Climate Impact Moves From Marketing to Operations

Skift Take

This year will be one of action for the travel industry on the climate. But don’t expect radical changes, rather incremental steps and greater alignment as the industry attempts to shake off its negative image.

Series: Megatrends 2023

Megatrends 2023

Discover the top trends that will define the travel industry for the coming year.

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Sustainability in travel will no longer simply be judged on stated goals. Rhetoric turns to accountability as companies and destinations are forced to put goals into operations in 2023. Travel climate ambitions have reached a moment of maturity.

Discussions on sustainability peaked in 2022, and culminated in the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference, or COP27, held in Egypt in November. 

Many companies made net zero pledges to coincide with this landmark event, while travel brands took the pulse of their customers over the year; unsurprisingly sustainability emerged as the priority.

A delegation from Rwanda attended the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) taking place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Source: Flickr.

Online travel agency, for example, said 79 percent of its customers agreed sustainable travel was vital, based on a global survey of 7,705 people. And 70 percent demanded more sustainable options, and wanted travel companies to better explain and label sustainable travel products.

Climate change is front of mind for business travelers too, with six in 10 claiming to be under pressure to limit their carbon impact, according to a survey of 500 business travelers by Opinium and World Travel Protection.

The momentum will roll over into 2023, spearheaded by travel’s most under-fire sector: aviation. 

Flights are a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and activists have airlines in their sights as travel roars back after the pandemic. They even targeted Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to make their point.  

On an operational level they’ll prioritize sustainable aviation fuel rather than carbon offsetting after signing deals with fuel producers and securing commitments from international corporations. Those partnerships are too numerous to list here — which wasn’t the case at the start of 2022.

Investments in carbon capture technology will probably ramp up too, as Air Canada has done with climate solutions company Carbon Engineering. Technology will be a key theme, including initiatives like Swiss applying “shark skin” to its planes.

SWISS said it was the first passenger airline to adopt carbon-efficient AeroSHARK technology. Source: SWISS.

Room to Grow

The hospitality sector is proving just as adaptable. Global accreditation standards will be a key theme, as they’re designed to keep everyone in check. Walter Goetz, head of cabinet for the transport commissioner at the European Commission, said a new single standard was being developed during an interview at the Global Business Travel Association’s inaugural Sustainability Summit.

At the same time bodies like the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and Sustainable Hospitality Alliance are uniting, and collaborating with other non-profits like Prince Harry’s Travalyst. It’s rolling up brands to bring standardization and a carbon calculation model to the wider masses, including agencies like, Expedia Group, Skyscanner and Expect more big names to come, and a move into corporate travel.

If these frameworks can come together, overcoming travel’s notorious issues of fragmentation and competition, they give tourists and business travelers alike more confidence that the carbon impact data they’re getting about flights and hotels is accurate. 

And green financing, a megatrend we highlighted in 2022, will also continue in 2023, with global brands like Ascott recently launching a sustainability-linked bond worth $115 million, in a hospitality sector first. All eyes will be on The Red Sea Development Company too.

Climate change will further impact construction methods. Architecture practice Gensler, for example, will look more at embodied carbon in building materials and Environmental Product Declarations from its suppliers. 

When everyone has a target to reach, it affects the entire supply chain, and that’s no different to  food and beverage, with plant-based meals offering 10-15 times smaller impact than that of animal products.

Who Has the Most Influence GBTA HRS, Source: GBTA/HRS “A New Order: Focus on Sustainability” report

Deeper and Deeper

An aspect like food is a precursor to a new level of operational granularity that will emerge in 2023. 

Startups like Thrust Carbon and Chooose grew out of the need to give companies better (and independent) insight into their carbon footprints when flying, so we may see a new wave of companies focusing on other purchases.

Climate Club, for example, raised $6.5 million last year and helps companies like Meta and consulting company Bain to reduce emissions by giving individuals, and departments, goals to reach when lowering their carbon footprint. That includes emissions associated with purchased goods and services, and gamification is a powerful tool when it comes to nudging behavior in the right direction. 

“Payments could be a real driver for change,” reckons Helen Hodgkinson, co-founder of corporate travel-focused climate action group CACTUS.

She advocates linking expense data to carbon footprints in the future. Corporations take great pains tracking how much money employees spend, and she believes it will soon be possible to overlay carbon data on top of traditional spend data, which is already there. It’s not just about picking a flight with sustainable fuel — what about the impact of the electric vehicle, or even client dinner? Transactional data in its basic form can provide an indicative carbon number and, therefore, impact of a company’s activities. 

“If you’re finding it all a bit overwhelming, and in the absence of a standardised measurement framework for us all to work to, consider this: climate change is the symptom and not the cause; the cause is over consumption so look for opportunities to consume less or consume in a genuinely sustainable and circular way,” she added.

Carbon Tunnel Vision

In the same vein travelers shouldn’t have to think about what type of winglets a plane has, or how efficient the Pratt & Whitney engines are, argues Glenn Thorsen, global sustainability lead at FCM Consulting. He thinks airlines, and other suppliers, will one day share more aspects around carbon impacts, including the food they serve. It’s just more relatable.

These “non-carbon sustainability metrics” could refer to local sourcing percentages for food and beverage programs, percentages of bio-cleaning products, non-single use or microplastic cleaning equipment, and much more.

And he believes these metrics are not driving core commercial decisions, and are not key to the merchandising or sales of travel itself, today at least.

“In short, we will need to start providing access to a range of metrics that are designed to associate with the behavioral decision-making process of travelers, to drive the cultural shift in how we book and engage with travel as a corporate traveler,” Thorsen said.

The more tangible aspects will be critical, because the scale of the challenge to reduce global warming has been accentuated by the media over recent years. It’s leading to “thinkwashing” where the task at hand becomes so complex, you don’t do anything.

Another reason why it is important to expand on the non-carbon data points is to avoid “carbon tunnel vision,” according to Thorsen.

Back to planes, and sustainable aviation fuel is a case in point.

“If we think of the amount of focus that we apply to sustainable aviation fuel, for example, it is still not a silver bullet due to the delay in production capacity,” he said. “Despite all the positives that it has to offer our industry, if we were to include sustainable fuel indicators in our online booking tools today, the overwhelming result would simply to be showing travelers that this fuel is not being pumped into this flight — that is not going to help build the engagement that we so desperately need.”

Another obstacle is “greenhushing” which replaces greenwashing where companies mislead consumers about their efforts. 

Greenhushing is when the organization does what it can to calculate and reduce its carbon emissions, but will be nervous about sharing too much about what it does. 

“Should I or shouldn’t I disclose the impact of my travel program, or anything else my business does?” Hodgkinson said. “You need to, because your talent will be making their career choices based on what companies are doing in the face of the climate and nature emergency.”

Carbon budgeting and internal carbon penalties are other methods we’ll hear more about in 2023, with Microsoft leading the charge. But the elephant in the room remains the fact a Zoom call is still the ultimate way for a business traveler to reduce their footprint.

And while all those travel brand surveys reveal consumers do want to travel more sustainability, this year may be revealing in terms of how many are actually prepared to pay the premium.


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Our daily coverage of the global travel industry. Written by editors and analysts from across Skift’s brands.

Tags: climate change, megatrends 2023, sustainability, tourism

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