April 17, 2024

Finding your way

Venturing on a sustainable journey can seem a daunting task but with that climate clock ticking fast there’s no time to waste. Gill Upton reports

Let’s start with the good news. According to a landmark global study published in April by the GBTA, 88% of the business travel sector now views addressing climate change as the number one priority area for action.

Even more encouragingly, 80% have a sustainability programme and/or a sustainability team in place.

But the same study found only 14% believe the industry is currently well advanced on sustainability.

It seems that despite the myriad of sustainability start-ups popping up, the countless partnerships signed, ESG reports published, the many hours of conference sessions and webinars and the column inches devoted to how to achieve sustainable business travel, there is still a long, long way to go.

Committing to even a handful of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 is a challenge, let alone trying to tackle all 17. One could question, what it’s to do with travel? The 17 goals correlate to the wide-reaching impact travel makes to a country’s economy, through employment, gender equality, infrastructure, and so on.

Arguably, sustainability should not be taken in isolation but part of broader goals in line with the UN’s goals, driven by the urgency of the task.

Some corporates are adopting the 10 principles of the UN Global Compact, which cover societal values embracing people and the planet. These examples reflect mature sustainable programmes of larger corporates with good resources.

“That singular financial lens of cost needs to change and it will become socially unacceptable not to”

Two years ago, at the start of the pandemic, many TMCs kick-started their own sustainable journey, setting goals, partnering with a greener supply chain and improving technology.

The exercise informed their approach to clients, for which demand has soared since last autumn. “It makes us more sticky with our customers,” says Mark Colley, MD Sunways Business, Leisure & Sustainable Travel.

Sustainable travel carries a premium and those companies embracing it “will be better placed for the future,” says Nora Lovell Marchant, VP Global Sustainability, American Express GBT.

Helen Hodgkinson, Head of Travel Product and Sustainability Options at Barclaycard, agrees: “That singular financial lens of cost needs to change and it will become socially unacceptable not to.”

Leading the way

Trailblazing clients with policies driven by CO2 rather than fiscal targets include EY, Salesforce, Lush, Siemens and WWF.

Meanwhile, certain TMCs are in the vanguard of change, alongside sustainability start-ups.

Reed & Mackay/TripActions has adopted the 10 UNGC principles and is partnering with Neste – the Finnish energy supplier, which allows clients to purchase Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) – and with ClimateCare and Natural Capital Partners to let clients purchase verified carbon offsetting credits. Chris Truss has been appointed as Director of Sustainability.

ATPI launched Halo, a carbon reduction and offset business to help clients measure their carbon footprint and reduce travel or travel more sustainably. It partners with Respira, taking volume carbon credits onto its own balance sheet to pass on to clients more competitively than if at the mercy of the volatile carbon credit industry.

“It feels so complicated clients don’t know how to take the first step”

CTM upgraded its Lightning OBT, allowing clients to see green choices across all modes of travel and set carbon budgets at company, country, departmental and individual levels. It has also partnered with Delta to purchase SAF.

Diversity Travel was an early adopter and has been carbon neutral since 2011. “We’ve always led in this space,” asserts Sales Director David Coe, who was appointed Head of Environmental Action in October last year. Diversity has also created a climate emergency team across the business as the conduit for client conversations on sustainability.

Sunways launched its sustainable brand, Sunways Sustainable Business Travel (SSBT), and offers UN-certified carbon credits.

SSBT calculates carbon on every mode of transport and offsets by donating the first tree in the ground for every flight each client takes.

Some companies have been hiding behind offsetting but it is only one tool in the toolbox. “Avoiding is the best option to hit reduction targets, while removing (offsetting), should be the last resort, ” says Barclaycard’s Hodgkinson. 

Mark Colley, MD of Sunways, argues that offsetting has another use. “It means we can start that conversation with clients as it’s an educational process and will take some time.”

Either way, clients should choose offset projects wisely to connect with local communities and projects from where they do business and/or choose their workforce.

“Verifiable, auditable offset schemes are the ones you need to go for,” says Andrew Perolls, CEO of Greengage.

First steps

For those companies starting out, Chris Truss advises: “The corporate culture must support the over-arching sustainable strategy and overall corporate goal. Some clients are enormously sophisticated and set science-based targets; some want to do that by 50%. Equally, we have some who don’t have that internal resource.”

And start they must; avoiding travel altogether is not viable but educating clients on how to reduce and mitigate is the priority, starting with understanding the carbon footprint of a trip before it’s booked.

Amex GBT’s Marchant has observed hesitancy from some clients. “It feels so complicated clients don’t know how to take the first step. The measurement process is not perfect but just go ahead and build it into your policies. There’s a time stamp on this and this is the decade to do it.”

Rich Johnson, CWT Senior Director Solutions Group, agrees: “Start…before you know all the answers. Be prepared to modify, adjust and iterate.”

Clarity Travel offers clients a simple travel programme health check. “A lot of clients know they don’t have all the answers and are looking for guidance,” says Ewan Kassir, Head of Global Sales.

Data crunching

Data capture is the first step and despite different methodologies in carbon calculation it is becoming more granular, particularly with airlines. It can be calculated by age of aircraft, by business versus economy class seats and against other modes of transport – so a flight to Paris versus Eurostar for example.

“Post-trip reports should flag up those who don’t make the right choices and loyalty programmes must be abandoned”

Decarbonisation of the airline industry includes using lower carbon SAF, which is expensive and lacks sufficient capacity. It can only blend up to 50% with regular jet fuel currently. “SAF is being produced by some fantastic start-ups but it takes time to get the fuel produced and there needs to be more indication of demand for it,” says Doreen Burse, Senior Vice President Worldwide Sales for United Airlines, which is leading the way on SAF (see pages 40-42).

Virgin Atlantic, which has worked with LanzaTech for SAF since 2011, is committed to using 10% SAF by 2030 and is supporting efforts to build the first UK SAF plant by 2025. The airline offers offsetting options through ClimateCare.

Electric aircraft is another solution, but only for short-haul. Finnair is part of the Nordic Network for Electric Aviation and will be a customer for Heart Aerospace’s Electric ES-19 electric aircraft in 2026. It is also driving a move toward synthetic carbon neutral fuels and a feasibility study for a pilot production plant in Finland.

The far more fragmented hotel market is more challenging for data capture and guesstimates and averages are used as there is little standardisation. Location, star rating, facilities, season, waste management protocols, AC usage, etc, differ widely.

BTA’s recent White Paper ‘We can’t do it alone’ flagged the inconsistencies in the supply chain. “The objective is to have a measurement globally recognised,” says BTA CEO, Clive Wratten, recognising that only when the industry works together will innovation materialise.

Josh Gunn, Global Head of Product Marketing at CTM, advises clients to apply pressure round the negotiating table. “Clients can have a positive impact when they discuss supplier deals,” he says.

Hilton and Marriott integrate the Sustainable Hospitality Alliances’ Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative (HCMI) tool into their corporate reporting platforms to help clients calculate the carbon footprint of stays, while Greengage ECOsmart accreditation rates hotels holistically – beyond emissions, waste and water – and covers around 200 independent hotels and all Radisson properties across the UK and Dublin currently.

“We drill down to a wide variety of measures in a hotel, to the type of food – is it local, are there vegan options, for example – to the guest room, where we ask ‘is there a load of plastic items there?’“ explains Andrew Perolls, CEO of Greengage.

Clarity Travel and Inntel are using Greengage’s ECOsmart accreditation and the company will soon introduce a measurement tool for events.

Data on rail is robust as there is limited differentiation but car hire is challenging as length of travel is unknown. It means companies are a long way from securing total trip carbon calculations.

Behavioural shift

The second step is to revise policy to meet carbon reduction targets rather than cost reduction goals. Influencing traveller behaviour to ensure policy compliance means a more robust pre-trip authorisation process and messages at point of sale on the online booking tool, which filters by CO2, to prompt visual guilt.

“It’s a question of education and influence, and it’s a slow burn that will evolve as the volume of travel builds”

Taking direct flights, switching to rail when feasible, swapping internal meetings for virtual ones, taking one trip with multiple stops not several return trips (to reduce take-off and landings), should be part of the game plan. Post-trip reports should flag up those who don’t make the right choices and loyalty programmes must be abandoned.

An ITM survey revealed that 33% of buyers expect a shift from air to rail but it has yet to materialise due to concerns over the lack of air circulation and reduced service.

Companies can issue carbon goals and budgets by departments/teams, which may trigger a resurgence in gamification. Post-trip reviews can flag up historic footprints and shame key emitters. Intra-office meetings must continue our love affair with Teams and Zoom.

“It’s a question of education and influence, and it’s a slow burn that will evolve as the volume of travel builds,” says Ian Sinderson, CEO ATPI Group. “It’s the carrot rather than the stick approach and the sticking point in all of this is the travellers themselves.”

Companies are setting legally-binding goals and need to reach them – but challenges remain. Truss points to travel managers not driving this agenda but answering to the sustainability teams.

Nonetheless, they have to try and square carbon targets with budgetary goals, and “the two don’t often go together”.

“It’s great that people are looking at the justification of travel over cost but will it last?”

If the travel budget remains static then the business impact has to be less trips and cutting out unnecessary trips to release monies for more expensive London-Brussels trips on Eurostar, for example, and direct flights. Truss is seeing more clients travelling less rather than downtrading from business to economy.

A sustainable travel programme will ensure a place on pitch lists but, in the long term, how deep are corporates’ pockets? The acid test is when business returns to pre-2019 levels, when commercial pressures are real and competitors are travelling to clinch deals.

“It’s great that people are looking at the justification of travel over cost but will it last?” asks ITM’s CEO Scott Davies.

The focus will vary depending on how a company’s travel emissions compares with its overall emissions, adds Festive Road’s Paul Tilstone.

“For a consulting firm, for example, business travel might account for 70% of total emissions while for a gaming company, where most emissions are from real estate and running technology, travel is a very small percentage so they will be hitting the bigger emissions first. But as these companies reduce their non-travel emissions, their business travel emissions will become a larger percentage,” he says.

“The intense focus on sustainability is a really interesting opportunity because we can now completely reimagine the purpose of business trips, but there is a spotlight on travel from regulators and the media and if we don’t act fast and get our house in order we are in danger of becoming demonised, like the tobacco industry.”