a person in a pool on a cliff overlooking the ocean

There’s a scramble going on in the travel industry, and for a change, one almost entirely unrelated to covid-19.

As climate summits mount and sustainability continues to grow as a buzz word among eco-conscious people, the travel industry is rapidly trying to prove that it’s part of the solution, not the problem.

That’s mostly good, wonderful in fact, but many of the proposals being hatched aren’t all that customer friendly, and some even appear to be blatant cash grabs, which may not help fuel any sustainability at all.

a city with a ferris wheel and a river

Travel Sustainability: Green Or Gold?

When you don’t check a heavy bag, a plane takes off lighter and that means if a few people do the same too, the plane burns less fuel.

That’s “better” for the environment than a plane burning more fuel, kind of, but the largest beneficiary is the airline, which gets to save on its fuel bill per flight. Every effort to remove weight from a plane is huge buzz in airline world and fuel is weight.

When a hotel doesn’t need to wash the sheets or replace the towels every day because of new “eco friendly” housekeeping policies that don’t include daily room cleaning, the environment wins as less water is wasted and fewer cleaning products are used. Yep.

But, it’s really the hotel saving massively on cleaning staff costs, with reduced service for guests that seems to win the most here. And of course, the hotel experience for you, or me, isn’t quite the same without the lovely refresh of the room.

Do we need to change our ways, or should we push back on once accepted standards which have been changed in the name of sustainability, but may be more about other more financially motivated causes.

Some would say any situation where and ‘end justifies a means’ for a greater good, is good, but the boldest moves in the travel “sustainability” have centered around things which benefit the financial position of the travel company, equally, if not more than the environment.

There’s nothing wrong with both, it’s good in fact, as long as it’s not at the expense of customer experience.

Green Is Gold

Turning “green” things into gold isn’t new. Household cleaning products claiming to be more sustainable or better for the environment have long been marketed with great financial success, whether the environmental claims check out, or not.

Travel brands equally love to slap a “certified rockstar eco-friendly property” sticker on their brochures, but those certifications are often “pay for play”, as long as there’s a little sustainability thrown in.

Hotels, even including some from major chains, are now adding “sustainability fees” to hotel prices, without any transparency of where that money goes, and whether by the word “sustainability” they really just mean their own financial…. sustainability.

It’s not like you get to choose which tree planting project you want to support.

And of course, they could just take the profits they already make from your rate and invest in sustainability, rather than reaching further into customers pockets with resort fees, sustainability fees and a smorgas of undisclosed extras.

The issue is that many travel businesses are more focused on green washing, or cash rinsing, than actual sustainability. When it’s financially beneficial, every business loves sustainability, but few are harnessing actually sustainable practices.

a red eye mask and a brown bag with a red object on a red background
Virgin’s amenity kits are made from recycled products and feature reusable items.

Making Sustainable Choices Without Greed

Efforts to become more sustainable are admirable, but there’s growing fear that many travel brands will use “sustainability” as a cloak of invisibility to hide behind, as service standards are lowered.

Airlines, for example, have been quick to champion aluminums cans or bottles as new sustainability measures as they switch wine and beverage providers, but they’ve done so hoping to draw very little attention to the reduced cost basis — aka cheaper wine — that’s generally in the new aluminum cans.

Aluminum can be good, but filling it with cheaper wine is just profiteering off of the “green” wave, even if it’s doing marginal good.

It begs the question: what was wrong with the lovely bottles from fantastic vineyards? Glass bottles score very favorably in sustainability scores, not quite as high as the full lifecycle savings of aluminum, but very-very highly.

So, is it about sustainability, or saving on wine costs, under the guise of sustainability? Surely you could just put the same great wine, or even nicer wine in the aluminum. It’s not a snobby “screw top” issue, it’s a hoodwink by replacing nice wine with cheap wine issue.

Let’s See Actual Sustainability

New planes cost serious money, but they offer far more fuel efficient engines which save on fuel bills and make each flight more eco-friendly. Good for business, yes, but they also deliver a better cabin experience for all guests, so it’s a win-win.

More this, please.

If companies want to talk about sustainability, it shouldn’t just be when they want to save money.

It should be about empowering customers to make their own choices, such as whether they’d like daily housekeeping, or if they are happy not to have any single use toiletries provided, rather than the decision being made for them.

If brands do want to make a decision for their customers, it should be by offering new best in class technologies which don’t compromise in any way, and are actually a sales point.

I love seeing hotels using solar panels to fuel charging ports for electric vehicles and harnessing grey water and other run off to water plants and all that jazz. It’s good for everyone and every bit as premium as the experience before.

There’s plenty of room for sustainability in travel and it should be a key feature, such as reducing plastic and food waste from flights, or finding ways to make hotels just as enjoyable, while using less water, fewer single use items and better building designs.

Incentives should definitely be offered to make sustainable choices, rather than just taking things away, and that’s where points come in.

Loyalty programs are actually a great opportunity to achieve real and meaningful sustainability. Allowing members to use miles for offsets, or to support causes that are impactful to them by converting points into charitable donations and other means are both effective and powerful.

Without spending money at all, so is championing eco causes to members, to raise awareness for vital topics in sustainability and in destinations.

People tend to care more about sustainability when they see the impact of what a “lack of” sustainability has done to their favorite beaches.

There’s plenty of vital ground to gain in travel sustainability, but the greatest ground will only come when businesses make investments in the best current and future technologies, and stop just trying to take things away under the guise of “sustainability”.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Climate change, global warming, etc. will go down in history as the biggest con the world has ever experienced. Even if you could prove that the climate is greatly impacted by humans most of what they come up with is either a cash grab or virtue signally to make certain demographic groups smug or absolved of sins of their own carbon footprint. It’s ridiculous. These same experts can’t even accurately predict the weather a month from now. Do I believe we should not pollute the planet and make it a better place to live? Sure. But it’s not going to explode in a ball of fire because you bought an F350 instead of a Tesla. I’m sure I’ll get trashed in these comments but people need to open their eyes and see that the Emperor’s clothes are invisible and that Chicken Little isn’t your friend.

  2. You won’t get trashed by me. Absolutely agree. As the Green Blob zealotry is seemingly unstoppable I decided to make a little money from it and bought some copper and lithium.

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