How can travel get the sustainability message right?

Following events like COP26, sustainability is a red-hot topic that can be difficult for travel companies to broach. As customers demand more sustainable options in every area of their lives, there’s an opportunity for all travel companies to capture a planet-conscious audience who don’t have the budget for eco-luxe. But it can feel like walking a tightrope, with accusations of greenwashing or not doing enough lurking if you slip up. Here’s how to get it right.

Bike in road

Growing customer appetite

Lots of people want to make more planet-conscious choices. Actions like taking reusable bags to the supermarket, choosing less single-use plastic and eating less meat have become second nature to many.

Jetting off and leaving all of these positive habits behind isn’t something people want to do. According to a National Geographic survey, 82% of adults would like to “take their everyday sustainable habits with them when they travel”. 70% of travellers would also be more likely to book accommodation if they knew it was eco-friendly.
CNBC Travel also reports that 72% of people believe travel should “support local communities and economies, preserve destinations’ cultural heritage and protect the planet”. But there’s a significant caveat: how easy it is to make these choices, and how accessible they are, have a big impact on whether customers translate their intentions into action.

48% of people would only make sustainable travel choices if it didn’t inconvenience them. And just 4% of travellers say sustainability and carbon footprint is their main consideration when booking a break, compared to 62% who cited cost as their number one.

This presents an opportunity for affordable travel companies. If they get it right, they could capture customers that want to be as climate-conscious as possible with their limited budgets. But why should companies even be making the effort?

“Sustainability isn’t simple. It can’t be boiled down. It isn’t a quick win.”
• National Geographic

Being part of the action

As time goes by, sustainability is becoming more than just the right thing to do. Some of travel’s biggest bodies are making a vocal commitment to reducing and mitigating the impact of the industry.

ABTA published its Tourism for Good report in 2020, which set out a roadmap for rebuilding the travel industry in a more sustainable way. And this year, it highlighted members who are tangibly acting on it. Royal Caribbean, for example, achieved a 35% reduction in emission from a 2005 baseline a whole year earlier than planned.
While ABTA’s reporting puts much-needed pressure on travel companies to take sustainability seriously, it’s also an example of sustainability messaging done right. By sharing examples and clearly measured results, ABTA and its members’ claims are clearly substantiated.

Choosing the right words

It’s important for companies not to overstate the impact of their sustainability strategy. For example, National Geographic highlights the anti-plastic straws crusade as a bit of an exercise in mass greenwashing. While cutting single-use plastic on such a huge scale was a big win, it doesn’t give companies a free pass to claim they’re now a sustainable business. This is particularly true in travel; switching plastic to paper doesn’t compensate for the environmental impact of jumbo jets.

Instead, it’s vital for companies to put the most impactful actions front and centre. Three of America’s biggest airlines (American, Delta and United) have recently published their carbon neutrality strategies. IHG has committed to getting rid of 200 million single-use mini toiletries across its vast portfolio of properties by the end of the year. And The Travel Corporation (which owns more than 40 brands) is helping travellers assess trips against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through its ‘Make Travel Matter’ initiative.

Even if they’re struggling to make tangible progress, the language companies use can help them enter the sustainability conversation without making false promises or overinflated claims. Rather than pinning their entire sustainability messaging on one initiative or action, this could be an opportunity to reposition how travelling is discussed altogether – and potentially boost profits. Choosing words like slow, conscious and purposeful will make customers stop and think, potentially pushing them towards higher value, bucket-list breaks at the same time.

Jaded regulators

Nailing sustainability messaging is not just about showing your customers you’re genuine. Making disingenuous claims about how ‘green’ your business is could actually land you in trouble. In September, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) released its Green Claims Code and says it will crack down on any businesses making claims that can’t be substantiated.

The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) is also going to be looking closely at climate-related claims and taking action against anyone attempting to ‘greenwash’ their business. So if you’re not sure how to get it right, it’s best to leave it to the experts. After all, getting in trouble for making unsubstantiated green claims looks a lot worse than staying quiet until you’ve formulated a thoughtful communications plan.