The Problem with Definitions

Delving into the topic of eco travel, I was met with the barrage of jargon that has come to characterize the modern day environmental culture. Ideas like: green, sustainable, responsible, ethical, environmentally-friendly—and the too-common practice of tacking the prefix “eco” on to basically everything. Does anyone actually know what any of this stuff means? Or is it all just a bunch of words that marketers and travelers alike hide behind in their attempts to persuade people that they are doing a good thing? And if we’re serious about wanting to minimize our impact on the environment while traveling, how do we decide what to call it to avoid the “eco-lingo confusion”?

Well, let’s take a look at some dictionary definitions, for starters.

Green (adjective): advocating environmental protection

Sustainable: (of economic development, energy sources) capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage

Responsible: answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power, control, or management

Ethical: being in accordance with the rules or standards for right conduct or practice

Environmentally friendly/ eco-friendly: a marketing term referring to goods and services, laws, guidelines and polices that inflict reduce, minimal, or no harm upon ecosystems or the environment.

Let me offer a couple of theories about the origin of this onslaught of eco-language. First, to throw out another buzzword, let’s talk about “greenwashing”. Simply put, greenwashing is the practice of making something seem more ”eco-friendly” than it actually is. Most of the words mentioned above are ambiguous, an ambiguity certain people use to deceive others and to make a profit. It’s easy to characterize a practice as “green”, “environmentally friendly”, or “sustainable” when there is little pressure to clearly define what actions or regulations stem from those words.

With the rising interest in environmental awareness, corporations stand ready to capitalize on the profits they can make from merely labeling a product or service as “green”. People want “green,” so label what you have to sell as “green,” and turn out a profit. Unfortunately, corporations are not the only ones who attempt greenwashing. Any traveler, writer, blogger, or combination of the three may choose portray their experiences as more “environmentally friendly” than they actually are in order to gain readership, popularity, or just to enhance their own sense of virtue.

But, as I framed the issue in my first post, are we willing to truly turn our cameras on ourselves, to see if we’re really being as eco-friendly as we portray ourselves?

There are a lot of words we can hide behind. I don’t want to do that. But because of the confusion surrounding all of these terms, I feel that it is important for me to explain the term I’ll be using in this blog and how I define it.

I’m drawn to the term “ethical travel.” I believe that ethical travel captures the environmental and social impacts that tourism has on a location and the connection between the two. Ironically, blogger Jim O’Donnell captures this connection well in his definition of sustainable tourism. He says, “Sustainable tourism sustains or enhances the character of a place, meaning that your tourism dollars go to benefit the history, living culture, environment and socio-economic well-being of the people who live in tourism destinations.”

Something that I appreciate about this definition is that it offers a practical means of tourism that can theoretically be acted out anywhere by anyone. Based on this, I have chosen to characterize ethical travel in three ways, with the aim of being as transparent as possible:

  • Ethical travel seeks the most practical means of transportation with the least amount of pollution.
  • Ethical travel means minimizing negative impacts on the environment and people and maximizing positive ones. Ethical travelers should aim higher than “no impact”; they should aim for a positive impact whenever possible.
  • Ethical travelers should strive to act as locals in the places which they visit, treating the place as if it were their own home. This means making choices there which stimulate the local economy in ways that benefit all people who live there and cause minimal to no negative impact on the environment.

Ethical travel is a complex issue that cannot be fully explained in a short definition, but my hope is to continue to address the topics I have presented in later blog posts.





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