Business travel and sustainability: It’s getting hotter – and that’s not cool.

Getting to a sustainable future requires action, new ways of thinking and deep commitment. BCD Travel’s VP Sustainability Olivia Ruggles-Brise wants to help our industry make sense of it so we can all do our part.

By Olivia Ruggles-Brise, Vice President, Sustainability, BCD Travel

Olivia Ruggles Brise VP Sustainability

If hot years were featured in magazines, 2023 would surely be on the cover. Last year was the hottest on record – and with temperatures around 1.4 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial baseline, we’re getting dangerously close to the 1.5 degree target set by the Paris Agreement. In fact, we’re now almost past the point of limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, according to pronouncements from the United Nations’ 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) meeting in December 2023. The only real pathway left to us is to overshoot and then dial back. Things aren’t getting serious. We’ve already arrived at the destination.

In the 12 months or so since I joined the world of business travel, sustainability has evolved from “buzzword” to “trend” to “priority.” But apart from a few leaders, action to build sustainability into travel programs is patchy. Let’s hope it finally becomes a strategic imperative in 2024.

Report: Sustainability in business travel

Have you seen our report Sustainability in business travel? BCD researchers uncovered significant gaps in levels of knowledge, action and commitment when it comes to sustainability in business travel. Our researchers surveyed more than 100 travel buyers and almost 1,800 business travelers to gauge the importance of environmental sustainability in business travel. The reality: while 82% of companies have sustainability goals in place, only 45% have targets for sustainable business travel. Furthermore, only 20% of business travelers are aware of their company’s sustainable travel goals. More than half of the travel buyers we talked to felt sustainable travel options cost too much. Buyers also pointed to challenges like traveler education, a lack of standard measurement approaches and definitions, and having the right tools, e.g., online booking tools supporting carbon budgets.

Travel, and particularly business travel, does not operate in a vacuum. It’s highly vulnerable to global shifts either physical like weather patterns or geopolitical unrest such as war, or public opinion like the perceptions of value and greenwashing. Solutions tend to focus on tactical actions that travelers can take, but given what we’re up against, this is merely tinkering at the edges. We need to think more strategically.

Decarbonization needs to be a core strategy, not an afterthought.

Any claim of sustainability action that doesn’t have measurable decarbonization progress at its core will be viewed as greenwashing. In some jurisdictions, this will be deemed greenwashing by law. It’s becoming more common for national and company regulations to require emissions measurement and reporting, and supply chain impacts to be considered as well. This means being able to show actual reductions in emissions, not just engagement activities that may nudge behavior.

According to our research, half of companies encourage sustainable travel, but only a third promote sustainable options at the point of booking. Reducing travel volumes and traveling by train instead of plane are the top two options promoted by travel buyers. They often also promote taking direct flights instead of connecting flights, combining several trips in one, and limiting the number of employees on the same trip. Travelers mentioned sharing ground transportation and choosing economy class over business class as frequent recommendations by their companies.

Travel programs that target traveler behavior need to be supported by top-down strategies that reflect the wider context, and that mandate and reward those behaviors and resulting emissions reductions’ outcomes. They should also recognize when progress is not being made and act accordingly. And yes, demand management, is also a consideration.

We need to shift to a ‘contribution’ rather than an ‘offsetting’ mindset.

Following some high-profile controversies in 2023, steps have been taken to address the governance and regulatory issues around the voluntary carbon markets. Interestingly enough, when rating their sustainability priorities, travel buyers indicated offsetting carbon emissions was low on their agendas. However, contributing to projects that protect, sustainably manage and restore ecosystems (nature-based solutions) remains an important and legitimate strategy. Companies wishing to mitigate the impact of their travel emissions in this way still need to be careful about where they invest their money. It should be about contribution rather than offsetting. Claims of being ‘carbon neutral’ risk greenwashing accusations and should be avoided at all costs. But when done right, the power of business travel to make a positive impact is considerable.

Business travel needs to recognize its relationship with nature.

The biodiversity and climate crises go hand in hand. Protecting and restoring biodiversity is key to addressing climate change. As such, it’s increasingly being integrated into reporting frameworks, for example the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), CDP and Task Force on Nature Related Financial Disclosures (TNFD). Although the links with business travel are less clear than those of carbon emissions, the connections are strong. Hotels have a huge role to play in terms of their food chains, sourcing of furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) and development processes. Travel managers and procurement teams can start by talking to hotel suppliers to better understand their biodiversity plans and actions. Contributions to nature-based solutions are another way business travel can support biodiversity conservation. For more on biodiversity and business travel, check out my feature in BTN’s What to Watch 2024 series.

Aviation’s path to net zero is far from certain.

Despite some phenomenal advances in operational and aircraft efficiency, and a vigorous focus on sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), achieving net zero in aviation will require massive scale up of as-yet-unproven technologies and/or a reduction in growth ambitions. It’s now widely acknowledged that SAF is not a silver bullet, and that the scale up of SAF comes with significant sustainability risks itself. Yet, a thriving and sustainable aviation industry will underpin the future sustainability of business travel, so the industry needs to proactively support aviation’s decarbonization in meaningful ways. This means partnering with and rewarding the airlines that are leading investments in new technologies and solutions and pushing for more robust governance and accounting systems around SAF.

I strongly believe that business travel, with its wide networks, corporate purchasing power and ability to engage individual travelers can play an important role in ensuring a sustainable future for our planet. But it requires action, commitment and a new way of thinking It’s time for real engagement, tangible progress and a commitment to creating benefits that go beyond economic activity, job creation and human connection. It’s time to make sustainability a strategic imperative.

For more content like this, connect with Olivia on LinkedIn. BCD clients can contact their program managers for more information on integrating sustainability into managed travel programs. Not a client? Contact us.

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