© UNWTO - International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development
by Marcela Torres
Do you ever wonder where the food you eat at a hotel comes from? How much water and energy the hotel consumes? Do you consider sustainability when choosing a hotel or tour operator? Or when you buy things for your trip?
These are questions worth pondering upon in a week in which the world celebrated Environment Day on June 5 and held the Ocean Conference in New York, in addition to the fact that 2017 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. And questions like these are being discussed in the massive open online course (MOOC) on “Sustainable Consumption and Production”, organized by the UNDP through its NBSAP Forum, which I’m facilitating in its Spanish version.
What is the role of consumers in promoting sustainability in tourism or any other industry? Well, the main role is to exercise their power on the demand side of the economy. More and more, efforts are being made by international organizations and advocacy groups to promote green consumption and many countries and companies have already incorporated principles such as “the polluter pays” into their legislations or business strategies.
Nevertheless, there is still a myth that individual consumers are the most responsible for sustainable consumption and that by providing them with information about the social and environmental consequences, sustainable consumption can be achieved through the market. However, research by the United Nations 10YFP Sustainable Lifestyles and Education Programme has shown that there are some mental blocks:
ideologies (“I should be free to buy what I want” or “Technology will solve environmental problems”)
social norms (“I’ll look strange if I do it” or “why should I do it if they don’t?”)
‘lock in’ to unsustainable capital (“well I already have the car…”)
mistrust or denial (“Those eco-labels are just a marketing ploy!”)
perceived risks of sustainable consumption (“what if the photovoltaic cells don’t work reliably?” or “won’t my colleagues think I’m poor if I take the train?”)
feeling that individual actions won’t make a difference (“I’m just one in 7 billion”)
emotional manipulation through marketing and advertising (“You’ll be happier with these products.”)
Don’t get me wrong. Consumers can and should make a difference, either individually or collectively. But being informed is not enough for them to take action. Sometimes they don’t have options. How many recycling facilities are close to their homes or (in the case of tourism) in their hotels? What is the cost of choosing a sustainable option over another one that is unsustainable?
I have previously discussed this in a paper published in 2013 by the Journal of Ecotourism. One of the biggest hurdles that must be overcome by the responsible tourism movement is that this type of tourism is usually more expensive than traditional tourism. If you scour the internet for marketing data, you’ll find many statistics indicating responsible tourism is a growing global trend and that today’s consumers expect travel companies to build sustainability into their product offer. You will also find many surveys reporting high percentages of people who declare they will prefer a sustainable travel company over an unsustainable one. But how true is this really?
There’s a catch… I can’t say that people necessarily lie during a survey, but their answers may often be influenced by what they consider to be polite or politically correct responses. Honestly, would you ever say (given the global evidence of pollution) that you “don’t care about pollution” or that you “like to pollute”? Probably not.
On the other hand, they may actually want to choose sustainability but are unable to. The truth is, in general, people don’t “mean to pollute” or choose unsustainable options. But sometimes they don’t have alternatives, because there are no sustainability initiatives where they live or stay, because they have strong mental blocks, or because they simply can’t afford them.