Carbon Neutral, Net Zero, B-Corp—How to Make Sense of Sustainability Buzzwords

A breakdown of what common environmental lingo actually means.

An illustration of two people sitting at a booth looking at a recycling logo.

How can travelers distinguish between rigorous sustainability certifications and ones that just sound good?

Illustration by Virginia Gabrielli

Carbon neutral. Carbon offsets. Carbon onsets. As a sign of the tourism industry’s progress, these terms are now everywhere when you’re booking travel. More and more tour companies, hotels, and airlines are striving for meaningful change when it comes to the climate crisis. But how can travelers navigate their way through the badges and buzzwords, without getting caught up in greenwashing? Here are some pointers.

Clear up those carbon terms

The phrase carbon neutral means there’s no net addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. It involves “paying a third party to remove the greenhouse gas emissions you are responsible for so that your emissions balance is neutral,” says Patty Martin, a climate scientist working with the Travel Foundation, a U.K.-based sustainable tourism organization. “Through this approach, you never actually have to reduce your emissions, relying on others to offset your impact. Net zero is achieved when you no longer emit greenhouse gas emissions through your activities or behaviors, and only offset emissions that are not humanly possible to reduce.”

The Travel Corporation, for example, which owns and operates 40 brands including Contiki and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, aims to be net zero by 2050. To achieve that, it’s looking at ways to reduce both its own emissions and those of its suppliers—such as alternative propulsion systems on its river cruise ships or different transport options on itineraries. Hilton’s Hotel Marcel in New Haven, Connecticut, meanwhile, anticipates being certified as the first net-zero hotel in the U.S. by 2025. One thousand solar panels are lending a hand.

Seek out vetted certifications

Sustainability certifications have proliferated, and some are more rigorous than others. How do you distinguish between them? The answer is brought to you by the letters GSTC. That’s the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, an independent nonprofit whose members include governments, travel companies, tour operators, and NGOs. It doesn’t approve individual companies; rather, it vets the certifiers.

If your chosen hotel displays an Ecostars logo, for example, then it’s been certified by a body whose standards were recognized by the GSTC. The council accredits eight bodies across destinations, tour operators, and hotels, and it has a map of places that “have traveled a long way down the path of sustainability,” such as Thredbo mountain resort in Australia, which has been certified by EarthCheck.

Another globally recognized program is the World Travel & Tourism Council’s Hotel Sustainability Basics. Hotels can adopt 12 criteria as a first step in their sustainability journeys.

Look into B Corp companies

The detailed B Corp certification process scrutinizes a company’s entire social and environmental impact. Tour operator (and 2022 AFAR Travel Vanguard honoree) Intrepid Travel achieved B Corp status in 2018 after three years of preparation by more than 30 global offices.

The company focused on several aspects of the business during the process, addressing everything from modern slavery in its supply chain to emissions reductions and fair, livable wages.

Certification “provides us with a road map to consistently strive to improve our impact,” Intrepid cofounder and director Geoff Manchester says. It also “showcases to others what is possible,” says Duncan Grossart, founder of another B Corp tour operator, Journeys With Purpose.

Don’t automatically skip places that aren’t accredited

Many worthy businesses might not be shouting about their net-zero goals or applying for accreditation, perhaps due to lack of funds, interest, or even knowledge of the process. That’s where we travelers come in.

You may discover a hotel or tour operator that isn’t certified but that “you very much appreciate and find to act responsibly,” says Roi Ariel, general manager of the GSTC. “Here’s your chance to influence! Ask them if they use a sustainable tourism standard. Ask them if they seek certification.” He says that hearing directly from a customer can be a powerful motivator.

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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