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A view from afar: Honesty around sustainability

by Nick Pulley

One of the things I enjoy about writing View From Afar is that it provides me with the opportunity to give my personal perspective alongside that of Selective Asia. After all these years, the two are, as you can imagine, pretty intertwined, but my opinions can be somewhat more forthright! 

In this month’s View from Afar, I’m sharing my concerns about an unsettling trend of complacency around sustainability and environmental impact, and my thoughts on what needs to happen to drive genuinely positive change within the travel industry.

The drive to travel

The urge to see different places and to connect with people and cultures has been in our bones since the beginning of human history and it’s not going to go away, but modern tourism contributes 8% of the world's carbon. If we are really going to build back better this has to mean streamlining, reduction, and an acceptance of the part we play in the bigger picture. 

Sustainability is at a very dangerous moment. Although people are scared about the consequences of climate change, only 10% of consumers are led by the sustainable merits of a travel business. It's important we recognise why. Travel provides aspiration, escapism and relief; a break from our daily lives and a chance to reset. Many holiday-makers want to put their worries aside for a while, including anxieties around climate change, so sustainability isn’t a travel planning priority. It’s a contradiction that is understandable but frustrating. 

It therefore falls to providers to find ways to make travel better, and there are no easy answers. 

A crucial time

The current urgency around sustainability is heartening, but the reality of the response is not - the sound of bandwagon leaping is deafening. Companies in all sectors are rushing to shore up their environmentally and socially responsible credentials, neatly rewording their branding to fall in line. However, so many of these promises are paper thin, pointing to an unspecified and misty future and casting no light on what they are, or aren’t, doing now. Often they are downright pie in the sky. It’s pretty cynical and makes many people - including me - very angry.

Putting flimsy pledges at the forefront of a brand preys on consumers’ overstretched time and concentration in the hope that the messages will be absorbed without question. However, under scrutiny the veneer falls away, the pledges are revealed as unrealistic, and trust in that company is damaged. This lack of integrity increases doubt around the entire concept. Ironically, the act of putting a focus on sustainability, but without the actions to back it up, actually makes the situation worse. In the travel industry, which faces some tough sustainability hurdles, it feels particularly harmful. 

Honesty and transparency

So how does the industry move forwards? Only a tiny proportion of modern travel could ever be considered ‘good’ for the environment (walking through the countryside reseeding wild forests, perhaps?), and flying is often an inescapable element, but there is plenty we can do to lighten our footstep.

Honesty and accuracy is crucial. Developing robust sustainability policies and sticking to them is essential, as is being open about what each business can achieve without overpromising. As an industry, we can at least ensure carbon emissions are reduced by streamlining flights and promoting quality trips over quantity, whilst simultaneously prioritising the huge social, conservation and community benefits that good travel can bring.

 We need to know the data in detail, set ourselves challenging but realistic goals, and (perhaps most urgently) hold each other to account. At Selective Asia, we’ve taken our first steps, including gaining B-Corp accreditation, but we know this is just the beginning of our journey, as our transparency page makes plain.

Inspiring innovation 

There’s a wave of genuine sustainability innovation being championed by small and medium-sized travel companies from leaps forward in carbon mitigation to channelling more income directly to local communities. SME travel businesses are driving actionable change, and some of the industry's big hitters could do with taking notes. My intention is not to point fingers, but we are at a phase where something bold needs to be done. 

The market is not yet led by sustainability, but providers need to build it into business structures now. The continued viability of travel depends on taking achievable sustainability seriously and following through on our commitments. At the end of the day, we need to keep pushing this forward because it's the right thing to do. We must reduce the negative impact we are having on the planet.


by Nick Pulley on 29th September 2022

Blog > Asia > A view from afar: Honesty around sustainability