Sustainable post-COVID business travel requires corporate action

by John Stapel

When we talk about why the transportation sector generates such a prominent share of greenhouse gas emissions, we tend to point to its most conspicuous villains: private jets; Big Oil; gridlock. To combat climate change, we encourage consumers to carpool and urge our legislators to invest in clean energy. These are commendable efforts, to be clear. But the discussion often leaves one of the biggest climate actors on the table.

Employee travel is one of the business world’s greatest contributors to carbon emissions. That’s due to a few factors. One, because of the prevalence of business travel by air and car, especially in countries where rail travel isn’t an option. Two, because of the CO2 footprint of first-class seats (about four times as much as economy). Three, because of the sheer number of flights taken by employees compared to your average vacationer. For example, in 2019 one global software company racked up 146,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions — akin to the amount produced by 17,500 U.S. homes over the course of a year.

When the pandemic postponed commuting and travel, total global carbon emissions dropped 7 percent. Of course, it’s easy to reduce your footprint when there’s no reason to leave the home office. Now, with all the buzz around the reopening of travel corridors and returning to the office, the question becomes: What sustainability lessons from the global shutdown will companies take with them?

About half of companies expect to focus more on the social and environmental impact of business travel post-pandemic.

A report conducted by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) found that companies say that they want to make their travel programs more sustainable post-pandemic. Over the last year and a half, they’ve been under increasing pressure from investors to report on environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics, and from consumers wanting to use more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.

However, the report also shows that most companies aren’t taking any real action to make their travel programs any greener.

Business travel 2.0 misses an opportunity

According to GBTA research on travel managers in the U.S. and Canada, about half of companies expect to focus more on the social and environmental impact of their business travel programs post-pandemic.

Almost half of companies said there will be more focus on the social and environmental impact of their post-pandemic business travel programs. (Emburse)

Even so, only one in four organizations consider their "carbon footprint" to be a top priority. It pales in comparison to other return-to-travel concerns, such as cost control and duty of care.

Only 25 percent of companies put social or environmental impact in their top 3 priorities. (Emburse)

On top of — and perhaps because of — these competing priorities, companies struggle to implement meaningful sustainability initiatives. While six out of 10 companies have a sustainability policy, only three out of 10 have a policy that includes business travel.

Only a third of companies have a sustainability program that includes business travel. (Emburse)

The rare programs that do exist really only go as far as to measure the carbon footprint of travel (the most popular effort, included in 58 percent of policies). Less than a quarter of companies have rolled out any other initiative, including behavior-based change. For example, 19 percent mandate or encourage sustainable transportation or accommodation options, and a mere 7 percent incentivize employees to choose these options.

Actual measures taken by sustainable travel programs are limited, focused mainly on measuring carbon footprint. (Emburse)

Few companies (22 percent) take a vendor’s sustainability posture into consideration when making purchase decisions. Even if they did, it would be unlikely to influence them. The vast majority of organizations — 85 percent — are unwilling to pay more to work with a sustainable vendor, and just 2 percent are willing to pay more than a 10 percent price premium for more sustainable travel options.

Companies are only willing to pay the same or less for sustainable vendors. (Emburse)

Corporate programs at a crossroads

One of the most striking takeaways from this research is the balance of antithetical priorities. Today’s organizations want to reduce their environmental impact. Yet they’re unwilling to invest in partnerships with greener travel providers. They have sustainability policies, but they don’t focus on the kind of company-wide behavioral changes that would have a real impact. They’re worried about cost control, yet seem to overlook the rising price of carbon, both in terms of oil prices and carbon offsets.

This contradiction arises because companies have viewed environmental factors as a separate box they can tick once they’ve hit other corporate targets. The more sustainability is compartmentalized, the easier it is to push these efforts until next quarter — or indefinitely.

Perhaps the simplest conclusion I can draw is that for many companies, sustainability programs just feel too hard to implement. Too expensive. Too involving. With too many competing factors.

Sustainability is a commitment, to be sure, but it’s not as time or cost prohibitive as it used to be. Every organization, large and small, can introduce behavioral measures that make climate action a part of their culture. For instance, you can give your employees individual or team "carbon" budgets, pointing them to carbon-neutral transportation options once they’ve used up their allowance. You might set a rule that no one jumps on a plane for a single meeting — that kind of initiative costs zero dollars to implement, and will likely end up saving a lot of travel time and money. If you do have room in your budget, consider shifting a portion of your travel spend to green businesses and incentivizing employees to patronize sustainable vendors.

Once you’ve successfully transformed sustainable behavior into habit, then you can begin to evolve your program into a formal policy with more advanced initiatives — such as using carbon analysis to make more strategic travel decisions.

As business trips return, we have the opportunity to be more intentional about how and why we travel. Now is the perfect moment to reassess our travel programs for environmental impact. When the economy reopens fully, many companies will want to underline their commitment to customers with face-to-face time, and employees will be hungry to see their favorite co-workers. There’s no question that in-person meetings remain critical to company culture and the nature of good business. The question is whether we will decide to re-enter the world in a more responsible way.

On the road again

A single company deciding to launch a sustainable business travel program won’t solve climate change. Neither will the occasional executive who switches to flying economy. But both examples would mark progress.

For the corporate world, "doing our part" to combat climate change will require a culture shift. To truly begin mitigating our carbon footprint on the transportation sector, sustainable behavior needs to be widely adopted among organizations and deeply integrated into the way we work and travel. At this moment in history, with business travel at a global reset point, we have a tremendous opportunity to pave the road ahead.