Travelers want more transparency into exactly who’s doing what about sustainability
By Fatima Durrani Khan
As the emotional turmoil of COVID disruption fades into memory, the itch to travel is resurfacing in a big way – but this time, with a stronger sense of compassion for the planet we inhabit. In fact, according to Booking.com’s 2021 Sustainable Travel Report, a whopping 83 percent of global travelers now think sustainable travel is vital.
But there’s a catch: 49 percent feel there aren’t enough sustainable travel options available. And for those travelers who had not previously stayed in properties that offer sustainable practices, 36 percent said they didn’t even know such places exist, 32 percent said they couldn’t find any options where they were traveling and 31 percent said that they didn’t know how to find them. Furthermore, “while three out of four accommodation providers say they have implemented at least some kind of sustainability practices at their property, only a third actively communicate about their efforts proactively to potential guests, with this mostly happening at the time of check-in,” the report said. Unfortunately, this reflects a fundamental divide between the efforts of suppliers offering sustainability options, and the travelers who are demanding such services. This has also caught the attention of travel businesses, who are listening closely to those who care about the wider impact of their trips.
Bridging the Disconnect So how does the travel industry overcome this communication rift, and get better at informing travelers about sustainability choices? Multiple channels to shop for travel services is key. Fortunately, lots of tools are coming online to assist travelers in making decisions that are more environmentally conscious. From free resources such as Intrepid Travel’s open-source guide to decarbonizing travel businesses to multi-member coalitions such as Tourism Declares, more travelers are in the know.
All sorts of public directories are also popping up. For example, Rethink Travel helps travelers filter hotels based on 10 different sustainability practices; Green Pearls curates green experiences while promoting local culture; Regenerative Travel vets members based on the concept of “leaving a place better than you found it,” while Travalyst is a think tank led by Prince Harry in partnership with Booking.com, Google, Skyscanner, Trip.com Group, Tripadvisor, and Visa. The options seem endless.
Google is doing its own thing to help travelers find sustainable hotels, which aren’t so easy to identify. The search giant now labels hotels as “Eco-Certified” on google.com/travel, with an icon next to the hotel’s name, alongside details on sustainability initiatives (which are self-reported by the hotel). The labeling relies on multiple certification programs – including EarthCheck, Green Key, LEED, Green Seal, and Green Globe – to establish a hotel’s green credibility.
Industry and government associations are also working hard to get the word out to travelers. For example, in January 2022, the Global Business Travel Association appointed a new executive to advance its sustainability mission, while the US Securities and Exchange Commission announced it would require certain carbon emissions reporting disclosures when it comes to business travel. While much of this activity is in response to traveler demand, “going green” adds another dimension to ESG business practices: Suppliers gain a competitive advantage. It seems strengthening a company’s climate/environmental reporting simply turns out to be better for business.
Flying Ahead of the Curve According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, travel accounts for approximately 8 to 11 percent of global emissions. During the pandemic, overall global emissions decreased by 4.6 percent, the biggest drop in world history, but due primarily to reduced airline operations.
“Air travel is the largest contributor to business-travel related carbon emissions, so it’s no surprise that most airlines are focused on sustainability right now,” explains Amélie Losanes, senior consultant, sustainable collaboration at Advito. “Many airlines are purchasing and investing in sustainable aviation fuel, but the current technology doesn’t allow airlines to scale SAF usage enough to truly reduce their overall emissions. One of the most effective things airlines can do is accelerate fleet renewal. Older generation aircraft are not nearly as efficient and result in a big emissions increase.”
Integrating sustainability on board is another welcome trend. For example, Delta Air Lines is partnering with the noted global conservationist and animal behavior expert Dr. Jane Goodall to curate a new collection on Delta Studio. The carrier is also offering new plant-based menus on select routes, has removed many single-use plastic items on board, and introduced bamboo cutlery on select flights. These and other proposals are intended to reduce the airline’s annual plastic use by up to 4.3 million pounds.
Meanwhile Southwest Airlines has recently launched an offer that allows customers to earn Rapid Rewards bonus points for every dollar they contribute to Southwest’s carbon emissions offset efforts. Furthermore, the airline will match the customer contribution dollar-for-dollar to purchase additional offsets. “As business travelers return to the sky, we’re thrilled to offer our eligible customers the opportunity to act, measure and learn about incorporating sustainability initiatives into their travel programs,” says Kevin Sullivan, senior director of sales for Southwest Business.
Hotels Take Center Stage Hotels are also caught up in the virtuous cycle of sustainability. “On a business trip, 80 to 90 percent of emissions come from air travel, and maybe only 5 to 10 percent from the hotel,” notes Advito’s Losanes. But even though a hotel plays a smaller role in CO2 emissions, collective action on their part can create huge impacts in other areas, such as food sourcing and water conservation.
To see how serious a hotel is about sustainability, one of the first places to look is its environmental report on its website. For example, Hilton’s Travel with Purpose policy includes metrics regarding their environmental and social impact across the hotel’s global portfolio. Marriott’s Serve 360 includes 2025 goals such as “cutting food waste in half, having 100 percent of the portfolio sustainably certified, responsibly sourcing 95 percent of our top 10 priority categories, and reducing our overall waste to landfill by 45 percent,” explains Denise Naguib, Marriott International’s global VP of sustainability and supplier diversity.
Similarly, Hyatt’s World of Care focuses on climate change and water conservation, waste and circularity, responsible sourcing and thriving destinations. “Some Hyatt hotels are reducing food overproduction through coordinated planning of meals based on expected attendees and meal preferences. We’ve also found guests are increasingly interested in learning more about the local ecosystem and environment during their time at the property,” adds Marie Fukudome, associate vice president of sustainability and ESG reporting. “When possible, hotels are finding ways to integrate ecotourism into the guest experience, such as the Wild Dunes Resort in South Carolina which offers Oyster Rebuilding Clinics, where guests can assist in the rebuilding of oyster reefs.”
Mindful travelers are creating ripe opportunities for hotels, meeting and event planners and the tourism industry. “Our recent global trends report affirmed that, more than ever, travelers are prioritizing brands that are environmentally conscious and doing their part in communities around the world,” says Erica Gordon, Hilton’s senior VP and global head of public affairs and ESG. “Travelers will be seeking sustainable options across the entire guest experience – like reducing waste by recycling hotel soap and bath amenities. Some may prefer the SUMMIT, where a solar-powered oven is used to cook dishes featuring locally grown produce, including herbs grown on the rooftop garden. Other examples include the Hilton Brisbane, where environmental initiatives range from recycling soap, use of single-use plastics, coffee cups and containers. Depending on occupancies, the hotel diverts up to 10,000 items a month from landfills and can fund environmental and social justice projects with the funds generated.”
While the sustainability conversation tends to focus on airlines and hotels, the meetings and events arena has launched its own tools too. According to Shauna Whitehead, VP sales at BCD Meetings and Events, “BCD Meetings & Events and Advito offer a carbon emissions calculator for events that can accurately measure your emissions from travel and other event activities, putting the power in your hands to determine what actions you can take to reduce them, or provide insight on whether cutting down your event size is a smarter choice. It also includes emissions from videoconferencing, an important component to consider if you’re planning a virtual or hybrid event.”
Nevertheless, challenges still abound. “While it’s clear that strong awareness around sustainability is critical toward taking action in the meetings and events industry, the challenge is finding the resources to put adequate focus behind it. In 2022, cost and availability will still be the biggest drivers of event decisions. We are not to a point where all organizations are comfortable with an event that’s greener but more expensive. However seemingly little actions, such as opting to serve a vegetarian entrée over steak or choosing shared transportation over a private charter, add up,” says Whitehead.
The Sustainable Journey It’s likely the post-pandemic emphasis on eco-friendliness will further the travel industry’s push toward a more conscientious environmental footprint over the years to come. However, it's important to recognize that travelers are in different stages of their sustainability journey, and that travel managers have a responsibility to help all of them through it. For example, some may see local food insecurity as their top priority, so the visual sense of food being wasted is an issue; for others, it's international climate change.
“Making green business travel choices isn’t always easy,” advises Kathy Jackson, VP, executive chair sustainability at BCD Travel. “It needs behavioral changes. Companies can start with small steps to involve their travelers in their sustainability efforts and encourage green travel. Whether its educating travelers on eco-friendly hotels or the benefits of using public transport, transparency is king. Without it, travelers are likely to be subject to greenwashing (i.e., when hotels and other travel businesses ‘pretend to be green’ in an effort to capitalize on traveler demands for green options). Thus, consumers need to practice caution. The act of not washing towels daily or providing locally sourced, cage-free eggs for breakfast, doesn’t make a hotel sustainable.”
In other words, electrical vehicle charger stations, working with local artisans, sourcing organic food, and on-site recycling programs are great, but they have to fit into a broader philosophy and policy with transparent, actionable steps. “For over a decade, the hospitality industry has been using a standard way to calculate two key metrics – carbon footprint and water footprint per occupied room,” explains Marriott’s Naguib. “This information, along with [newer] environmental practices such as sustainability certification, recycling, and more, have been shared with our business travel community through RFPs. The demand for this type of information has skyrocketed over the past two years with many more customers asking for this information and a significant rise in how this information is being used for decision making.”
As travelers continue to become enlightened on environmental choices, they actively use both their voices and dollars to vote for those organizations that are changing the narrative on sustainability. Positioning travel as a force for good isn’t a new idea, but the travel industry is only now beginning to see the enormous impact it can make on both traveler choices as well as the long-term health of our planet.