Intrepid Travel’s Leigh Barnes on how brands can do better than impact-washing

As more and more brands are accused of impact-washing by a growing cohort of conscious consumers, Mumbrella's Kalila Welch spoke to sustainable travel company Intrepid Travel's chief customer officer Leigh Barnes about what brands can do to ensure their activism is meaningful, and the steps Intrepid Travel has taken to back up its advocacy through a set of ethical marketing guidelines.

In 2022, consumers expect more from the brands and organisations that they love than ever before. However, the growing momentum behind caused based marketing and advocacy from brands has seen more and more fall victim to the mistake of impact-washing.

Impact-washing more broadly comes in many forms, from token rainbow-washing of brands and logos during pride celebrations, to more insidious misrepresentations of sustainability (greenwashing) from companies whose business model is inherently harmful to the environment.

Leigh Barnes, chief customer officer, Intrepid Travel

For Barnes, the growing prevalence of impact-washing can be attributed to the fact that being perceived to do the right thing is good for business.

The sustainable travel company, which has long put balancing profits and purpose at the forefront of its business, was first officially certified as a B-Corp in 2018, and has recently unveiled its first ever ethical marketing guideline as a part of its own ongoing journey towards inclusive marketing.

“We have seen that at Intrepid over the last probably 10 or 15 years, whenever we’ve done the right thing, we’ve seen an increase in our bottom line and increase in trust,” says Barnes. “So obviously, I think businesses are seeing that but are, unfortunately, maybe they’re not all doing the work or focusing on the areas that are relevant to their business.”

“Now where I think it starts to fall apart or where the issues come is when the business is doing it purely from a promotional point of view, not for the actual positive impact of it. I think where businesses really need to focus, and what we really try and do at Intrepid, is understand our impact, negate or fix the areas where there’s an issue, amplify where we do positive stuff, and then advocate for the change that we want to see. Now we may not always be perfect and we’re probably not a lot of the time, so its not only about doing the work, but it’s advocating for the positive change.”

When it comes to brands that fall into the issue of impact-washing, Barnes says offending brands can be differentiated into one of two buckets.

“One is probably more opportunistic and lack of understanding, as opposed to massive widespread corporate greed,” says Barnes. “I do think there is an increase of companies that are strategically knowing where they are, or where they aren’t, up to scratch and are trying to shine the light elsewhere, or cover that.”

While not ideal forms of advocacy, Barnes offers that both can have both good and bad aspects, with even the more strategic forms of impact-washing assisting to drive conversation and positive shifts, even if tokenistic.

But for most brands, being labelled as impact-washing would be far from ideal, and with consumers growing frustration with tokenistic or misleading corporate advocacy, there is a big incentive than ever for brands to really put their money where their mouth is.

Barnes’ first piece of advice for brands and company’s looking to take real action on issues and avoid-impact washing is to look at both the “internal and external”.

“If you are looking to talk about it externally and take a stand, you’ve got to do the work internally. It’s also knowing that you’re not perfect, so owning those blemishes, but committing to a better stance,” says Barnes.

Second, Barnes highly recommends looking for some form of accreditation or standards that can help guide you.

“We went in and had a lot of success through B-Corp. B-Corp really shone a light on our business on where we needing to get better.”

Barnes points to the re-accreditation process with B-Corp as the catalyst for Intrepid Travel’s ethical marketing guidelines, with the process having identified that a policy like this was lacking from the business.

“So through that process, it was identified, we didn’t currently have an ethical marketing guideline. So what we did was we decided that this is something that we did need that we need to be holding ourselves accountable for how we market, how we represent, how we protect data, and how we communicate to our customers. So we worked in partnership, in consultation with six third party consultants who were passionate about different areas, whether it was sustainability, whether it was LGBTQI+, plus whether it was BIPOC travellers, to help us develop and create a series of actions and commitments. So for every action, we committed to measure and report on it publicly. And these are a range of commitments on diversity, equity, inclusion, openness, transparency, a sense of belonging, and ethical digital marketing.”

The consultants involved in the project included founder of NOMADNESS, Evita Robinson, founder of Fat Girls Travelling, Annette Richmond, LGBTIA+ activist & storyteller, Chantel Loura, ethical travel consultant specialising in decolonisation, Meera Dattani, tourism communications consultant and founder of Rooted, Joanna Haugen, as well as Mandy Braddick and James Saunders from IndigenousX.

One marketing policy that resulted from the creation of the guidelines was a new commitment that 10% of all content creators Intrepid worked with must be from the plus-sized travel community. For Barnes, looking back on the brand’s Instagram feed even 18 months ago, there are distinct differences in representation.

“So it was about seeing where we could have an impact, working with our partners to identify what the expectations were, and then setting around a series of actions and measurements that we could commit to and report on, that would make intrepid more fairer, more inclusive, but also keep us accountable moving forward.”

Barnes also notes that brand has been doing work to support BIPOC and First Nations influencers and creators, to ensure money is going into those communities. Here, the brand has committed that at least 50% of all content creators hired by Intrepid must identify as BIPOC creators.

Other commitments to diversity and inclusion include a 10% quota for Indigenous creators, and a further 10% for creators from the LGBTQIA+ travel community.

In terms of Intrepid Travel’s continuing work and futures plans for its marketing, Barnes says the brand will be advocating that travel can be a positive vehicle for change.

“The vision is really to create positive change through the joy of travel. We want to have an inclusive global brand that’s representative of the diversity of all travellers. People from all walks of life come on Intrepid trips and there’s changes happening on a day-to-day basis right here, right now, that align with that.”

Intrepid Travel will each year report on the progress of the Ethical Marketing Guideline in its Annual Report, commencing in 2022.


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