As the world’s population continues its fight against COVID-19 it remains engaged in another battle – to save the planet. As a result, momentum is building for travelers, companies, and destinations to reduce carbon emissions and take other actions to protect our environment and ensure its future for generations. Prior to COVID-19, destinations were underfoot by too many visitors, natural resources were stretched, and fossil fuels filled the air. When the earth witnessed a reversal of damage during lockdown, it became even more apparent that action was needed. Our penchant for travel – including trains, planes, and automobiles – has been part of the problem. Aviation alone is responsible for an estimated 4.9% of man-made global warming. This has put much of the responsibility to curb climate change and reverse damage from pollution on the very companies that rely on travel the most. For these reasons sustainable travel policies have become a priority for many corporations’ travel programs as they prepare for the next era of business travel.
According to Business Travel News’ (BTN) Sustainable Business Travel Survey more than 36% of business travel buyers said their companies increased their public commitment to sustainable business practices in the past 12 months. Many of them, however, rely on non-travel initiatives, such as recycling or reducing use of plastic or energy at the office. But those with robust travel budgets, such as consulting, specialized services, or big tech, can make a difference just by adjusting their own travel programs. More and more companies where travel is core now have specific programs that track carbon emissions and reward travelers for making the right decisions.
Are Companies Putting Their Money Where Their Mouth Is?
Businesses taking the most dramatic stand on reducing their carbon footprint have committed to cutting absolute emissions and achieving net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 or sooner. In practice, this means aligning carbon budgets with T&E, tracking and benchmarking internal emissions data, building carbon offset partnerships and educating employees about their goals and responsibilities. Companies like BCG, Accenture, Microsoft and Salesforce are at the forefront, and more CEOs are committing to net zero every day. But in reality, these companies are in the minority. According to an April survey of 220 travel managers in the U.S. and Canada conducted by the Global Business Travel Association and Emburse, fewer than one-quarter of respondent companies that have corporate travel sustainability policies include additional measures, such as mandating sustainable suppliers or purchasing carbon offsets.
While most travelers and buyers are aware of the impact of travel on the environment few have been in the position to make positive changes on a companywide basis. Sure, individuals can choose one supplier over another due to their eco-friendliness and commitment to green initiatives, but most companies haven’t been sure how to integrate sustainable business practices into the travel program. Nearly half of travel buyers who participated in the abovementioned BTN survey do not have formal business initiatives to assess or reduce carbon emissions associated with business travel. And only one in five changed travel approval thresholds or travel policies to support sustainability goals. The truth is that even those travel buyers with the best intentions often meet resistance due to budget, duty of care and other concerns. If making the right environmental choice requires a much higher cost per ticket or if choosing eco-friendly lodging entails an extra 10-mile car ride – are these changes worth it?
But many buyers are reconsidering their priorities. With the explosion of virtual meetings companies have become more confident in their ability to reduce carbon emissions by limiting certain types of trips. Nearly three-quarters of buyers in the BTN survey said they would shift some portion of business travel, including internal meetings, to virtual options regardless of whether they had a mandate to reduce their carbon footprint.
Commitment Needed Throughout the Value Chain
With the right intentions in place, the most convenient way for corporations to set mandates on sustainable business practices is via their travel management company (TMC). Nearly nine in 10 respondents want to see more sustainability services from their TMC, and three quarters would like to understand more about how their TMCs incorporate sustainability into the sourcing process. Most rely on their TMC or booking tool supplier for the reporting tools needed to measure sustainability efforts. TMCs are feeling the pressure now more than ever to make these programs work.
Of course, suppliers also bear much of the responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and care for the environment. Alaska Airlines recently joined several global leaders in The Climate Pledge, a commitment to achieving net-zero-carbon emissions 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement (2040). Element Hotels (Marriott) are built with recycled materials and have electric vehicle charging stations. For any real change to happen, everyone in the travel chain needs to play a role.
Short term, most companies are relying on their own sense of commitment to environmental causes by reducing carbon emissions and nonessential travel. Longer term, this will be harder to accomplish as business travel makes its inevitable comeback and partners, customers and employees demand to meet face to face. Real change will require more than reducing demand and relying on video conferencing. Companies can only make a difference by considering every aspect of the journey – from car hire to transport to lodging – and choosing the right routes, methods, and suppliers for each trip. Clearly most businesses can’t do this alone. There needs to be commitment throughout the value chain – including corporate leaders, travelers, TMCs, booking channels and travel suppliers – to measure, monitor and meet sustainability goals. Collectively, smarter travel decisions can help to clear the air.