Plotting a course for sustainable business travel

Covid-19 and COP26 are changing how and where we work. How can business leaders develop travel policies that are environmentally sustainable?


Sustainable business travel

The Omicron variant of Covid-19 has thrown business travel plans back into disarray, just as international work trips had returned for many. For leadership teams, it’s highlighted deeper questions on the true benefits of all those air miles. 

With the recent reopening of air routes and the introduction of vaccine passports, many of us were getting back to some sort of pre-Covid normality. However, the global movement of employees looks set to be impacted once again by border closures and quarantines. 

Before the pandemic, meetings, conferences and trade shows in another country or convening in-person to sign deals was the norm. But after nearly two years of restrictions, many companies wonder if such travel is beneficial, both environmentally and economically. 

The adoption of more sustainable business travel policies is instead being considered, influenced by COP26 and changing attitudes to sustainability and carbon reduction, particularly among younger staff members.

Business benefits

Intralink is a British consultancy that helps western firms expand into Asia. In 2019 its business model revolved heavily around employees and clients taking flights. However, when it examined changes to its own carbon footprint – and that of clients – enforced by the pandemic, it found the huge carbon savings it achieved made no detrimental impact on the number of deals done. 

In fact, they went up, rising from 75 in 2019 to 166 over the past 12 months, with the Oxfordshire-based company instead organising virtual roadshows and trade missions, plus using in-country surrogates to represent clients at Asia-based events. 

Relatively small changes can make a big difference and reducing business travel is a step in the right direction

As well as the positive environmental impacts, there have been business benefits elsewhere, through lower costs, less jet lag and staff having more time at home with their families, says CEO Greg Sutch. “You might expect us to be balancing these huge environmental benefits against a marked downturn in business, but that’s not the case. This is down to increased efficiencies and the way the pandemic spurred Asian companies to embrace virtual communication.”

Intralink will resume some business travel in future, he adds, but more selectively “now we know what we can achieve without it. I sincerely hope other companies do the same, for the good of our planet, as well as the bottom line.”

A must-have policy

Research by Trainline Partner Solutions suggests a growing appetite for change. It found 75% of business travellers want to reduce their reliance on flying for work because of its environmental impact, while two thirds expect their employer to make sustainable travel options available.

Additionally, 53% felt businesses were irresponsible before the pandemic based on their levels of unnecessary business travel, with seven in 10 saying those businesses not offering sustainable business travel set a bad example for future generations. Worryingly for business leaders, one in five of those aged 16 to 24 said they’d consider leaving an existing employer because of their business travel policy.

As co-founder of climate action platform Ecologi, Elliot Coad has seen his business grow by 650% in the past nine months, thanks to a greater desire for individuals and businesses to be climate positive. He believes recent limitations on business travel have prompted boardrooms to consider new approaches based on necessity, rather than “convenience and extravagance”. Such limitations should be maintained if businesses want to be more environmentally responsible, he says. 

“Cutting out unnecessary short-haul and internal flights and encouraging employees to use more efficient forms of transport instead,” is one way forward Coad says. When combined with guidance on accessing the best virtual collaboration tools to minimise the need for face-to-face meetings, this “can help reduce carbon emissions in line with what is needed to reach global net-zero targets”.

Innovative approaches

Business travel and commuting is included within the Scope 3 definition of carbon emissions, meaning those that come from a company’s supply chain and customers. Experts suggest a new sustainable outlook should include everything from hiring electric vehicles when abroad to ‘workcations’ that roll in leisure and holiday time. Embracing technology of the future like virtual reality goggles is also an option, with slower travel by train and sea other considerations.

Florian Hübner is co-founder and CEO of customer experience technology company Uberall. He believes employee travel must now be considered by boardrooms thinking about corporate sustainability. For example, Uberall no longer requires every new hire to visit its Berlin headquarters for an initial induction.

“We’ve significantly decreased the amount of business travel we do, converting in-person new employee inductions and customer meetings into remote ones,” he says. “We’ve even transformed our annual summer party into a 24-hour World Tour, where we book venues in each city so that almost no-one needs to fly.”

With seven offices worldwide and hundreds of employees, Hübner says these adjustments make a notable difference to the company’s carbon footprint. “Relatively small changes can make a big difference and reducing business travel is a step in the right direction,” he adds.

Those servicing the business travel industry are also looking at more sustainable ways of working. Green Tourism, which promotes sustainable tourism across the globe, has now introduced a Green Meetings standard for hotels, conference centres and other venues so they can demonstrate their performance against sustainability metrics. 

Business accommodation specialist AltoVita, meanwhile, is developing a platform feature that shows which hospitality operators have implemented sustainability practices and/or have sustainability certifications so companies can choose accommodations that fit their values. CEO Vivi Cahyadi Himmel expects to see fewer but more important business trips overall, some lasting longer than usual so people can do more with more time, while reducing the need for multiple trips and multiple flights back and forth.

Adam Kerr, founder of business travel platform Tripism, believes companies must look beyond “token gestures” to create sustainable business travel policies centred around changing employee attitudes. Providing travel teams with a baseline of data showing the impacts made by what they book can create an “increased understanding” to support sustainable choices.

“Through collaborative effort, the ‘end users’ of business travel can demand more sustainable options and push for the corporate travel industry to become greener as a whole.”