Look beyond…. the word ‘ethical’….

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Helen Jennings,Tourism Concern writer, delves into the meanings behind the label:

In our world of shorthand labels it is often too easy to brand products as ‘ethical’, ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ as a lazy way of seeking support for a venture or product. It is of course a comment on our world that we should even need these labels to validate some actions over others. Can we really say that some ventures or products are somehow more ‘pure’ than others in this complex, capitalist world where so much is now inter-related through the work of multi-national companies?

Tourism Concern and other similar organisations campaign on issues concerned with ‘ethical tourism’, and it is clear there is a large market of people sufficiently concerned about such issues to support their work and to sustain a number of reputable travel companies.

The crux of the matter lies with how we can be sure that the label ‘ethical’ really means anything, in whatever context in which we are operating! Attendance at Annual General Meetings and checking of accounts does offer a means of holding so-called ‘ethical’ investment companies to account.

What should we be doing to check out the credentials of companies that lure us with their ‘ethical’ stance on tourism? It might help here if we started with a clear code of conduct for ourselves, so as a ‘starter for ten’, how would the following ‘rules’ work:

In order to be a ‘respectful’ rather than an unwelcome guest, we should always be careful to ensure that we are sensitive to the local culture and customs of the people and places we visit.

We should do our utmost to ensure that our travel ‘footprint’ is as light as possible.

We should scrutinise carefully all activities in which we are invited to participate, to ensure that these do not belittle in any way those taking part, or are based on any form of coercion on the part of governments or tourist organisations.

The beginnings of such a list has the merit of emphasising our individual responsibilities when we travel. But other elements of such a list might need to remind us to be cautious about some of the companies that suggest they share these views and might lighten the burden on us of being carefully critical. One thinks here of the numerous organisations that assist students in using a ‘gap year’ to work overseas. There is an honourable tradition here dating back over fifty years, but in recent times, the number of such companies offering such services has increased exponentially. And many now seek money from students to cover more eventualities than previously considered. It is one thing to be asked to raise funds through sponsorship, it is quite another to raise funds to maintain the organisation.

Maybe a set of rules or advice for students or volunteers is necessary in this territory? This might include suggesting to students that they make firm enquiries of any company that claims to promote ‘ethical’ opportunities overseas: how is your company funded, how is it run, how do you treat your employees – both in this country and abroad? How appropriate is the marketing literature? What impressions are created, and how? How easy is it to check materials with the feedback of students and volunteers who have gone before – is there a kind of ‘Trip Advisor’ service that is actually genuine?

It is surely an obvious starting point concerning ‘ethical policy’ to see how any company treats its employees, and sadly, a number of companies operating in this territory pay less than minimum wages in this country, and who knows what they pay abroad? They capitalise on the idealism, youth and lack of experience of many young people. Such matters should be on the list of enquiries of any would be traveller.

Likewise, it is important, but admittedly very difficult, to check out how money is used overseas. What do local agents get paid? How much of the money raised in the UK really trickles through to help some local economy? What level of bureaucracy, either in this country or abroad, is necessary to sustain good work? How much is ploughed into sustainable development?

It is a tough call, but if we are genuine about ‘ethical’ practices we all need to keep asking critical questions. This would include careful scrutiny of details of companies, ownership, structure and finance. Charities are required to be registered by law. Transparency should be the order of the day. In other words, keeping our consciences clean is not easy, and it never has been!

Be particularly scrupulous when companies offer events overseas involving animals: how are those animals treated? Fortunately, much can be gleaned from a thorough scrutiny of marketing material: check carefully how images are created and used, think about what the language reveals, and consider how you might be able to verify what you see?   Many countries are now embracing regulations to protect the work of their tourist industry, particularly where it relates to the promotion of heritage sites and indigenous cultures. Look for such examples and do your part in ensuring that only ‘ethical’ sites are promoted…we all have a part to play in getting this right.

Helen Jennings has an MA in Indigenous Studies from The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø).

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