Adventures Less Ordinary: Distinguishing Responsible from Greenwashing

This post is part of my contribution to Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good, a free guide to impactful adventures. Drawing on the combined expertise of two dozen leading voices advocating for travel that makes a difference, it is a guide for compassionate people seeking the ultimate adventure – one guided as much by the good you give as the good you get. To order your copy, click through from the Adventures Less Ordinary webpage to register.

How to Distinguish Between Responsible Organizations and Those Using “Greenwashing” By Victoria Smith

I first volunteered abroad in the mid 2000s. After extensive independent travel, and then work in tourism for a decade, I had decided I wanted to “do something different” and “‘make a difference” in travel. So first I embarked on a life-changing six months in Southern Africa during which I found my life purpose and then I launched a decade-long career transition of immense experiences. I’ve moved from web-strategy development, e-commerce and marketing for big brands involved in mass tourism to a focus on specialists in responsible tourism. Along the way, I qualified as a field guide (ranger) in South Africa to better understand conservation standards and operations, worked at home and abroad for a voluntourism and charity-challenge tour operator, and gained a Masters in Responsible Tourism Management, all the while keeping tabs on the burgeoning volunteer-tourism market.

When it came to my Masters thesis, I always knew I wanted to address the online marketing of volunteer tourism and the increasingly problematic issue of if – and how – a volunteer can distinguish between truly responsible organisations and those using “greenwashing,” all based solely on web communications in a market with hundreds, if not now thousands, of charity and commercial options.

The somewhat controversial conclusion from my cross-sector research and thousands of data points was yes, it is possible, but you really have to do your homework. More importantly, you have to be honest with yourself about what you really want in order to find it. (Download a free copy of my published academic paper on Volunteer Tourism and Greenwashing.)

My findings, based entirely on legitimate publicly available information, included the following key concerns:

  • Ethics in volunteer tourism are inconsistently communicated by organisations.
  • Inconsistency between policies and projects can highlight “greenwashing” and other PR “spin” on ethics.
  • Conservation sustainability tends to be better communicated due to supporting scientific evidence.
  • Responsibility was least well communicated in childcare; few organisations do this well.
  • Ethical practice and operations are not guaranteed by the status of an organisation, regardless of whether it is an NGO, social enterprise or commercial entity.
  • Program prices and the level of responsibility often display an inverse relationship on comparable trips: the more expensive the per-day prices are, the less responsible the organisation often was; the most responsible organisations price responsibly too.

Lots of organisations make unsubstantiated claims about the ethics and sustainability of their operations. That the public publishing of my paper prompted one well-known organisation to communicate its intent to litigate hopefully demonstrates that this industry is not all “nicey-nicey” charity. While I acknowledge that every organisation needs to strive for financial sustainability, it’s often more about running business at a profit, where public reputations are key to market value.

Some organisations really are great. They are, however, too few and far between. As it is difficult to reach any industry consensus given the different requirements of places, projects and purposes, there are no agreed-upon industry standards. It is, therefore, up to the volunteers themselves to step up and make smarter choices.

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