February 26, 2021

Travel kind

Suppliers and corporates alike are accelerating their carbon neutrality ambitions, writes Nick Easen, even though sustainable travel has temporarily taken a back seat

In 2019 there was one subject that drew more attention than any other in this industry: sustainable travel.

In 2020 it has been usurped by the coronavirus outbreak, but will nevertheless feature strongly when corporates resume their travels – whenever that may be.

“The travel industry has been scared of the subject of sustainability for quite some time and understandably. But it feels as though there have been some good moves happening,” says Bex Deadman, Managing Director at Blue Cube Travel.

The fact is ESG, or environmental and social governance issues, were once footnotes on due diligence reports –
not anymore. The issue is now mainstream, permeating boardrooms and dining rooms, headlining c-suite agendas and that of the global investment industry. Travellers also see Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion or melting Antarctica in the media. It’s gone beyond a tick-box exercise.

“Social pressure and public opinion will only go so far, and some level of govern-ment intervention will be required to drive real change,” states Kieran Hartwell, Managing Director of Travel Counsellors
for Businesses.

In a recent poll by the Institute of Travel Management, sustainability ranked sixth in terms of priorities for 2020. Less than half the companies surveyed have incorporated it into policy, and less than a quarter of managers say they’re carbon offsetting. Cost is a factor as travel can be one of the largest expenses for organisations. The fact is that the sustainability agenda is nascent, and its priority is lukewarm, particularly now that coronavirus has necessitated an entirely new way of living and operating.

“The impact of corporate travel is still not really given the importance it merits, with very little in the way of coherent policies evident form the businesses we’ve worked with. It’s a common surprise to clients, that travel accounts for 15-25% of their total energy use, yet they don’t see it,” explains Alex Ferguson, Managing Director of environmental consultancy, Delta Simons.

“Travel is one area where we’ve yet to see businesses willing to take the pain. It’ll come. This could be driven by legislation, but more likely through disclosure of emissions for travel along with everything else and a genuine shift from financiers to stop supporting businesses that don’t make changes,” adds Simons.

Driving change

A road train of reporting frameworks are now springing into action, albeit in finance, from the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures to the International Platform on Sustainable Finance, while the EU Action Plan on Sustainable Finance, hopes to be the gold-green standard of the future. Emissions from travel could then be seen as a business risk to be reported on and targeted, particularly for listed companies.

“Ultimately, if the market demands change by opting for more sustainable choices, that will be a compelling driver,” says Karri Alexion-Tiernan, Head of Product Marketing for Egencia. The FTSE 100 are already required to report on their sustainability practices. In time, this will filter down into travel policies and into smaller businesses.

“Lack of data is an issue. There is no industry-wide, global standard for ‘green credentials.’ Honestly, people aren’t really doing this yet – this is where we want to be, and hopefully will be in the future,” details Lesley O’Bryan, Principal at Advito.
Corporations are struggling to quantify the carbon footprint they’re generating from whole trips and how they can target this by setting goals for reducing emissions. “Better reporting will be key to changing behaviour. The old adage applies: ‘what gets measured gets done’,” says Andrew Perolls, CEO of Greengage Solutions.

“The travel industry has been scared of the subject of sustainability for quite some time and understandably. But it feels as though there have been some good moves happening”

“This will encourage organisations to monitor emissions for whole trips. Most reporting focuses on air and rail, post-excursion. The next stage must be to measure emissions for everything, including hotels, ground transport and other elements,” adds Perolls.

“It helps that more organisations are setting benchmarks, such as becoming carbon neutral by 2025. Targets promote change. Yet few organisations have travel policies that embrace green choices.”

Made to measure

Getting the right messaging and options in front of travellers during the booking process, rather than it being an after-thought, will drive behaviour such as: ‘wow, that’s a lot of emissions for that trip is it really necessary?’ These are now valid concerns, which take on a new meaning with the recent coronavirus pandemic, which is curtailing all but essential travel.

Change is likely to happen when every traveller takes a hard look at the environmental cost of doing business.
“It’s not been in the organisation or traveller’s behaviour patterns to think about the impact that a journey will have on the planet. The focus has always been on costs. Travel is seen as a necessary part of doing business,” states Anita Leslie, Director of Market Strategy for Capita Travel and Events.

“It’s also been easy to pass the buck saying: ‘I need to go to this meeting, so the impact of the travel isn’t my fault, it’s the company’s, or the provider’s’. Whereas, it’s all our responsibility. The good news is that things are changing,” adds Leslie.

Peer pressure

Travellers can make it clear to their employers that the issue is important to them. Booking rail over air, direct routes over indirect ones, economy instead of business or first class, staying in hotels that are more sustainable, and using ground transport suppliers that use renewable energy, as well as packing a lot less luggage all make sense, as does combining trips with travelling colleagues.

“If people can see the emissions data between two different journeys they’re considering, or for their total travel across the calendar year, then it could drive change. Visibility of sustainability is high on the booking agenda at the moment,” says Eric Webb, Senior Director Solutions Consulting at SAP Concur.

A granular, transparent view allows companies to ask the right questions, such as ‘is that greener trip more expensive?‘.
In a straw poll of travel management companies, there’s now a clamouring for emissions monitoring. People are hungry for accurate data, as well as consistency on ‘eco-labels‘ and statements. There’s a lot of confusion out there.

Showing the way

Companies ahead on this agenda are also greening their supply chains. “Corporates want to know about our own sustainability initiatives as a business to ensure that our ethos is in line with theirs,” details James McIlvenna, Head of Account Management at Corporate Traveller. “The real driver of change is likely to come from suppliers.”

A survey conducted by GBTA and SAP Concur late last year found that very little action has been taken on applying sustainable thinking to travel programmes, yet three-quarters of travel managers believe that over the coming years sourcing suppliers with sustainable practices and mandating sustainable choices will become very important to travel programmes.

This is why the UK aviation industry has pledged to cut its net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, also true of a number of global aviation players as well.

“We recognise that action is needed now. We have also committed to zero net emissions by this time and halving our 2019 net emission levels by 2035,” states Mohammad Al Bulooki, Chief Operating Officer of Etihad Aviation Group.
“We’re actively testing sustainable aviation fuels while committing to innovation and exploring new technologies, but we need more immediate solutions.”

Offsetting emissions is still the preferred path for many, with trips offset via TMCs and booking tools. Certain travellers will offset themselves, while carbon credits are used for worthwhile schemes – although they’re seen as a short-term measure and even controversial. Environmentalists warn that it can make people wrongly believe they’re not having an environmental impact by travelling.

“Offsetting emissions is still the preferred path for many corporates and travellers, although offsetting is seen as a short-term measure and, sometimes, even controversial”

“Offsetting schemes are increasingly deployed as an Elastoplast measure,” says Perolls. “There is a remarkable lack of regulation and it’s difficult to choose between schemes. Whilst tree planting is to be applauded there’s scepticism over the time lag between a flight being taken and a planted tree being mature enough to actually offset the CO2 generated.”

The fact is planting a couple of extra trees or packing a few less jumpers to lighten the plane load isn’t really going to address the climate crisis head-on. It may help, but the focus should be on a wholesale shift in attitudes to business travel that’s kinder to the planet. Like switching to greener energy providers at home or becoming part-vegetarian. A seismic movement in mindset would really count.

“Greener travel doesn’t need to cost more or be more complex to arrange, although there is this perception. A key barrier to change is education and also a lack of consistency in the marketplace,” says Brett Gerrett, General Manager of Isleworth Travel Management.

Some say cutting travel and emissions endangers business and growth, others say greener trips could have a negative impact on productivity and traveller wellbeing, with diminishing duty of care, since these trips can take longer and be more inconvenient.

In the same breath we have to think about what kind of planet we want to live on. A sustainable one with sustainable businesses for the future. So, it’s worth having this conversation now.