Greenwashing is a problem. Is AI making it worse?

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Some AI-generated travel recommendations are laughable. But could other seemingly harmless tips actually encourage greenwashing?

Replacing writers and augmenting trip planning with artificial intelligence hasn’t exactly been going smoothly for the travel industry lately. Last month, Microsoft was ridiculed for listing the Ottawa Food Bank as a tourist destination in an MSN article (which the company claimed was a case of “human error” in the curation of algorithmic content), and the travel guides produced by BuzzFeed’s “Creative AI Assistant” Buzzy The Robot are so bad they’re (almost) good. “I know what you’re thinking,” writes Buzzy. “Isn’t Stockholm that freezing, gloomy city up in the north that nobody cares about?”

But while it’s easy to identify glaring inaccuracies and ‘opinions’ in AI-generated travel content, it can be more difficult to detect subtle errors. You only need to watch the viral video tweeted by Nigerian tech worker Chukwuemeka Afigbo showing a hotel soap dispenser unable to detect a Black hand to understand how bias has been built into emerging technologies.

Take the issue of greenwashing, for example. Research conducted in Europe found that 42 percent of ‘green’ and sustainability-centered claims online were exaggerated, false or deceptive. AI creates generative content by aggregating information already available on the web as part of its learning process. So is AI currently learning how to greenwash, whether we like it or not?

To get a better read on this question, I performed a simple experiment. First, I devised a list of questions to find out what ChatGPT knew about greenwashing, and how it’s used in travel. And I have to admit, its knowledge was pretty spot-on. When I asked ChatGPT to tell me how greenwashing can appear in the travel industry, examples included promoting token gestures like small environmentally-focused initiatives (like planting trees) while downplaying larger environmental issues, and making exaggerated claims such as describing a resort as “completely sustainable.”

Things got more interesting when I asked ChatGPT to write a series of articles about travel experiences aligned with the principles of sustainable travel—sans greenwashing. In an article about the most sustainable hotels in Bali, ChatGPT’s listicle featured a property that doesn’t exist—as well as a vast, concrete hotel where single-use plastic amenities are featured in an image gallery. While mega hotel chains were quite rightly absent from ChatGPT’s list of 10 properties, most of the inclusions had weak sustainability creds. Perhaps they were selected by ChatGPT for their business names, which included self-selected words like “green,” “eco” and “sustainable.”

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