Go green – How to reduce the environmental impact of your company’s business travel

The flygskam (flight shame) movement is just one reason why companies are coming under pressure to address their travel-related carbon footprints. What can your organisation do to act more sustainably?
Written on 14.01.2020, 00:00
Go green – How to reduce the environmental impact of your company’s business travel

The number of passengers flying from Swedish airports fell every month in the year to July 2019. A downward trend like this is almost unheard of except in times of economic downturn, which isn’t the case right now, so what’s going on?

The chief executive of SAS has directly linked the drop in air traffic to flygskam, or “flight shame”, a movement originating in Sweden in which people pledge to stop flying to help reduce the harmful greenhouse gas emissions driving the global climate emergency.

Aviation is by no means the only contributor to greenhouse gases (of which carbon-dioxide is one), but it is particularly problematic. According to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, the volume of greenhouse gases caused by aviation has doubled since 1990, whereas most other sources of these gases have stayed flat. And where efforts to reduce those other sources are showing signs of success, the explosive growth of aviation worldwide means aircraft are likely to be the number one or two polluter globally by 2050.

Environmental activism against aviation means companies increasingly risk reputational damage if they are perceived not be curbing their business travel-related emissions. But, aside from groups like Extinction Rebellion, there are other kinds of pressure to become more sustainable about travel:

Regulatory pressure
There are increasing requirements at EU and national level for businesses to report on the emissions for which they are responsible, both directly and indirectly, and to outline their sustainability strategies.

Employee pressure
Environmental responsibility is playing a growing part in recruitment and retention of talent, with potential and existing employees wanting to work for businesses that have a reputation for being green.

Financial pressure
European governments are increasing taxation on air travel. France has announced an éco-contribution of €1.50-€18 depending on destination and cabin class from the beginning of 2020. In Denmark, SAS and Copenhagen’s airport authority have proposed a small departure tax to fund environmental research.

How can companies achieve reduce their travel-related carbon footprints in response? There are three main options:

  • Travel less
  • Travel greener
  • Offset emissions

Travel less
The only true way to go carbon-free is to stop travel completely. But is that realistic? According to aviation industry lobbying organisation the Air Transport Action Group, 25 per cent of all company sales are dependent on air transport in some way.

The obvious answer is to eliminate non-essential trips, yet surely business people already avoid travel unless they really need to? Even so, there could still be opportunities to cut down.

Focus on non-client travel
PwC’s UK business reduced its total travel-related CO₂ emissions by four per cent between 2007 and 2017, in spite of the firm doubling its business. Travel-related emissions per employee have fallen another two per cent in 2019. Key to PwC’s success was a 90 per cent reduction in travel that did not involve meeting clients.    

Make travellers give a reason
It is mandatory for PwC employees to state the reason for any trip that does not involve clients. This makes them think very hard about whether they can justify the journey.

Train employees
PwC has given direct training to 5,000 business travellers about how they can reduce emissions through only travelling when necessary.

Reduce even if you can’t eliminate
Regular client or team meetings can be very important. But there are still ways to travel less for them. Meet twice a year instead of four times, for example; or send only one person to see a client, not two. If team members from multiple sites need to meet, always choose the location that involves the shortest aggregated distance to travel, instead of rotating locations each time.

Offer good virtual alternatives
Make sure the conferencing options you offer are easily accessible and very reliable. Co-ordinate travel and virtual meeting options – for example on the same booking portal – so employees can make better choices.

Travel greener
Use the train
The Swedish mobile operator Telia’s travel policy states that all journeys under 500km must be by rail instead of air.

Minimize emissions when you fly
There is no such thing as flying greener, but some trips produce fewer emissions than others:

  • Travellers can check which aircraft models airlines operate on every departure. Some models, especially more modern ones, burn less fuel per passenger.
  • Fly economy. It takes up less space and weight on the aircraft and is therefore more fuel-efficient.
  • Fly directly – although there is a trade-off here, because indirect flying is often cheaper.
  • Encourage travellers to carry less luggage, which also burns more fuel.

Reduce ground transportation emissions

  • Encourage public transport where safe and not heavily time-consuming. Give preference in your hotel programme to properties easily accessible by public transport.
  • Look at innovations like lift-sharing. You can set this up with an app for routes between company locations.
  • Investigate electric or hybrid car rental options.

Offset
This is a contentious way to go greener. Although tree-planting and other initiatives are very helpful in reducing net emissions, critics complain offsetting encourages companies to take a complacent view that they are already tackling sustainability and therefore don’t need to cut back on their travel.

Vet potential schemes carefully to ensure their carbon-reduction projects are valid and do not create problems of their own, such as using land that breaches indigenous rights. Remember also that some airlines are beginning to offset flights themselves, so there is no need to make offset contributions for bookings with those carriers.

The TravelpoolEurope perspective – If you embrace travel sustainability, do it sincerely and coherently
There are some great success stories of companies shrinking their travel-related carbon footprints. The Norwegian bank Nordea, for example, has reduced air travel between its Nordic offices by 21 per cent since 2017.

A clear pattern has emerged of which companies win at sustainability. They have a genuine commitment throughout the business to improving environmental performance; and they conceive and execute a comprehensive carbon-reduction strategy. The strategy includes making commitments and then meeting them not only by setting but also monitoring relevant key performance indicators, writing clear policy rules and investing in extensive education and communication. To succeed, in other words, sustainability  needs to be sustained – and genuine.