A call to action to the travel management community came this week from American Express Global Business Travel.
Addressing the 1,200-strong audience at the Business Travel Awards, Jason Geall, vice president and general manager for Northern Europe at Amex GBT, urged the industry to "unite to push the boundaries of sustainability."
He described climate change and environmental sustainability as “quite rightly, high on the corporate agenda,” going on to say that the industry must “face up to the reality of climate change.”
While his address was perhaps an obvious, as well as timely, headline-grabber, it is clear that the corporate travel industry will have to demonstrate its green credentials as governments, corporations and consumers take action.
For many in business travel, action began more than a decade ago, but then the financial crisis of 2007-2008 hit and many of the initiatives went by the wayside.
Fast-forward to late 2019, however, and a new initiative - Climate Action for Corporate Travel Urgent Sustainability Summit (CACTUS) - had many across the community talking seriously about the issue again, as well as the promise of real action.
The event in mid-November, launched by Helen Hodgkinson, formerly with Barclaycard, and Lee Jackson, business development director at Diners Club, aimed to encourage conversation on climate change and get some difficult topics out in the open.
Tackling prickly subjects
Hodgkinson, who recently joined corporate travel management consultancy firm Festive Road, says:
"We felt that whilst there were conversations going on around the environment, sustainability and carbon reduction, there was nothing particularly meaningful and very limited action and the severity of the climate and nature emergency is not fully understood across our sector.
"It's quite a difficult conversation to have, to promote a reduction in travel, when you're in the travel industry. But we must all review how and when we travel and be honest about what we need to do.
"We also felt some of the harder conversations weren’t taking place as a result. We wanted to create a forum where people could speak very openly about all aspects of travel and climate change"
The result was an event held in London and attended by more than 60 people from the business travel community; speakers included the World Wide Fund for Nature and Microsoft.
Attendees were given professional, and personal, actions that could be implemented immediately such as encouraging reconsideration of all travel, finding out if companies were measuring CO2 emissions and adding the question to supplier Request for Proposal documents on whether they respond to the Carbon Disclosure Project.
There was also a light bulb moment during the event when Lauren Wiseman, environmental manager for World Wide Fund for Nature U.K., shared details of the company’s carbon budget.
"If there was one takeaway, it was that: the carbon budget for your travel policy. When you think about it, it's obvious, we should all set a carbon budget. If you don’t spend a marketing budget, the thinking is you won't get as much next year, but the opposite is true of a carbon budget. You set it and your aim is to come in under budget - travel more efficiently and emit less to meet the challenge.
"It was an eye-opener for a lot of people who perhaps don’t already measure emissions and aim to reduce them, or perhaps they do but it's not filtering down to travel managers and travelers in a meaningful way."
At the event, Wiseman also talked about the WWF’s sustainable travel policy, which begins with asking employees whether a video conference could be an alternative to taking a trip.
Last week, results of a survey of corporate travel buyers, released by the Business Travel Show, revealed that 60% of buyers do not manage ethical travel programs and 83% of programs do not offset air-related carbon emissions.
The research quotes Amnesty International U.K. economic relations program director Peter Frankental, who says the research is further evidence that “too many businesses have their head in the sand when it comes to reducing their carbon footprint.”
Many companies are further down the road when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and company-wide awareness of the need to act on climate change.
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Last week, Microsoft pledged to remove “all the carbon” from the environment that the company has emitted since it was founded in the mid-1970s.
At the same time, the company set up a $1 billion climate innovation to develop “carbon reduction, capture and removal technologies.”
Eric Bailey, global director of travel, VenueSource and payment at Microsoft, believes that carbon neutrality is just a first step.
Microsoft, as a company, he says, has been carbon neutral since 2012 and been calculating its air emissions since 2010-2011.
“Even before that, in 2009, I remember talking to the sustainability people at Lufthansa about biofuel. There was a bit of lull a few years ago, but we have been trying to figure out ways to reduce that carbon footprint any way we can.”
He attributes dramatic change in the the past decade “in the way we travel as a company” to technology, with steps such as a move to video conferencing for everyone in place since 2009.
“We have just bypassed our net carbon footprint for travel for 2007 last year.”
He says that means a “42% decrease per dollar of revenue and a 24% decrease per headcount in the past 13 years.”
In terms of initiatives companies can take, Bailey says that it’s about reducing travel as well as changing the way you travel.
“Right now what we’re trying to focus on is either you skip a trip or add a meeting to that trip and make your trip more efficient.”
And a carbon budget for corporate travel will come as Microsoft’s chief procurement officer has just requested it be put in place.
Back in October 2019, Microsoft signed a letter of intent with KLM to “explore cooperation focused on sustainable air travel.”
The partnership also includes a commitment to purchase sustainable aviation fuel.
Bailey says employees are excited about these initiatives.
“We as a company are expected to be the most trusted in the world, and we feel it is something we need to do and whether it’s good for business directly is secondary. It’s just the right thing to do.”
It’s clear that businesses and the investment community more widely are thinking the same way.
Looking at this quarter's stock price is not necessarily the most important investment ... It’s what’s going to be the most sustainable for your company long term. Global devastation is not good for anybody.
Eric Bailey - Microsoft
Last week, Larry Fink, CEO of investment manager BlackRock, in a letter to CEOs announced initiatives putting “sustainability at the center of its investment approach.”
“Corporates are now seeing that this is not an optional thing. It’s not about the best short-term financial investment; investors need to be looking at it from the long-term perspective and overall benefit.
“Looking at this quarter's stock price is not necessarily the most important investment or what you’re going to make this month or this quarter.
“It’s what’s going to be the most sustainable for your company long-term. Global devastation is not good for anybody.”
Time will tell how and when many of the headline-grabbing statements will translate into action.
In the corporate travel space, meanwhile, a raft of new initiatives are being launched to help corporates, travel management companies and travelers be aware of and reduce their emissions.
In December, Advito, a consultancy for travel management companies and part of BCD Travel, unveiled its Sustainable Collaboration service.
The initiative offers help to businesses with setting up offsetting programs, reducing demand of lower-value travel and measuring travel’s environmental impact via “sophisticated methods.”
Explaining the move, Lesley O’Bryan, senior vice president of Advito, says:
“Travel managers are coming under pressure from both sides. Travelers are becoming more conscious of the environmental footprint of their travel and want their programs to take action, and executives are issuing top-down directives for every part of the business to meet sustainability goals. With the news around climate change getting more dire every day – we think that this time the trend is here to stay.”
According to O’Bryan, feedback since unveiling the service has been positive and travel managers “want guidance on how to create a sustainable program.”
Egencia, meanwhile, has launched a carbon emissions dashboard enabling customers to see their footprint relating to air and hotel bookings.
There’s a general feeling in the industry this time that action on climate change is urgent and it is not something that is going to go away.
Pat McDonagh, chief executive of travel managing company Clarity, says:
“Clearly it has moved up the political agenda over the last 12 months. The lively impact is that more and more corporates will further question the need to travel, the mode of travel and the supplier of that travel so there is a potential challenge to demand.”
CACTUS plans to hold its second summit at LinkedIn’s London offices in February, giving delegates the chance to join virtually as well as in person.
"It's refreshing to see the amount of work that is happening, but there is still a disconnect between good work going on and the people who might need or want to know about it.
"Increasingly, people are going to be more outspoken about offsetting and more prepared to say that it has to be a last resort, we have to reduce emissions or meet differently.
"There is still a huge amount of work to be done, but it is changing and I don't think the focus on the climate emergency will go away. There has to be a focus on meaningful dialogue. If we can always bring it back to science-based conversations, you get the attention of people but there is still a lot of greenwashing going on."