It seems every where you look now, companies of all kinds are talking about how “green” they are. The words “responsible”, “sustainable” and “ethical” seem to be used by everyone, from companies in travel, oil, cosmetics – the list is endless. You won’t be alone in wondering what this really means: how does it really benefit the environment, the local tribes, the rain forest?
Unfortunately the truth is that all too often, these words are used by businesses as a subtle type of marketing ploy. You’ll all be familiar with “sugar free”, “low in fat” and similar phrases used on food to try and convince you that somehow what you’re eating or drinking will actually make you more thin or healthy (and probably buy and consume it thinking you’re being good), but of course what isn’t mentioned is the high salt content, the artificial additives and so forth that “plump up” the product and make it taste nice – which may well be worse for you that the original “bad” ingredients.
I once read a great article that said the best way to a healthy heart, body and mind was the stuff our parents used to give us – sensible balanced meals made with high quality ingredients. High quality ingredients, you see, satisfy your hunger in small quantities (try eating a small steak from an organic butcher and compare it to a large one from a high street supermarket, and you’ll see what I mean).
This philosophy can be applied to almost everything. What good is benefit in one area if it is at the sacrifice of many others? What is the point of one selling point for a product that doesn’t support any of the underlying ideals?
In tourism, the good/bad divide is too often weighted towards the bad, especially in developing countries. The good in this case is almost always economic benefit, and economic benefit only. The list of bad is much longer: cultures, customs, beliefs, environment, independence.
The philosophy of sustainable tourism is to use resources but make sure we maintain them for future generations’ use, to minimise the social and environmental negative impacts caused by tourism. How does this work in practice? any contact with wealthy foreigners who don’t understand (or worse, aren’t interested in) the customs of the people they are visiting can only have a negative impact, and nothing can be done to put that back. From an environmental level, you only have to do a minimal amount of investigation to work out the environmental impact the carbon emissions given off by your plane just getting to your destination has on the environment (and no thanks to certain countries not signing up to the Kyoto agreement, this is a situation that is only going to get worse).
The same counts for ethical tourism: is there such a thing in developing countries visited by western tourists? You sleep in places which are foreign owned, and pay a local monthly salary for one night. You eat in restaurants where people work and earn the amount same as 10 of your meals in a month. Is this ethical?
Responsible tourism is perhaps a more realistic approach. More of an achievable approach, responsible tourism seeks to minimise negative impacts and maximise positive impacts as possible. Not so dramatic, but perhaps more achievable.
Nonetheless, how MUCH of this you have to do to call yourself “responsible” is something that currently (unfortunately) is largely up to the individual. Is donating 1% of your profits to a global charity responsible? Responsible enough? This question of course comes back to the motivation for running a business in the first place.
For travel companies, the rush to call themselves “responsible” is on the increase – in fact, nowadays if you ain’t saying you’re green, you ain’t getting the business (almost). However, it’s plain to see that tacking on a few green features after 15 years of trading as a solely in-it-for-the-money company doesn’t really wash. A potential client could be forgiven for thinking: so what happened? Did they suddenly see the light? Did they feel motivated to act because they realized the previous error of their ways? Or did they figure it was an easy way to get more business?
Over to you, the consumer. Of course, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is still your holiday you’re talking about, something you’ve worked your ***s off half the year to pay for. You want to have a good time, see spectacular sights, meet like-minded people, have a few beers at sunset. You don’t want to have to sacrifice this in order to travel responsibly. Understood. But if you can have all of this and STILL be as impact-neutral as possible, surely that’s the only way to go?
“In thirty years’ time, it won’t matter what shoes you wore, how your hair looked or which bar you drank at. What will matter is what you learned and how you used it.”