June 13, 2024

Step change

Business travel's imminent restart is the chance to take sustainability to the next level, says Gill Upton

Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining. Or in the case of Covid’s impact on business travel, should that be green? The pandemic triggered a long period of travel abstention but also served to accelerate the focus on sustainability.

Many travel managers are exploiting their zero emissions status to improve their sustainability programmes by setting tougher carbon goals and even carbon neutrality targets. The hiatus also offered a lifeline to those struggling to reach sustainability goals pre Covid.

Studies highlight that 40% of companies cite cost as the biggest brake on achieving a more sustainable business. There are other factors at play: C-level execs are mindful of minimising reputational damage, the imminent ‘Return To Office’ has sharpened the focus, and the fact that sustainability is a non-competitive area means buyer collaboration and information exchange is plentiful, including guidance on best practice.

“Buyers seem to understand that this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment to reconsider how they could operate more sustainably and determine what travel will be necessary to deliver their objectives,” says Paul Tilstone, Managing Partner of Festive Road.

The first priority is data on a sustainability journey. Corporates need data to discover the emissions generated from business travel and both suppliers and third-party players can provide CO2 calculators, data analysis, offsetting programmes and templates for CO2 policies.

In a recent development, TripActions clients can now identify user groups and individuals producing the largest amount of carbon emissions within their organisations and track their company emissions against a yearly budget.

After measurement comes a carbon reduction target aligned to a science-based target. With inevitably smaller travel budgets to contend with, the challenge will be absorbing higher travel costs as demand increases.  Unfortunately, planet-friendly initiatives are not cost neutral.

Difficult measures

The challenges are many and varied for buyers. ITM CEO Scott Davies refers to the difficulty of carbon measurement, particularly in the accommodation sector.

Stephen Hanton, President International at long-stay specialist Synergy Global Housing, sums up the challenges: “Expertise, time, understanding, focus, determining what really impacts and, importantly, knowing what and how to measure.”

Dr Wendy Buckley, Client Director and Co-founder of The Carbon Footprint, acknowledges that Covid has given the industry time to get its house in order but points to the need for more granular data. “We need better data to provide real choices for end users,” she says.

Good data informs point of sale so travellers can choose between different aircraft types and ages, view emission comparisons between direct and indirect flights, and between air, rail, bus and car pooling, options for sustainable accommodation, and low-emission locations for conferences.

Changing behaviours

Business travel may only account for 2% of all carbon emitted but it can be a significant part of a company’s overall carbon footprint. At PwC, for example, corporate travel accounts for more than 85% of the group’s annual carbon emissions. At Cap Gemini it’s over 50%. Typically, flying accounts for the most emissions so companies make it a priority.

Credit: istock.com

A revised travel policy can include the popular ‘virtual first business travel‘ to reduce travel, then other smarter travel options such as a tighter pre-approval process, disallowing day trips, reducing the number of employees travelling to the same meeting, combining trips, moving to more economy-class flying, and accelerating the modal shift from air and car travel to rail.

Pre-trip approval will be key, as will any form of ROI measurement. Concerted efforts to change traveller behaviour using educational campaigns will also be needed. Festive Road has dubbed this new way of travelling as ‘purposeful travel’.

“A switch to virtual travel won’t cut it if your competitors are staging face-to-face meetings and clinching the deals instead of you”

GBTA undertook a survey of its European buyers on behalf of The Business Travel Magazine to determine how they were tackling sustainability and it’s clear that modal shift is a common strategy.

One buyer, Eija Kurttila of Telia, has switched from air to rail on city pairs of less than 500km. “We had this Daring Goals strategy ongoing already before Covid-19, which means that 500km or less than five hours by rail city pairs are steered to train,” she says. “Telia travel has to reach zero CO2 emission by end of 2022. Now with Covid-19 we are ahead of time with this one.“

Another buyer, Carol Fergus at Fidelity, is attempting to maintain the trend of decreased travel due to the pandemic by setting a target of a 50% reduction in carbon emissions over the next two years.

Buyer Jens Liltorp of LEO Pharma has revised the company’s travel policy by incorporating a 50% reduction in travel activities by utilising virtual meetings.

RFPs may need to be undertaken to find the most sustainable suppliers (and more questions on sustainability incorporated), and those with science-based targets. Supplier reviews will also have to be re-imagined and new relationships fostered over Zoom or Teams.

A switch to virtual travel won’t cut it if your competitors are staging face-to-face meetings and clinching the deals instead of you, and travellers may need cajoling into reverting back to their pre-Covid Road Warrior days.

They have become accustomed to not commuting to an office, let alone through an airport, and are also enjoying more time with their families. Employers will have to ensure traveller safety and perhaps even give gentle nudges to take the trip.

Some travel managers have been asking their travellers to write a blog post about their tentative first ‘Covid’ business trip, while a GBTA poll of European buyers in March this year, questioning travellers’ nervousness about return to work, revealed that 72% believe health verifications or vaccine passports are a good policy.

One oil and gas company, Oil Spill Response, has responded to the return to work with a wide range of support material including a family and friends guide for travellers to send to their relatives to allay any safety fears they may have.

Pressure points

Like ITM, the GBTA has also been providing education to help guide travel managers implement robust sustainability practices and policies, and set ambitious goals. Both organisations have been lobbying governments hard to support corporate efforts in building a more sustainable future for the industry.

Businesses have to decide whether to offset their carbon or reduce it, or a combination of both. Carbon off­setting is increasingly frowned upon in green circles so reduction is best practice.

Today, most suppliers have a sustainability agenda. Airlines have been retiring polluting aircraft, hotels are playing catch-up with more energy-efficient water, waste and heating systems, and car manufacturers are switching to hybrid and electric-powered cars.

But it is still impossible, for example, to find out whether an aircraft has biofuel on board or ascertain its load factors, which affects the rate of emissions.

A trip from London to Paris by train, including three nights’ accommodation, can be offset by planting one tree; a flight between New York to Chicago and two hotel nights is equivalent to three trees.

“For most corporates they would rather you didn’t travel rather than offset but the trend is towards using both in tandem,” says Davies.

Planting the seed

Trees4Travel was set up in 2020 to help reach the World Economic Forum’s goal of planting one trillion trees this decade. Partnering with the likes of BTA, Focus and ITM, its offsetting programme calculates emissions from all modes of transport and all classes of travel and supplies monthly reporting.

Granular detail of aircraft load and aircraft type is only provided for private jets, not commercial airlines. It allows companies to track and follow their trees, matching the CO2 absorbed to the CO2 emitted by their travel. A dashboard shows how many trees have been planted, the CO2 absorbed and the monthly allowance. Emissions can be detailed by department, class, traveller, timeline and even by a ‘what if’ scenario to see potential savings if you change the class of travel.

“Carbon off­setting is increasingly frowned upon in green circles so reduction is best practice”

CEO and founder Nico Nicholas is the first to advise that offsetting should run in tandem with reduction. “Reducing travel is good and smarter travel needs to happen too; but if we repair the damage we’ve done to the planet we eliminate the problem and keep nature safe,” he says.

The future will inevitably mean a rise in travel as businesses seek to replenish their business pipelines. ”Corporates are saying that they’re making only half of the new contacts that they used to,” says Davies.

In the longer term, when business travel returns fully, will there still be an appetite for sustainability?

A younger workforce, making career decisions based on the sustainability of an employer, would suggests responsible travel has to be a long-term strategy as ignoring it impacts a company’s employee retention levels and therefore their bottom line.

“If you don’t have a demonstrable sustainability programme you won’t attract business or staff,” adds ITM’s Davies.

According to a study from WRAP, 67% of UK consumers would boycott brands that lack an ethical conscience, a value that MiIlennials – who will make up the bulk of employees over the next few years – hold dear.

MiIlennial and GenZ employees rank sustainability as a leading concern when evaluating employers. That alone augurs well for our planet.

Moreover, the Government’s proposed changes to its procurement practices, which cites a change from Most Economically Advantageous Tender (MEAT), to Most Advantageous Tender (MAT) will also drive long-term sustainability strategies.

“This could result in cost not being the only driver of purchasing decisions,” says Chris Pouney of Severnside Consulting.

ITM Survey: Buyer attitudes to carbon reduction

• 96% of buyers say sustainability is a key criteria in supplier selection

• Of those, 67% said they would strongly favour ‘green’ suppliers, against only 39% a year before

• Sustainability rose six places to become the fourth priority for buyers for the coming year

• 30% of buyers said it would be in-policy to book a flight on an aircraft using biofuel. That figure was only 17% in the 2020 survey

Source: ITM Top Priorities Survey 2020 and 2021