Why Should Travel and Tourism Businesses Embrace Sustainability?

20 February 2023

Part 1: Embracing the sustainability challenge in 2023

Thoughts by our CEO, Anthony Rawlins

There’s no denying that moving tens of millions of people from one place to another generates a lot of carbon. In fact, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) estimates domestic and international tourism accounts for 8-11% of all global greenhouse emissions, with 17% of those coming from aviation alone.

That’s not the whole picture, though. Tourism often puts pressure on already stretched local resources, and research shows that tourists use over eight times more water compared to local populations, as well as consume more energy and create more waste – much of which goes direct to landfill.

And it’s scary statistics like these that I think will lead to a backlash by consumers, the media, and Governments who, under pressure to meet net-zero targets, will be keen to be seen to act on travel and tourism’s lack of focus on sustainable practices.

At the moment, tourist boards, DMOs, and tour operators don’t typically talk much about sustainability in their comms (more on that later). And on holiday, we tend to forget about things like recycling and energy consumption and we’re unlikely to know much about the pressures on local resources. 

Photo by Pietro De Grandi

Hero or villain?

This lack of awareness of, or indeed attention on, sustainability does worry me. Not just because of the environmental damage, but also because if our industry doesn’t start addressing it directly and quickly, we’re going to be characterised as “the villain” of the story, not the “hero”. And if we’re not careful, we’ll soon find ourselves in the sustainability cross-hairs – whether from the Government, the media, campaign groups, or consumers. Is pushing Hen-dos to Berlin good for the environment, for example? Or that four-day romantic getaway to Budapest? And once the narrative that “travel and tourism is bad for the planet” gains a foothold, it’ll be much harder to change people’s perceptions to the contrary. 

In this respect, I think travel and tourism can learn a lot from other industries that have faced similar accusations. In particular fashion, which has a similar carbon footprint to travel and tourism and a very mixed reputation when it comes to ethics and sustainability. Black Friday last year was interesting for the number of retail brands choosing to boycott the whole uber-deal/discount/sale-fest. While not taking an overtly anti-capitalist stance, many fashion brands have highlighted their industry’s negative environmental impact and, at the same time, underlined their own ethical and sustainable credentials. And for many people (me included), it’s a powerful message.

Take men’s fashion label L’Estrange, for example. It talks about ‘degrowth’ and getting rid of disposable fashion altogether by producing fewer but longer-lasting items, using sustainable materials, and transparent supply chains. But it also walks the talk through its Re_work programme that repairs, cleans, reprices and resells items returned due to small imperfections. It’s even developed a clever Re_Fresh washing tablet that rejuvenates the colour of old garments to look like new.

Photo by Chandra Oh

Making sustainability a must-have

During a pre-Christmas shopping trip to replace my 13-year-old hiking boots and jacket, I’d say one in three outdoor clothing brands pushed their ethical, environmental and sustainability credentials strongly. And none were prohibitively expensive either, which suggests they’re absorbing the higher costs associated with sustainably produced clothing.

This begs two questions: first, why aren’t travel and tourism brands building in the costs of providing their products and services in an ethical, environmentally friendly, and sustainable way? And secondly, why isn’t industry doing more to become more sustainable and, at the same time, highlight its credentials in this area? 

I think there are three key reasons… 

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We’re still in survival mode 

Few, if any, global industries were hit as hard by the pandemic as travel and tourism. Overnight, everything was forced to shut indefinitely during the course of multiple nationwide and international lockdowns. As a result, our industry’s financial recovery has eschewed investment for cost-cutting, sadly epitomised by reducing staff. This has led to an inevitable dip in the quality of service – both from a customer and material point of view. And now we have the added double-whammy of an imminent recession and cost-of-living crisis to contend with.

Photo by Ian Schneider

We’re putting the onus on consumers 

As an industry, we’re typically asking travellers and holidaymakers to bear the cost of making ethical and sustainable decisions – for example, giving them the choice to pay a bit more to offset carbon emissions when they book a flight, or to reuse towels when staying in a hotel.

Based on reliable data from one of our travel clients, between 15% and 20% of their customers offset their journeys, but they expect this to, at least, halve over the next 12-18 months as the cost-of-living crisis bites and people try and save money wherever they possibly can. ‘Doing the right thing’ has become a luxury most consumers can neither justify nor afford.

Of course, this kind of carbon-offsetting has a minimal effect on overall emissions, but is there scope, as the fashion industry has shown, to take more ownership over sustainability as ‘essential’ rather than ‘optional’?

Photo by Ibrahim Rifath

We’re not walking the talk

As someone who travels a lot with work, I’m shocked at how much single-use plastic I still see – whether it’s plastic straws, bottles, cups and wrappers, or gift shops full of plastic tat. So it was great to see that some of it will be banned from October 2023. And there does seem to be much less paper bumpf in hotel rooms than there used to be pre-pandemic.

Most tourist boards I speak to are acutely aware they need to address sustainability. In fact, we strongly recommend to those we work with – including Japan, Catalunya, and Aruba – to push their credentials as sustainable destinations.

But, ultimately, it’s down to individual providers in those destinations to walk the talk. And when money’s tight, survivability not sustainability becomes the priority. The problem with that though is that the climate emergency will not wait. It’s existential and we all have to play our part or, put simply, we won’t have a travel and tourism industry as we know it in 50 or 100 years.

Next time...

In part 2, I’ll explore what industry, collectively, and travel and tourism businesses, individually, can do to raise the sustainability bar. 

Do as many of the above as you can and I promise you’ll see positive results. And if you need a friendly, experienced hand to help you along your journey, well, get in touch


Anthony Rawlins, Navigate CEO

I’ve spent the last 18 years honing my marketing and strategic skills in the travel, tourism and experience sectors. As an entrepreneur, I’ve also created several other companies to make the most of opportunities I see in our industry and the wider world of business.