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  • 11.10.15

Consumers See Through Hotels’ Cynical Greenwashing Attempts

Save the planet? Or just save a hotel on its laundry bill?

Consumers See Through Hotels’ Cynical Greenwashing Attempts
[Top Photo: DrGrounds/Getty Images]

Next time you obey the sign in your hotel bathroom telling you to hang up the towel instead of tossing it on the floor to be washed after a single use, take a look around you. Is the bathroom stacked with single-use plastic shampoo bottles, with no place to recycle them? Is there a bottled-water vending machine in the lobby instead of a water fountain?

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If so, the hotel might be guilty of greenwashing. Worse (for the hotel, at least) is that customers see through these claims and will often not return to offending hotels. These are the findings of a new paper by Imran Rahman, Jeongdoo Park, and Christina Geng-qing Chi at Washington State University.

The study set out to measure the effects of greenwashing on customers’ behavior and found exactly what you’d expect. When they suspected an ulterior motive, hotel guests were less likely to participate in the linen reuse programs or even to return to the hotel. If a notice on the bathroom wall exhorting guests to “save the planet” is the only sign of an environmental policy, it’s no surprise that we would assume the hotel is just trying to save on laundry bills.

Flickr user Dan McKay

The study, which surveyed 3,000 hotel customers, found that those with a strong conscience still wouldn’t dump the towels, even when they suspected foul play.

“We were surprised to discover consumers with high environmental concern don’t have an ‘all or nothing’ attitude,” says Christina Chi in a release. “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.”

Interestingly, the survey also found that eco-minded consumers are willing to pay extra to stay in a truly green hotel. The combination isn’t surprising. After all, the truly green-conscious person will be more skeptical of green claims than someone who doesn’t give the environment much thought. This explains why Keurig and Nespresso manage to trick so many people into using their ecologically disastrous coffee capsules because they’re made of “recyclable” aluminum.

The only way to gain a customer’s trust, says the study, is to commit fully. “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,” Chi says.

A good example of this would be the Camper hotel in Barcelona, Spain, where gray water is recycled for use in toilets, much of the hotel runs off solar power, and the rooms are naturally cooled by a vertical garden out back. And yes, the hotel asks you to reuse your linen.

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“Today’s consumers are not always buying the green claims made by hotels,” says Chi, and a good thing, too. As a consumer, it’s important to stay vigilant. As soon as any good cause gains traction, it becomes a legitimate marketing tool and all bets are off, trust-wise. That’s how something like “organic” has become just another brand label.

“It is imperative that hotels go the extra mile in integrating environmentally friendly practices to develop credibility in consumers’ minds,” says Chi, but striving to be credible will never be as good as striving to be truly green.

On the other hand, if hotels end up washing less linen, then everybody wins, right?

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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