Invisible Green–The Need to Better Promote Maine’s Sustainability Work

I set out this week to write about how easy it is to travel more sustainably by patronizing businesses that do right by the environment. But to my surprise, it still takes effort in Vacationland to find these establishments.

Maine has many businesses – in tourism and other sectors – working hard to reduce energy and water use; generate less waste; use nontoxic products; purchase local foods; and sustain the state’s natural integrity. A clean environment is central to Maine’s tourism “brand,” and collective efforts to reduce pollution help keep the state an appealing destination.

State tourism officials are working to lure new visitors whose values align with Maine’s brand. A recent Office of Tourism study found that two of the three high-priority “consumer segments” most likely to come to and spend money in Maine value natural beauty and “make an effort to live a very green, environmentally friendly lifestyle.”

If two-thirds of prime visitor prospects actively seek green choices, why aren’t these options prominent on Maine’s tourism websites and in Maine Invites You (the Maine Tourism Association’s annual travel planner)? The state spends roughly $11 million each year marketing Maine, yet the widespread commitment to environmental sustainability is largely invisible.

Peruse tourism pages for Maine and there’s no mention of what keeps this state an attractive destination: efforts like the Land for Maine’s Future program, the bottle bill and dark sky ordinances. Nor does visitor literature emphasize how everyday environmental practices of residents and businesses help preserve the special character of Maine.

There are profiles of recreational guides, chefs and foodies – but no mention of the dedicated folks who maintain trails, test water quality, promote composting and tackle the everyday challenges of environmental sustainability.

Research indicates the visitors we most want are hungry to hear what Maine is doing to sustain its natural integrity. Yet stories of environmental innovation and dedication across the state – in businesses from boatbuilding to bed and breakfasts – go untold.

Maine, for example, was the third state in the nation to establish an Environmental Leader certification program that encourages restaurants, lodgings and grocery stores to reduce waste and energy use and improve environmental practices. Created in 2000 by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), this program now has 124 lodgings and 35 restaurants reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions while improving their bottom lines. The Maine DEP has calculated average annual savings per business (from energy efficiency and waste reduction) at more than $7,000 per year.

Maine’s Environmental Leader self-certification program has become a model for many other states. Participating businesses submit worksheets electronically and the system now operates largely on “cruise control,” according to Julie Churchill, DEP’s small business ombudsman, although it still “takes a cheerleader at each facility” to keep improving practices.

Each participating business gets an Environmental Leader decal and flag to use on-site, but the DEP’s focus is on pollution prevention not program marketing. And the program’s links to Maine tourism resources are tenuous. The official site recently instituted a link to the map of Environmental Leader establishments, but in general listings there is no means to filter for or identify which lodgings and restaurants are certified.

Greg Dugal, president of the Maine Innkeepers Association, says it maintains a list on its website of member lodgings certified through the Environmental Leader program, because a lot of people visiting Maine want to “go somewhere where people are doing the right thing.” He expects that interest to grow, given the prominence of climate change and sustainability concerns in the news.

Maine Innkeepers hosted DEP presentations on the Environmental Leader program when it was first established, but DEP no longer has staff time for outreach. Tourism groups now need to pick up the slack, helping market the program both to potential business participants and to prospective Maine visitors.

Chris Fogg, the Maine Tourism Association’s new CEO, formerly directed Bar Harbor’s Chamber of Commerce and acknowledges that he “learned a lot about sustainable tourism living and working next to a national park.” Bar Harbor had its own green business certification, and the chamber there actively promotes recycling, lightbulb upgrades and other environmental practices.

Fogg understands that being more visibly green could enhance Maine’s reputation as a wholesome and desirable destination. “We recognize it’s important and part of the Maine brand,” Fogg says. “We’re going to highlight that in a meaningful way.”

Maine doesn’t have to look far for examples. Massachusetts has a prominent tab on its official visitor website that leads to a menu of green options – with certified lodgings and restaurants; ways to travel car-free; and a “green in action” page that points visitors toward wind turbines and solar demonstration sites.

There’s no shortage of “green in action” work here to inform and inspire visitors and residents; Maine just needs to make it more visible.