Where Sustainability in Travel Policies Fails: The Lack of Clarity

Here comes a touchy subject.

Sustainability has become an increasingly important topic in today’s world, touching virtually every aspect of our lives, including travel. Businesses and organizations worldwide are striving to incorporate sustainability into their operations, and this extends to travel policies. While the intention to promote eco-friendly travel is commendable, the lack of clarity in these policies can often lead to confused travelers and unimpactful outcomes; I’ve seen it more than once.

What does “sustainable” mean?

The term “sustainable travel” can be open to interpretation, and different people may have varying ideas of what it means. The language I’ve seen in various policies asks employees “to make sustainable choices”. Is an Uber sustainable? A bus? Making sure you throw your paper in the recycling bin is one thing, but how does that carry over to the choices travelers make while booking. Travelers want guidance, clear as day.

Choose an Uber rather than renting a car.

Take the train rather than flying.

Choose electric cars where available.

These are all examples of concise, but clear rules that travelers can lean on when making choices. Leaving it to travel bookers to take a guess at what the “most sustainable” choice is makes it both unfair and ineffective. As leaders and policy writers, it’s our jobs to guide our people and give them the knowledge they need to make the right choices.

Flights are even more complicated. Is 100 kg of carbon emissions a lot? A little? Fair for that origin-destination? It’s a unit most people aren’t very familiar with, and pitting against cost takes things to another level of scrambled.

Dollars versus Carbon Emissions

This is the big one. If we’re all being honest, we all want to be sustainable – until it hits the bottom line too hard. As program managers and advisors, we’re constantly keeping an eye out for travel overspend. But now, all of a sudden, travelers are told to book sustainably.

Okay, but at what cost?

What’s that extra sustainability worth – $50? $150? What about $350, are we willing to be sustainable then?

Policies tend to tell travelers to be cost effective and sustainable these days. Unfortunately, the reality is that these two are rarely in sync. Sustainability costs, and until travelers know that their organizations back them spending extra dollars for a more environmentally friendly option, I think they’ll be avoiding the cost first. It’s what we’re used to.

Even then, we’re pitting two different units of measurement against one another. What exactly is the dollar to kilogram ratio I’m looking for when trying to make the right choice? They have nothing to do with each other.

The Carrot & The Stick

In many cases, sustainability in travel policies lacks both incentives and consequences. We all know if someone books a 40-minute, $1,800 flight, they’ll probably hear from their travel program owners. But is there even a consequence for choosing a flight that pollutes heavily. Heck, are we even measuring? When you’re asking people to follow guidelines or rules, it’s no different whether it’s cost, timeliness, or sustainability. Good performance needs incentive, and poor performance needs consequence. Throwing some words in a policy and never measuring them isn’t very effective. As one of my mentors once told me, “what isn’t measured fails.”

In the End

Sustainability in travel policies can be a powerful tool for promoting eco-friendly practices, reducing environmental impact, and supporting corporate social responsibility. However, without clear objectives, definitions, incentives, consequences, guidance, and measurement tools, these policies often fall short of achieving their intended goals. The lack of clarity surrounding sustainability in travel policies not only hinders their effectiveness but can also create confusion and skepticism among employees.

To make sustainability in travel policies work, organizations must focus on creating transparent, well-defined, and practical guidelines that empower employees to make informed decisions and contribute to the broader goal of reducing the environmental footprint of business travel. Only with a clear and cohesive approach can sustainability truly become a driving force in corporate travel policies.

Stay tuned, there’ll probably be a part two to this: I’ve got some suggestions that could make things a lot easier, clearer, and take travel programs’ impact on the globe in the right direction.

Jake Jonassohn Head of Commercial Strategy

I help organizations and their travelers get where they need to go –
safely, sustainably and efficiently.

My background in finance and private equity has helped me save businesses money by optimizing their travel programs to get the most miles out of each dollar.