This article is part of a series from the World Travel and Tourism Council, the voice of the travel and tourism private sector globally. WTTC is campaigning for Nature Positive Tourism, working with policymakers and leaders around the world to shape the international biodiversity agenda.
In 2021, a study by the European Commission found that nearly half of green claims made by businesses online were “exaggerated, false or deceptive”. More than a third used words like “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” without supporting evidence, and some even faced legal penalties. But in a world where travel companies increasingly want to do the right thing, how should they navigate this growing scrutiny? What does responsible communication look like, and how can businesses celebrate success while holding themselves to account? To find out, we spoke to Helen Usher, director and co-founder of ANIMONDIAL and a key supporter of WTTC’s Nature Positive Tourism initiative.
“It all started because we were receiving calls from a lot of travel businesses,” explains Helen. “They wanted to do the right thing, but they weren’t sure what guidance to follow”. It’s a familiar story. Around the world, travel and tourism companies are increasingly aware of the urgent need to tackle climate change and protect biodiversity, but aren’t sure where to start. And although businesses want to act, they often lack the tools to do so. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a small business or a huge, global company,” says Helen. “Sustainability teams are usually only one or two people. A lack of funding or expertise may also be an obstacle. And it’s a problem. Until now, nature protection has been severely under-resourced.”
Tackling this, Helen argues, means finding the right partners. They might be non-profits, universities or biodiversity experts. “Businesses should identify trusted partners to work with — whether it’s a small NGO in a travel destination, or a consultant that can help with policy creation or impact assessments. To identify the right partner for your business, we would start by assessing the business need and looking at a company’s sustainability focus,” explains Helen. “Say a travel operator mainly operates in Southeast Asia, and they sell visits to nature reserves, forests, or perhaps elephant experiences. Of course, the nature-related impacts will need to be identified and addressed first, before looking at these priority areas to see what sort of partnership they align with. Ultimately, as a travel company, you’re not expected to know everything about every species. So partner with people who know the area, and perhaps have relevant projects that you can support.” For businesses looking for verified partners, a good place to start is WTTC’s Nature Positive Toolkit.
With projects up and running, businesses then face the sticky issue of greenwashing. “Over the years, we’ve seen travel companies do amazing things,” says Helen. “But sometimes — often, in fact — they’re scared to talk about what they’ve done, or fearful of getting something wrong”. Communication has become a balancing act. And while travellers increasingly demand action, there’s a risk that social media pile-ons could stifle the very progress they seek to encourage. “Travel companies are fearful of the backlash that can hit them from the media, or from strongly willed organisations,” explains Helen. The trend has seen some companies retreating into strategic silence — a practice known as ‘greenhushing’. “Don’t get me wrong,” says Helen, “I think activists are needed, and what they do is extremely important. But by targeting companies, instead of encouraging positive collaboration, there’s a risk that some firms stay quiet, rather than working together to achieve a positive outcome”.
So what’s the answer? “Our advice is to take the transparent approach,” Helen explains. “Nature protection is becoming mandatory for businesses anyway, as part of their reporting. But if you get something wrong, it’s absolutely fine to put your hands up and say ‘we aren’t perfect’. As long as you stick with the science, people will understand what you are trying to do.” In today’s media landscape, owning up to missteps can even be beneficial. “It’s a way to build trust: travellers know that because a company is willing to admit mistakes, it’s also credible when communicating its successes”.
Of course, expert partners help too. “I hardly see any businesses on stage with their non-profit partners, talking about the great work they’re doing together,” says Helen. “Historically, when people think about NGO partnerships, they see the non-profit as subordinate, grateful for their support. They want the logo, but don’t always see the powerful opportunity of the partnership to educate the public or achieve strategic change. It’s actually very much a two-way street: NGO partners can be massively beneficial. They can provide a business with credible, trusted nature-based solutions. For example, supporting their ESG work with nature conservation efforts, or species monitoring on the ground. More companies recognise it now. They value partners who can talk about the science, and who can really be the experts. It’s powerful.”
Helen and her co-founder Daniel have been advocating to protect animals and nature through tourism for most of their careers. Finally, last year, they had a breakthrough. “Everything culminated with COP15, in Montreal,” she says. “Getting business and governments together at summits like this is crucial. It was the first time our sector was represented, and we were very proud to be a part of the delegation, headed by the World Travel and Tourism Council and sitting alongside our new Nature Positive Tourism partners — the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance.” The message was simple: “We’re not just going to talk about this anymore. This is our last chance to save nature. We’ve heard our entire lives that the planet is coming to an end — we’ve become desensitised. This is our last chance to work together to make a difference”. Is Helen optimistic about the future? “Absolutely,” she says. “We’ve waited for years for legislation to provide support and direction, and finally we’re getting there.” Thousands of businesses are now taking Nature Positive action. You can too by signing up to the WTTC’s Vision for Nature Positive Tourism.