Hotels across the globe are increasingly encouraging guests to embrace green practices. Yet while guests think they’re supporting the environment by shutting off lights and reusing towels, they may in fact be victims of “greenwashing,” according to online publication Eco-Business.

Greenwashing is a corporation’s deceitful practice of promoting environmentally friendly programs while hiding ulterior motives, says Eco-Business, which offers “news, opinion, advertising and marketing services for Asia’s sustainable business community”.

bottel-oil-green-3-1425647Such practices, including a sign that reads “save the planet: re-use towels,” coupled with claims of corporate social responsibility, have soiled the trust of American consumers who are increasingly recognising hotels’ green claims may be self-serving, it says.

This could cause hotels to lose valuable repeat customers.

Writing in the Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, Washington State University hospitality researchers Imran Rahman, Jeongdoo Park and Christina Geng-qing Chi investigate the consequences of greenwashing in the lodging industry and suggest ways hotels can establish credibility in consumers’ minds.

Their paper, “Consequences of ‘Greenwashing:’ Consumers’ Reactions to Hotels’ Green Initiatives,” comes at a time when as many as 79% of travellers worldwide agree that implementing eco-friendly practices is important to their choice of lodging. Research shows a majority are willing to boycott a company if misled.

Causes of consumer scepticism

The researchers surveyed over 3,000 consumers to see whether recognising a hotel’s hidden motive of profit caused them to be sceptical 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 scepticism 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 sceptical 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 realising 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.”

In addition to recognising self-serving motives, the researchers suggest several reasons why consumers may balk at believing hotels’ green claims. Chi said hotels that fail to integrate green practices throughout their establishment — for example, advertising a linen reuse program but not having recycling bins available — might easily make consumers sceptical, especially if the consumer’s comfort is sacrificed in some way.

Consumer scepticism 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’re green by simply hanging a sign that says they are.

Additionally, if consumers realise 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.

Establishing credibility

The researchers suggest several steps hoteliers can take to develop a positive image of their hotels and reduce consumer scepticism. They said the single most important factor is to become certified by independent and credible agencies such as Green Seal and Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), the two major certification programs in the lodging industry.

no-lies-1444290“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 word of mouth to attract customers by posting favourable 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,” said Chi. “It is imperative that hotels go the extra mile in integrating environmentally friendly practices to develop credibility in consumers’ minds.”