Mystery Buyer: green ambitions

We travel buyers can only do so much – then sustainability has to be down to suppliers…

Some years ago, my TMC account manager tried to sell me a new tool which, she promised, would enable me to keep tabs on our travellers’ carbon emissions. To be honest, I wasn’t that interested – most of our travel was domestic and by train, so I reckoned we were about as ‘green’ as we could get.

Then I changed jobs and inherited – among other things – a new TMC and a new emissions monitoring ‘solution’ that tells me how much damage I’m doing to the global environment. I’ve only been in post for five or six years, and frankly I’ve lost count of the impacts my travellers have – it seems that every time we approve a booking, somewhere a dolphin dies.

Duty-of-care is uppermost on most travel managers’ agenda. We have to ensure – quite rightly – that our travellers are safe and secure wherever they go. Do dolphins (or red squirrels, dung beetles, or fruit bats – pick your own endangered species) come into the equation? The answer, surely, is: probably not.

I’ve done all I can to improve my company’s eco-friendliness. Partly, that’s because we need to be seen as a caring organisation. Partly, it’s because I personally believe I have a responsibility to make even a small difference. Partly, it’s because there is usually a cost saving involved.

Balancing act
I’ve introduced a number of changes to company travel policy. Train is always preferable to air (although, being based in the north, Eurostar isn’t really an option). I constantly question whether a trip is really necessary, although I’m usually told that a simple phone call won’t do. I advocate the use of public transport wherever possible, not least to save on outrageous parking charges. In short, I try to balance my company’s needs (as opposed to ‘wants’) with our sustainability ambitions.

But there comes a point when we, as travel managers, can do no more. Yes, I can insist that the train is a greener, more cost-effective mode of transport for an Edinburgh-London trip, but that doesn’t work for Dubai or Singapore. Our preferred hotels are chosen on the basis of cost and convenience, not on whether they use energy-saving light bulbs.

It’s reached the point where it is down to our suppliers to get their act together, and in my view, they’re showing precious little sign of doing so.

Most hotel groups have adopted the ‘towels in the bath’ mantra, so if you want newly laundered towels every day (and, let’s be honest, who does this at home?), you know where to dump them. But, meanwhile, extra key cards keep the lights and TV on in empty rooms, unfathomable air-con systems blast out icy air so you open a window to warm up… I could go on.

The real culprits, however, are airports and airlines. Airports should do much more to provide express shuttle services from their nearest railway stations, rather than building ever larger multi-storey car parks.

Apathetic airlines
Although the airlines argue that commercial aviation has only a tiny impact on global warming (and pollution in general), they are the ones that really could get their act together, if only for their own reputations. Do they work with each other?

Every week, it seems, we read of some carrier that has successfully flown from A to B using cooking oil or some sort of plant derivative, but then we are told that either it’s too expensive or that it can’t be produced on a commercial scale. Then it all goes quiet until the next trial flight is completed, with the same old excuses.

There doesn’t appear to be any common purpose. Individual airlines are mostly working with relatively small research companies to develop alternative fuels that subsequently turn out to be impractical. Why don’t they pool their resources and come up with something that works – and saves money – for all?

I’m still keeping track of my company’s travel emissions as part of our wider corporate programme to improve our environmental performance, and I think we’re doing pretty well. What I can’t see is how we are going to do better unless the supply-side makes a far greater effort.

We all want to be ‘greener’, but we seem to have reached a point where a much greater degree of co-operation is required. Tracking carbon emissions isn’t the same as cutting them.

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