Airbnb Thinks Greenwashing Will Clean Up All Its Bad PR

Airbnb has been losing control of its brand in recent weeks, with headlines dominated by squatters and their new boob-butt-balls brand. But the sharing economy startup is trying to shift the story back to their favor, and they're employing corporate America's favor PR trick to get there: greenwashing.

Fortune reports today that Airbnb released a "study" into the home sharing company's "environmental impacts." And guess what? Airbnb is "saving our world with each rented room."

The company said on Thursday that its North American customers use 63% less energy per stay than their hotel-going counterparts while customers in Europe use 78% less.

It's just some of the data points from an Airbnb survey of 8,000 guests and hosts about their environmental impact. The message the company is trying to send is that it a greener alternative to traditional hotels, which it portrays as far more wasteful when it comes to electricity, water and trash.

The study, which was also published on Airbnb's corporate blog, makes bold claims, including that renting an Airbnb is "a greener way to travel" compared to traditional hotels. But their study doesn't include a single citation. Not once does the company explain how the survey was conducted, which hotels they compared themselves to, and how they gathered the numbers.

For example:

"In one year alone, Airbnb guests in North America saved the equivalent of 270 Olympic-sized pools of water while avoiding the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 33,000 cars on North American roads," according to the report. European Union customers, meanwhile, saved the equivalent of 1,100 pools and avoid emissions from 200,000 vehicles.

Airbnb described its estimates as being conservative. Whether its finding would withstand scientific scrutiny is another matter.

Airbnb drops some very specific numbers, but even Fortune throws up a disclaimer (albeit, one buried down their article).

Airbnb Thinks Greenwashing Will Clean Up All Its Bad PR

The startup distances themselves slightly from the report, having paid the Cleantech Group to conduct the study for them. But this is as close as a Cleantech Group gets to explaining their methodology:

Cleantech Group analyzed over 8,000 survey responses from [Airbnb] hosts and guests worldwide (from February 2014 to April 2014) and conducted research on residential and hotel sustainability levels and practices. For the values presented in this study, CTG compared residences to the most sustainable and energy-efficient hotels. Data reflecting the top 5th percentile hotels (in terms of energy use) from an Energy Star report was compared to residential energy data for the 40-50th percentile of homes in North America. A similar approach was used in Europe.

The notion that Airbnb is greener than hotels isn't inherently unbelievable, especially considering all major hotels offer daily housekeeping services. But Airbnb doesn't provide important facts that contextualize the data, such as what the average length of occupancy between the "home sharing" and hotels are. And they avoid breaking down the regional numbers, or offering any level of transparency whatsoever.

It's probably our fault for trying to take infographic science seriously.

To contact the author of this post, please email kevin@valleywag.com.