Introduction on sustainable tourism marketing
Over the years, the interest for green products and services has risen tremendously, following companies engaging more and more in the communication of their sustainable actions (Delmas, Burbano, 2011). The incorporation of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives into the corporate culture of firms is therefore, to some extent, a result of meeting the increasing demand for sustainable products and services (Font, McCabe, 2017). Thus, successful communication is considered a fundamental part of companies daily business, despite its negative connotations, in particular when it comes to advertising. Nevertheless, marketing is particularly of great interest for tourism businesses since it determines to a large extent the travel volume to destinations and as a result contributes to the (economic) development of the latter (Font, McCabe, 2017). Sustainable marketing in that context is therefore defined by Font and McCabe (2017) as “the application of marketing functions, processes and techniques to a destination, resource or offering, which serves the needs of the visitor and stakeholder community today and ensures the opportunities of future visitors and stakeholders to meet their needs in the future“ (p. 871). Hence implying the importance of sustainable tourism marketing in order to encourage the further development of sustainable tourism at the destinations themselves.
The objective of this paper is to identify the current issues and obstacles facing sustainable tourism marketing and to later provide insights into how it can be used successfully to encourage a behavioural change for consumers.
Greenwashing vs. Greenhushing
When looking at the challenges concerning sustainable marketing, one comes across the term of “greenwashing“. The latter is defined as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company (firm-level greenwashing) or the environmental benefits of a product or service (product-level greenwashing)“ (Delmas, Burbano, 2011, p. 6). Thus, firms claim to act responsibly when in reality this is not the case. Consequently, in order to define companies according to their environmental performance and communication, Delmas and Burbano (2011) have created a framework in which companies can be categorized accordingly. In terms of the environmental performance, it can be distinguished between poor and good environmental performers, whilst communication of the environmental performance is either considered as no communication or positive communication.
Hence, greenwashing firms are characterized by a poor environmental performance whilst at the same time pursuing a positive communication about their environmental performances. An example of greenwashing in the tourism industry can be considered Ryanair, as it claims to be “Europe’s greenest, cleanest airline“ (Ryanair, 2020) when it is debatable whether airlines at this point can even be considered as green or clean.
In order to expose greenwashing activities however, external audits are crucial as well as focusing on the transparency in reporting of companies to provide insights on the disclosure-performance gap. This is vital since a positive communication does not automatically indicate a positive performance regarding a company’s sustainable actions (Font, Walmsley, Cogotti, McCombes, Häusler, 2012).
Contrary to the phenomena of “greenwashing“, the term “greenhushing“ describes the opposite, namely “the deliberate withholding, from customers and stakeholders, of information about the sustainability practices that they employ“ (Font, Elgammal, Lamond, 2017, p. 1007). According to a study conducted by Font, Elgammal and Lamond (2017) on small rural tourism businesses in the Peak District National Park (UK), only 30% of the sustainability practices are actively communicated by those businesses which is due on the one hand to a dislike in communicating their actions and benefits solely for promotional purposes. Moreover, there is the fear of being perceived as less competent when strongly emphasizing on sustainable values and actions (Font, Elgammal, Lamond, 2017).
Insights into successful sustainability communication
Despite the issues of greenwashing and greenhushing, there is an attitude-behaviour gap with tourists when it comes to acting responsibly whilst going on vacation. Thus, only a positive intention towards environmentally friendly behaviour does not necessarily indicate a positive behaviour of the tourists at the destination (Juvan, Dolnicar, 2014). Moreover, consumers have a different understanding of what the term sustainability or responsible tourism truly means (Font, McCabe, 2017).
Therefore, there is a strong need for a comprehensive and clear communication towards the consumers to be able to encourage a positive change in their behaviour. As Font and Villarino (2015) have pointed out, there is a huge lack of persuasiveness when it comes to sustainability communication. In order to avoid negative responses or possibly being accused of greenwashing, the majority is focused on providing facts rather than making use of an emotive language that is directed at the individual customer.
However, when using emotive language it is advisable to not act “overly moralizing“ (Font, McCabe, 2017, p. 874) as this is not considered adequate since it prevents customers from being personally engaged. Thus, one should have a good balance between descriptive and emotive language whilst focusing on a positive one, when it comes to the latter.
Finally, implementing a strong sustainability communication strategy for tourism businesses is considered a challenge, however it can in the end be rewarding for the business itself and also have a positive effect on the change of behaviour of the tourists.