By Dirk Singer / November 09, 2022

A recent press release received by Sunday Times chief travel writer Chris Halam included over 40 mentions of ‘sustainability’ along with a string of buzz-words and corporate speak.

Chris Halam gave this as an example of greenwashing in a World Travel Market (WTM) session titled “What is truly sustainable versus greenwashing in travel and tourism”, hosted by Wanderlust Magazine.

Moderated by Wanderlust Magazine Co-Founder Lyn Hughes, the session featured a panel that also included videographer Richard Hammond and travel writer Holly Tuppen.

Here are some of the themes that the panel discussed:

The proliferation of kitemarks and schemes

According to the panel, there are too many green kitemarks that don’t mean much and don’t have a reputable body standing behind them. The result is a “wild west” type structure of sustainability logos that you can “practically buy off the Internet” and mean nothing for the consumer.

The panel questioned why in the Hotel industry, a body such as the UNWTO couldn’t come up with one unified standard.

In fact, in aviation,  industry bodies are already working towards industry schemes. EASA has for a number of years been working towards a green rating that’s as easy to understand as the energy label you can find on your washing machine.

Meanwhile, at the 2022 APEX/IFSA EXPO, the APEX Board of Governors agreed to develop a green standard for airline suppliers.

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Sustainability should run throughout the organisation

The panel said that in their experience, organisations that were serious about sustainability, were the ones who showed “moral leadership” straight from the top, and where it was embedded in the company’s principles.

According to filmmaker Richard Hammond, at the moment you often find sustainability “in the corner of a company website” and filled with boiler plate language, but nothing real. Richard Hammond also emphasised the need for story-telling to bring a company’s sustainability initiatives to life.

The example he gave was one of food miles.  Rather than write something about food miles, why not make a short film showcasing (for example) local farmers that makes it real for the consumer.

The panel also talked about the number of travel companies who do high profile, consumer facing sustainability initiatives, when in the background things are very different.

Chris Halam from the Sunday Times gave the example of a safari camp that he had visited in Tanzania, which handed out branded metal bottles to all guests who arrived by plane.  However, when he went to the back of the camp, he found large bins filled with polystyrene wrapping from the bottles.

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It shouldn’t be “lentils versus chocolate cake”

Finally, though not directly a part of greenwashing, the panel tackled the value / action gap.  For example, many people say they will offset their flights but only between 1-3% do.

The panel thought that sustainability was often being positioned through the lens of denial.  As the panel put it, “it shouldn’t be seen as eating lentils instead of chocolate cake.”

According to the panel, travel is inherently aspirational and so the industry needs to redefine things like ‘luxury’ and ‘aspiration’, and position the sustainable choices as the aspirational ones.

As a result, the panellists felt that sustainability initiatives need to be driven by the luxury end of the market first, as the top end of the market sets the standard for mid market tourism, which in turn influences budget tourism.

One way that the industry could do that would be to embed sustainability into the overall traveller experience. 

In aviation an excellent example of that is Delta’s collaboration with Someone Somewhere.  Individual Mexican artisans produce amenity kits for Delta premium passengers.  

A QR code on each kit gives the passenger the chance to interact with the person who made his or her kit.  But crucially, there is no compromise in quality.  In fact, the kits are unique enough that passengers will want to keep them and take them home.

More aviation-specific sustainability updates and analysis can be found in our twice-weekly Sustainability In The Air newsletter, led by SimpliFlying’s Research Director Dirk Singer. Do subscribe to our send-out to stay on top of the latest trends.

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