This article aims to reveal a downside and challenge that goes hand-in-hand with being "green" — and not only the spa industry, but every industry. We are talking about the phenomenon of green washing.

What is green washing all about? According to Greenpeace, green washing can be considered as "the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service."

In other words, green washing happens when a company or other group promotes environmental green-based images or initiatives but actually operates in a way that is harmful to the environment or in an opposite attitude to the aim of the announced initiatives. This can include misleading consumers about the environmental benefits of a product through ambiguous advertising and unproven claims.

The general idea is that green washing creates a benefit — which could be more customers or partnerships with green organizations — by appearing to be a green company.

But how does green washing affect the spa industry? On the one hand, consumers' and guests' expectations concerning sustainable activities of companies are constantly growing. But on the other hand, they are skeptical of green claims with which companies advertise.

Unfortunately, it turns out that this skepticism is justified. The results of a recent report called "The Six Sins of Green Washing" show that a majority of sustainable and environmental marketing statements in North America are inappropriate, inaccurate and misleading.

The survey identified 1,018 consumer products, which were bearing 1,753 sustainable and environmental claims. Only one out of the 1,018 examined products was truly sustainable, and the remaining claims were false and misleading.

Based on the TerraChoice survey results, the following six patterns (or "sins") in green washing were identified:

  • Hidden trade-off: A product is declared to be green solely based on a single environmental attribute (e.g. recycled paper) or an unreasonably narrow set of attributes (e.g. recycled paper as well as chlorine-free bleaching) without attention to other important environmental issues like energy consumption, global warming and forestry impacts of paper. These claims are usually not false but make the product appear greener than it actually is.
  • No proof: Environmental claims that cannot be justified by information that is easily accessible or by a third-party certification are categorized as sin of no proof.
  • Irrelevance: By making environmental claims that can be truthful but are not helpful and not important for consumers searching for environmentally-friendly products, companies commit to sin of irrelevance. Consequently, the advertisement distracts consumers from finding an authentic and truly green product or service.
  • Vagueness: This sin is committed by claims that are broad or poorly defined in meaning. As a consequence, these claims may be misunderstood by potential consumers.
  • Lesser of two evils: Green claims that may be true within their product category but distract consumers from their larger environmental impacts of the category in total are categorized as sin of lesser of two evils. Examples are "green" herbicides or organic cigarettes.
  • Fibbing: This sin comprises making environmental claims that are simply inaccurate. An example would be a laundry detergent that claims to be packaged in "100 percent recycled paper" while the container is made of plastic.

In the end, green washing is problematic for the environment, consumers and for the businesses doing the green washing. First of all, it is bad for the environment because it can persuade consumers to do the contrary of what is good for the environment and make them buy products that are not environmentally friendly.

And finally, companies that green wash can lose their good reputation and consequently sales when consumers recognize that they were misled and lied to.

Mark Wuttke, who heads the spa organization Wuttke Group, is aware of the green washing issue and states that spas often spend more money advertising they are green than they actually implement sustainable and environmentally-friendly business practices.

He brings up the example that spas that want to appear greener often add images of flowers or plants to their label. Consequently, guests who are searching for green spas can be misled by this action. Furthermore, he states that in order to avoid the green wash spa label, it is crucial to implement truly green business practices.

Moreover, Karin Niederer and Hildegard Dorn-Petersen address the green washing problem in an article about green spas. They state that spas worldwide declare themselves as green spas for marketing purposes in order to attract guests — even if they actually are not green. Also the luxury segment of spas and hotels uses this concept for guest acquisition.

However, a green spa should act in a sustainable way and be confident and authentic in its environmental-friendly activities and not only use being green as a marketing tool.

Many examples exist in the wellness and spa industry where green washing strategies are applied. A spa hotel in the Alps, for instance, claimed to be a green spa with statements in its press releases. It promoted the use of regional woods but also used woods from the rain forest for construction.

Furthermore, big windows in the relaxation lounge that enable a nice view into nature was a green activity the spa announced. However, these activities do not make a spa a green spa, and messages like this are misleading and harmful to the entire spa industry.

A tool that tries to solve the green washing problem is the so called Green Washing Index. It is a website where people can post and rate advertisements of companies that promote to be environmental concerned and act green. The goal of the green washing index is to educate consumers about understanding advertisements and making them more conscious of green washing.

Consequently, the index creates better informed and conscious consumers and, ultimately, companies will implement sustainable business strategies before they advertise that they are sustainable. Moreover, businesses should be accountable for sustainable and green activities they claim to conduct.

The criteria of the Green Washing Index are that the advertisement:

  • Misleads with words.
  • Misleads with visuals and/or graphics.
  • Makes green claims that are vague and not provable.
  • Exaggerates and overstates how green the company/service or product is.
  • Leaves out essential information and makes the green claim sound better than it actually is.

What else can be done to fight green washing? The development of a uniform standard and certification program would be a crucial first step that would help to create more transparency on the market.

Customers can compare green spas and inform themselves about the stage of being green of individual spas. Also, spas can get guidelines and standards they can and need to stick to in order to be taken serious about their green philosophy.

This standard and certification needs a common base for every spa worldwide. However, it is essential to adapt it to certain countries and regions when it comes to specific regulations. A green spa in a city in the United States is able to stick to different criteria than a green spa in the Alps in Europe.

Another essential measure would be to focus on education on what being green and sustainable means. Many people do not have knowledge in this field; it would help a lot for the further development of green spas to educate people on this topic. Furthermore, the better educated people are — not only guests but also spa professionals — the fewer frustrations can occur and less green washing will take place.

Additionally, sustaining organizations like the Green Spa Network are crucial. These organizations try to make the green spa industry more transparent, give helpful tips to spa professionals and serve as information exchange platforms.

It is of high importance to further support the Green Spa Network as well as like minded organizations so that they can further grow. As a consequence, these networks will get more powerful and influential within the spa industry and will be an essential help for further developing and internalizing the green movement.