All of the anguish and isolation of COVID lockdowns didn’t just make us want to travel more (although they certainly did that): they also made us want to travel sustainably. And perhaps that’s because the threats our planet currently faces, combined with being deprived of its splendour for too long, have made us all cherish the natural environment like never before. Who knows…but whatever the reason, the underlying facts are undeniable: according to the Sustainable Travel Report 2021 61 percent of respondents were travelling more last year as a result of what might best be described as a COVID hangover; and, wherever they were going, an astonishing 81 percent were intent on staying in sustainable accommodation: that second figure is up from 74 percent in 2020…and is 19 percent higher than the comparable figure from five years ago. Something’s obviously in the wind…we seem to be heading into a brighter, more sustainable future. But are we?
The shame distortion
Those of you who’ve been around as long as I have will probably remember the 1992 UK Election: in the run up to that election, the Polls were consistently giving Labour a strong (often double digit) lead over the Conservatives, but when the actual votes were counted, it was the Conservatives who romped home with a 21 seat majority. The reason for the apparent aberration was simple, and fundamental to polling psychology, and it was this: in the run up to that Election, the Conservatives were so unpopular in the media that people didn’t want to admit to supporting them…so they lied, and said they were voting Labour instead. Psychologists call this a “shame distortion”.
So let’s get back to sustainable travel again: how likely is it that the figures we were looking at earlier could be affected by a shame distortion? After all, and sadly, there are quite a few climate change deniers around, but very few of them are standing up to admit it (Nigel Lawson is the exception that proves the rule): saying you support sustainability is unquestionably popular, whereas admitting you couldn’t care less about your carbon footprint, or about how much of the rainforests will be torn apart to produce flooring and furniture…well, of course, that’s not popular at all, so you might not want to tell anyone: which means you put a tick in the “sustainable” box instead. Is there any evidence of this happening here?
Let’s take a look…
Earlier this year the Global Research Agency Skift asked over a thousand people (1,011 to be exact) if they would be willing to pay extra on their airfare to cover the cost of carbon offsetting: only 14 percent said yes. And, at the end of last year, a group of Swiss researchers asked more or less the same question to an even wider sample of travellers: only to come up with an even lower response rate of 5 percent…and if that was translated into real life, it would equate to an offset purchase of just EURO 1 per flight, which obviously isn’t going to change anything anytime soon. Is this, then, the authentic voice of the travelling public, stripped of its mask of shame?
Well, as it happens (and happily)…no
Greenwashing and message confusion
What we’re looking at rather is an unfortunate lack of clarity within the travel sector itself: in particular, a marked muddying of consumer options that has been created by major corporates and (for want of a better phrase) sectoral fly by nights, who are increasingly “greenwashing” their tired old messaging, with little or no commitment to real sustainability (except as a punchline).
Muddying the message in this way can (and does) confuse travellers all the time: we know that as well, which is why the same Skift report we looked at earlier ( “Accelerating the Transition to Net Zero”) also found 70% of customers felt “overwhelmed” by the range of travel options on offer, plus they struggled to distinguish between available lodging and transportation choices because of obvious “greenwashing” (often amounting to nothing more than saying “we’re greener so we’re better”), which means, in turn, that they distrust the messaging altogether.
That explains why, in a market with more and better hospitality providers who are genuinely committed to sustainability, 49 percent of travellers also believed there weren’t enough sustainability options available…it seems to be a case of the greenwashed apple spoiling the rest of the barrel. But, of course, this lack of messaging clarity and consumer understanding does not in any way evidence a lack of overall commitment towards sustainability…this isn’t, in other words, any kind of a “shame distortion”…it’s just what it is: a lack of understanding.
The Skift and Swiss Surveys can easily be explained on that basis: after all, if you ask someone to pay more for something they don’t understand, what do you expect them to say?
Back to basics
But it all means that its high time to get back to basics on the message (we’re in the business of siding with the planet and local communities… building a sustainable future): it’s time to filter the bad apples out, and for those companies who are truly committed to sustainable business models, companies like Eco Hotels ... well, for those companies to speak a little louder, and rise above the noise.
That’s the best way to build on what we have, and the best way to move forward together towards a brighter and better future.