Photo“Greenwashing” is a term to describe a practice by companies that espouse environmental-friendly policies but don't actually follow them. They talk the talk but don't walk the walk.

Hotels, in particular, have embraced the green philosophy in recent years, encouraging guests to turn off lights and reuse towels. Nothing wrong with that, say researchers at Washington State University, except these hotels often hide ulterior motives.

However, the researchers' own data suggests hotels try to project a green image in order to draw in perspective customers. As many as 79% of travelers worldwide agree that implementing eco-friendly practices is important to their choice of lodging, so wrapping your corporate image around this just makes sense.

Growing cynicism

But consumers are becoming increasingly cynical about corporations that bolt to the front of every trendy cause. The same data shows a majority of consumers are willing to boycott a company if they think they are being misled.

This is part of the damage Volkswagen is trying to repair at the moment.

In the case of hotels, it is of course in the establishment's best interests if guests don't run up the electric bill or demand a clean towel for every use.

But the researchers discovered that consumers – especially environmentally conscious ones – can quickly determine if they're being played by a hotel that supports good environmental policies only in the parts of the business where it helps the bottom line.

In addition to recognizing self-serving motives, the researchers see other reasons why consumers may be skeptical of green claims. Hotels that fail to integrate green practices throughout their establishment - advertising a linen reuse program but not having recycling bins available - might easily make consumers skeptical, especially if the consumer's comfort is sacrificed in some way.

Simply following a trend

The hotels – and other businesses – may simply be adapting to the new way some consumers are making choices. In the past, it was enough for a product to taste better, be more convenient and of higher quality, or cost less. Increasingly, consumers want the products they buy to reflect their personal values.

As we reported back in March, corporations increasingly embrace your values to win your approval. In the food space, restaurants now routinely brag that their food is “locally sourced,” purchased from local farmers and not from a huge agribusiness operation. It's worked particularly well for Chipotle, which has adopted a “food with integrity” slogan.

Charitable donations

It's becoming more evident that companies are able to manipulate consumers by pushing these hot buttons. In a recent study, Michelle Andrews and Xueming Luo of Temple University, Zheng Fang of Sichuan University, and Jaakko Aspara of the Hanken Swedish School of Economics, found that when a company offers to make charitable donations tied to consumer purchases, consumers tend to purchase more. A lot more.

"The mere presence of a charitable donation opportunity can generate significantly more sales," the authors wrote. "Offering the donation nearly doubled the number of purchases."

What the Washington State researchers seem to be saying is that some consumers are wising up, particuarly when it comes to “greenwashing.”

"Today's consumers are not always buying the green claims made by hotels," said reseaarcher Christina Geng-qing Chi. "It is imperative that hotels go the extra mile in integrating environmentally friendly practices to develop credibility in consumers' minds."

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