The public consensus demands climate action, and so it should. But sustainable business travel is no longer just about emissions.
Environmental sustainability may not be the travel sector’s “white whale” after all, because there are ways to actively reduce the damage. What’s harder to mitigate is the unseen, less tangible damage that travel can do; the stuff that isn’t as explicitly measured as carbon emissions and profit margins.
Every industry in the world has an influence on us. Some of this influence is negative, some of it is positive. To be sustainable, industries must seek to actively reduce their negative impact, and enhance the positive.
The travel sector has for decades juggled its CO2 impact with the enrichment it provides economically and socially. But even the positives only benefit some, and not all, of society.
It’s a complex issue. But let’s break it down, starting with the element we all know: carbon.
Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)
On 28 November 2023, Flight VS100 – AKA Virgin Atlantic Flight100 – set off from London, bound for New York. Nothing special there, except for one thing; the flight was 100% powered by sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF.
This milestone achievement is probably one of the most profound ways the industry has tried to reduce emissions in decades – and not because biofuels haven’t existed until now (chip fat diesel, anyone?), but because it flies in the face of convention.
A convention that says; “you can’t just stick SAF in any old plane and fly. You need a properly tuned engine and fuel system, we need to develop a whole new engine!”.
Flight100 is significant because it proves that current aircraft are able to fly on 100% sustainable aviation fuel, with no modifications. It’s a drop-in solution, with no infrastructure changes. All that changes is the supply chain.
It took months of preparation and testing to get right – comparing the performance of SAF blends with Jet A. It took deep collaboration between Rolls Royce, Boeing, Virgin Atlantic, and multiple universities. And it worked. Perfectly.
So, this must be it, the silver bullet – the final answer to aviation’s climate impact questions. Sadly… it’s not. Not yet, anyway.
Firstly, SAF production isn’t as squeaky clean as it seems. It’s still basically oil refinement, just with a non-fossil feedstock. Secondly, there’s not enough waste fat in the world to power anyone’s fleet right now – and with aviation's forecasted growth, there probably never will be.
And that leads us to the third thing.
Making these fuels requires either waste fat (which there's not enough of) or new crop growth to get fat from. And this means less land for food production, less habitat for wildlife, more freshwater consumption… We simply end up scarring the earth deeper in other areas, just to heal another part of it.
With the demand for SAF so high and the supply so low, blending SAF with conventional fuels is the only answer we’ve really got right now. And while it’s definitely a step in the right direction – and incredibly positive news – the real-world impact on carbon emissions might be too little, too late.
However – with investment and research, production will get better, cleaner, and more reliable. SAF could be the future of carbon-neutral air travel – as long as we keep our sights on ethical production.
And until then, we’ve always got carbon offsetting… Right?
Game over for carbon offsetting?
In 1989, the first carbon offsetting project was launched. And since then, emissions have been traded for forests by the world’s largest polluters; including energy and aviation. The idea? Plant trees to soak up the carbon in the air, so they can store it in their biomass.
It’s a nice concept, but offsetting alone is not a silver bullet – and in some cases, it’s more damaging than doing nothing. While considerate offsetting can still play a role in corporate sustainability strategies – particularly in rewilding and conservation – it’s not enough on its own.
The world is watching how businesses move, and how they react to the climate crisis. And offset programmes to date have fallen short, leading some corporations to try new angles and technologies. Carbon capture and storage is one such trend, whereby carbon is recovered from the atmosphere and buried in the ground.
Again, this isn’t perfect; all that carbon’s coming back someday, and the implications of burying CO2 aren’t well known for things like soil acidification and the subsequent mineral leach into water supplies.
The thing is, corporates actually do want to do something about it – and not purely for the bottom line, but because companies are, for the most part, made up of good and well-intentioned people.
There is hope. In a bid to actually do something worthwhile, France has announced higher taxes on aviation, which will pay for railway investment. The French government has also banned short-haul domestic flights.
Read more: Aviation needs to think beyond the flight
And sure, this will work – but it all feels like an attack on the aviation sector, which is only really one part of the problem; nobody’s talking about cruise ships and the monumental damage they inflict on oceans or the climate in quite the same way as they are aircraft.
The cynic inside asks, “is travelling sustainably just a myth to keep the industry alive?” – but we’re well aware that travel is at times essential for work. Because outside of the corporate world, travel for work isn’t all private jets and power lunches.
Is business travel really essential?
The Covid lockdowns gave us Zoom meetings. We know full well that many trips can be replaced by digital alternatives, without compromising productivity. So are all those flights, hotel stays and car rentals truly necessary – or are we clinging onto the remnants of outdated corporate cultures and habits?
Well, not exactly.
While a cliché image of the jet setting C-Suite dominates our perceptions of business travel, the reality is very different. Business travel applies to practical, technical skill-based professions that can only be done in person – from field researchers and healthcare workers to technicians and engineers.
Offshore oil and gas workers can’t live on rigs for long before they have to be moved.
Civil engineers with the specific skills for certain projects never seem to live next door to the site they’re needed on.
Top surgeons can’t work via Zoom.
These people are essential to success, and their physical presence is non-negotiable. But even here, there’s an opportunity to do better.
Building teams on the ground
Businesses and organisations can optimise travel logistics by building core teams by region.
By minimising travel distances, using more ground-based public transport and promoting remote support whenever possible, emissions can be cut dramatically. Sourcing local talent and consultants who already know and work in a given area is hugely beneficial – and while they tend to have higher day rates than salaried staff, the savings on travel, accommodation and carbon can in many cases make up for it. Over time, these people can become integral team members, too.
Achieving this requires solid logistics and planning, and full accountability. Building multimodal trips for teams in disparate yet “close enough” locations is a challenge – unless you have the right tools in place.
As impossible as it seems, taking action on the climate is in fact doable for the business travel sector – and we’re witnessing it happen right now, pushed by the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD).
But as we said at the top, emissions are only a fraction of the problem.
The societal impact of business travel
Business travel has far-reaching societal consequences. It can both empower and exploit, depending on how it's managed.
On the one hand, business travel enriches our knowledge, our lives and the economic growth of all nations. On the other hand, it can perpetuate exploitative practices, cheap labour, legitimise oppressive governments – and give unethical corporations a free pass.
Business travel involves complex webs of global supply chains. Not all these threads are ethically woven. In some cases, companies seek cost savings by outsourcing labour to countries with lax labour laws and low wages – often without even being aware.
Supply chains run deep like rabbit holes, with legacy suppliers, shell companies and a catalogue of unknowns. Even with the best intentions to work ethically, just one weak link in the chain is all it takes.
What’s the answer?
Sustainable business travel is not a myth. We’re just not doing it right
Sustainable business travel requires a fundamental shift in mindset – beyond emissions.
We need to see it as the complex problem it truly is, and not as a patchable issue we can throw money at until it goes away. It needs work.
Corporates and TMCs need to carefully evaluate whether each trip is essential. They need to optimise travel and seek multimodal solutions when it is essential, or source talent and teams locally.
And beyond this, there needs to be some serious scrutiny of business practices and supply chains, to ensure they align with the ethical principles of the organisation. There also needs to be transparency and accountability in business travel practices, through ESG reporting and annual statements.
Sustainable travel is no myth. But hardly anyone is truly sustainable right now. If businesses want to wear that badge, they need to think beyond carbon – and into a future that works for everyone.
Building a sustainable future for business travel
Head of Marketing
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