is creating dangerous amounts of untreated wastewater in some destinations and outstripping efforts at improving airplane efficiency. Consider changing the way you travel—how you get there, what you pack, how you eat—to lighten your footprint. Our guide is here to help.
How to See Through Greenwashing
Most companies aren’t out to trick travelers, but plenty make misleading claims. How to tell fact from fantasy.
Check for third-party certification.
This ensures that hotels, airlines, cruises, and tour operators are being honest. Also, check a company’s website for a comprehensive program. If your hotel says it recycles soap, assume it only recycles soap.
Consider impact in context.
Water conservation should be commended, especially in parts of Africa where there are shortages. But it’s less important in places where water isn’t scarce. “You have to address the local needs and use tourism to support that, not just tick boxes,” says Sarah Faith of booking site Responsible Travel.
Apply common sense.
“If claims seem excessive, they probably are,” says Fiona Jefferey of WTTC. Seek specifics—a company should know how much energy it’s saving. Many operators post sustainability reports online.
Labels to Look For
What It Does: The EPA’s program scores hotels on their energy efficiency. Properties have to submit a year’s worth of verified energy bills for review.
What It Doesn’t Do: Assess other environmental policies, like recycling or water use.
What It Does: Think it’s easy to tell how earth-friendly your accommodations are? Some highly visible features may not mean much, while what you don’t notice can be a game changer. Properties with sustainability programs usually provide details on their websites. A hotel’s green efforts may also be on its TripAdvisor listing page. Or, you can e-mail the hotel and ask. This is how some practices break down. To get the leaf badge, hotels have to meet minimum standards, including having recycling and linen-reuse programs, and educate guests about their practices.
What It Doesn’t Do: Make it easy to find green hotels—you have to do an advanced search.
What It Does: The U.S. Green Building Council puts its stamp on buildings and upgrades that meet minimum green requirements and adds points for extras, such as building on land that has already been developed.
What It Doesn’t Do: Ensure that a project is as environmentally sound as it could be—for example, a building far from any public transportation may still be LEED-certified.