One of the green trends of recent years has been the increase of interest in volunteering holidays – or ‘voluntourism’, as it’s often known. But what exactly does a modern volunteering holiday look like? Is it for you? And how do you go about choosing the most environmentally friendly organisations?
The modern volunteering industry is vast and diverse. The basic idea is the same as it’s been for a long time: give up your time and money for a worthwhile project somewhere in the world. Essentially, you’re investing yourself somewhere you can make a meaningful contribution – whether that’s working with animals in Ghana, teaching children in Thailand or building a classroom in Kenya.
Organisations such as Original Volunteers offer environmental conservation projects abroad, and for eco enthusiasts. There are lots of options, and volunteer holidays are great opportunities to travel, get stuck in and do some hands-on green living somewhere collective environmental enthusiasm can make a difference.
But how do you choose the greener and more ethical volunteering organisations? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Ask if they utilise local resources
A good volunteering organisation should work with local produce, services, energy and – most importantly – people.
The first thing to find out with any volunteering company is whether they use and invest in these local resources. Good companies will be sure to employ and work with locals. Whether this is for support, accommodation or airport pick-ups, investing in the people from the communities and environments you want to help is important.
Does the volunteering company hire local coordinators or use their own reps? Are they a middleman flowing the fees upwards or are they with you from booking to seeing safely onto your placement? These are all ethical factors affecting the credibility of the volunteering group.
2. Discover the environmental footprint
There are very few carbon neutral businesses anywhere in the world, even in the greener volunteering world. But you can scrutinise your shortlisted organisations and discover their likely carbon footprint.
So what should you be looking for? It can be anything from how much paper literature they send you to how much food and drink is brought to projects from long distances and how much energy volunteer buildings consume.
The footprint of a volunteering company might not be a smoking gun itself, but it could be indicative of a wider concern – or lack of it – with the environment.
3. Find out how open they are
This is a multi-faceted point – how transparent and committed to initiatives is your potential volunteering organisation? Do they open up to questions about their eco credentials or are they a closed shop?
It’s not essential that volunteering companies have a zillion carbon offsetting schemes (which aren’t necessarily the most sustainable approaches anyway). But they should at least be open about how they go about their business.
And at a very basic level, volunteering groups should have an understanding of the environmental impact of their on-the-ground infrastructure and activities – especially if it’s a conservation placement you’re interested in.
4. Make sure they plan for long-term sustainability
There’s a lot of criticism of the volunteering industry, and it’s quite justified in some cases. There are plenty of projects out there that serve no real purpose other than to give volunteers something to do – like paint a wall for the third time that month.
A lot of projects aren’t manageable or sustainable, and this is a bad, bad thing. Make sure any volunteering placement you sign up for has an understanding of exactly what they’re trying to achieve in any given location. Ask them about their goals for the project, and how they plan to ensure the project can be sustained – and what impact it will have on the environment.