Making Business Travel Sustainable
By Jeanette Rohr, Ralph Colunga, Christian Boos | 9 min read
According to a recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group, 70% of travelers expect to go back to their travel behavior from before the global pandemic. But there are good reasons not to bank on this.
If there is a silver lining to the pandemic it would be all of us recognizing that it changed the way we work, live, and play. Companies had to shift gears over the last two years to not only survive, but to really thrive. And while they continue to adjust to the new business landscape realities, there is no doubt about the positive impacts and new areas of opportunity.
Sustainability is one such area, as severely curtailed travel across the globe had a positive impact due to significantly decreased emissions.
The most important impact of the pandemic wasn’t that we couldn’t travel anymore, but rather that we saw we could hold meetings by video conference with the same effect. Virtual meetings are here to stay, and will likely even grow, as technology continues to vastly improve. Aside from the productivity impact created by saving travel time, one cannot ignore the cost savings gained by replacing in-person meetings and events with virtual ones.
Business travel doesn’t affect all companies equally. Consultants travel more than people in the manufacturing industry. There, reduction of plastic plays a bigger role in sustainability than travel reductions. Still, with billions of dollars saved during the travel ban, companies are now taking a closer look at what is essential business travel and what is expendable.
Although companies have long been aware of business travel’s huge carbon footprint, very little has been done to solve this issue. Travel was regarded as a necessity and therefore as acceptable pollution.
Carbon dioxide emissions typically come to mind first when we think about the ecological footprint of business travel. But calculations can get very complex since there is more than just the transport to consider. Accommodations, meals, energy, and waste management all go into the equation.
This raises the question of how future travel planning and booking systems must be designed if the goal is to support behavioral change and reduce the environmental costs of travel.
Personal choices, encouraged by corporate education
Because achieving corporate sustainability often comes down to personal choices, it is vital to break down the topic of sustainable business travel into more understandable and hence obtainable goals. Only by measuring and showing the total emissions across all categories for an entire trip can companies educate employees on the impact of every action they take.
In fact, many employees enjoy traveling in their daily work, even considering it a perk of their job. They are looking forward to returning to business travel as it was before the pandemic. This makes it even more important to educate employees on how their choices affect the overall ecological footprint of their company and, ultimately, the future of the planet. This should be less about making people feel guilty and more about highlighting ways to make their travel more sustainable.
It makes a difference whether we choose hotels built with LEED sustainability certification, use renewable energy, support recycling, use eco-friendly cleaning materials, drive electric or hybrid vehicles, or pick a vegan lunch instead of beef.
Obviously, an airline could ban beef from its menu. But a company can hardly tell its employees not to order beef if it is offered. That remains a personal choice that an employer has no control over (and shouldn’t have, in fact). But, by providing information on the impact of meat farming on climate change companies may nudge employees into making more sustainable choices.
To create awareness, corporate sustainability goals need to be defined and aligned with senior management for continuous support and measurement. Providing obtainable, comprehensible, drill-down reporting to employees is another keystone: basically, you have to know how you’re doing in order to know what you have to do.
The business trip of the future: Smooth, simplified, sustainable
Technology plays a big role both in providing transparency and changing behaviors. Transparency on sustainability goals and how the company plans to achieve them is vital if you want your employees to support you in your journey to become a sustainable enterprise. For example, they need to be educated that cutting down on connecting flights also reduces the number of flights per trip, thereby lowering emissions.
While travel software already exists that triggers an alarm if you exceed your budget when booking a flight or train ride, that’s not yet the case when calculating your overall carbon travel footprint.
In the future, before calculating the time and cost required to get you from New York to your meeting in Berlin, the system will take an additional step and ask whether this trip is necessary. Perhaps it can be avoided by making use of video conferencing rooms or co-working spaces nearby?
Drawing the necessary information from calendar bookings, the system can make suggestions as to how you may travel. Different options such as train, car, or plane will be judged not just taking cost versus time or productivity into consideration. They will also be evaluated by sustainability criteria.
If the system concludes that a flight needs to be booked in this case, it may suggest an offsetting catalog where you get to choose between planting trees or investing in climate initiatives, for example, to make the trip carbon neutral. The offsetting costs will be added to the overall travel cost. The trip becomes more expensive, the carbon footprint is compensated, and a new way of steering budgets becomes possible.
While travel budget versus footprint budget is important, there are other developments to anticipate, with calendar-driven action becoming a keystone of future travel.
We may no longer need to have our passport ready, but instead check in with biometrical information. Smart hotel buildings will know about your reservation when you enter. Information about your exact lodgings and how to get there will be automatically copied to your calendar.
So instead of waiting for your turn to check in at the reception you can just go to your room and unlock it with your smartwatch. Check-out will be handled the same way. We will also see a stronger individualization of travel, as we may get used to arriving in a hotel room personalized for our needs from TV settings to a mini bar aligned with our lactose intolerance.
Depending on the individual, the contactless hotel stay may seem like a scenario from either heaven or hell. A lot of travelers appreciate the human interaction when arriving at their destination. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The desired level of advantage (saving time) and the desired level of comfort (human contacts) are two needs that must be balanced.
Getting everyone on board
We must rethink the way we currently book our trips, starting with the respective event or meeting. This also means recognizing that our own travel behavior is shaped by an ecosystem of customers and partners – and vice versa. The more awareness created, the less likely it is we’ll be required to travel when there are other possibilities that provide the same business results.
This is all the more important as companies will typically put the customer’s preferences first when faced with a customer’s insistence that an important meeting be held on-site. But making the carbon footprint savings transparent for a customer may even sway customers with a sustainability-focused brand away from the high carbon footprint option. That results in savings for both.
Making non-tangible assets such as sustainability figures tangible and including them in company reports therefore also has a macro-economic impact.
Once they know how good or bad their travel behavior is, companies can proactively aim for a green record by asking themselves questions such as: How many business trips from other companies did we initiate by requesting everyone to come to our company site? Or, when five people we invited to the meeting didn’t participate in person how much carbon emissions did we save?
When carbon footprint savings become a tangible advantage, meeting decision-makers lose the incentive to insist on being on-site. That way, everyone achieves a “greener” record.
We have to applaud and recognize the companies willing to draw a line in the sand and make a commitment to a publicly stated goal. Consulting firm Ernst and Young has set a goal to reduce their travel emissions by 35% by fiscal year 2025, compared to 2019 levels. Deloitte announced they would cut business travel emissions per employee in half. And SAP aims to become carbon-neutral by 2023.
It is clear that companies are getting serious about sustainability, which includes establishing key roles to manage sustainability and continuous education of employees. By showing what we do as employers from a large corporate perspective we can also inspire our employees to work on their behaviors.
Sustaining hearts and minds
We are in the midst of one of the greatest paradigm shifts the world has seen. And it will likely have more lasting impacts than any of us could have imagined. While business travel will likely gradually resume in 2022 and 2023, there are two significant changes that we’re seeing. Travel is being reimagined. And the traveler’s voice and sentiment are getting stronger.
The pandemic has forced us to reevaluate almost everything in our lives. One of the outcomes is a global change in travel habits (both business and private). There is a consensus that we want to get back to travel, but only when we feel safe to do so.
Instead of cleverly thought-out, but inflexible guidelines, employees want their health and safety to take precedence over their travel decisions. Employees are speaking out about this and that’s a major reason why companies will have to move forward on sustainable travel.
For the past two years, time normally spent travelling was freed up for creative and innovative things instead of hanging around airports and train stations. Adding up all this waiting time, a frequent business traveler may spend weeks of their work year waiting on transport. That’s not to say you cannot have creative moments while waiting for your train. But smart usage of this time must lead to added value for the individual and/or their company.
For some, that may mean getting sufficient sleep before hopping on an online meeting to start their workday. Others will be up at 4:00 a.m. to do yoga. Either is better than getting up at an ungodly hour to catch a flight.
Sustainable business travel begins with treating your own brain and body as finite resources.
Editor’s note: Discover more about corporate sustainability in
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