Can Brands Bring Real Sustainability to the Travel Industry?

An ecological economist says it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game

Cruise ship at sunset in Greece
What does “sustainability” mean when it comes to the travel industry? Getty Images

When Virgin Voyage’s first ship, The Scarlet Lady, sets sail next spring, it will be without any single-use plastics onboard. That includes water bottles, straws and to-go coffee cups.

On the Virgin Voyage site, “sustainability” is given its own page, saying the company aims “to minimize environmental impacts, establish responsible supply chains, promote thriving local economies and play a leading role in protecting and restoring the ocean’s health.”

Delta Airlines also has a page dedicated to sustainability. As does JetBlue.

The tourism industry is responsible for about 8% of the global greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Transportation, including cruise ships and airlines, contributes a great deal to this.

Although Virgin has incorporated and invested in clean energy technology, is that enough to overcome the simple fact that it’s still a cruise ship? What does “sustainability” even mean?

Adweek spoke to Robert Richardson, an ecological economist and professor at Michigan State University who studies the economic impacts of climate change. Richardson doesn’t believe that sustainability needs to be a zero-sum game. Instead, he said, the low bar for sustainability in the travel industry might be too low to avoid the elephant in the room.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Adweek: What is your definition of sustainability?
Richardson: The way I use it in class is “non-declining human per capita well-being over time.” In other words, we can be sustained—and we can be sustainable— if the well-being of people, at least, is non-declining. And that sounds like an economics definition, which I suppose it is, but if we can meet our needs and demands and be happy, even while changing some of our behaviors, then that would seem to be sustainable.

What does that have to do with the environment?
Our well-being is derived in part from healthy natural resources and a healthy environment. If we jeopardize our ability to derive well-being by polluting, by overconsuming natural resources, it will be difficult or impossible to sustain well-being, or at least to sustain well-being for most or all people.

What is the corporate definition of sustainability? Is there such a thing as a sustainable cruise ship?
It’s interesting to think about “sustainability” as a noun and “sustainable” as an adjective. If you think about a sustainable cruise ship, that means it’s arrived at a point of sustainability; it’s not negatively impacting the future. I don’t know that any industry can declare itself “sustainable.”

I like “sustainability” because it suggests that there is a process, that you’re ever-improving the sustainability of your philosophies, your practices, your operations and so forth. To say that you’ve arrived—your industry or your business is “sustainable”—is open to all kinds of criticism. So, without getting a little too wonky, I think that distinction is important.

Can the cruise ship industry improve the sustainability of its operations? Sure, and I think corporations in that sector and other travel-related sectors are looking for ways to lower their environmental impact.

I would say that people like me, sustainability scholars, we tend to think about sustainability not just in the environmental context but the way that corporations interact with people and society.

When you think about sustainable travel, we also think about social responsibility, how communities at the destination are impacted by travel and tourism. Are workers paid fairly? Are tourists overwhelming cultural norms and destinations?

But how do corporations frame their sustainability? I think they focus on low-hanging fruit that can be easily understood by the public and get them goodwill among the public.

When they demonstrate that they’ve lowered emissions or that they’re procuring food and beverage from sources that are low-impact and local, those kinds of things are appealing to environmentally conscious travelers, but it’s low-hanging fruit.

You’ve stayed in hotels where they ask you to reuse your towel by hanging it to dry? Frankly, it saves the hotel money from doing laundry. It’s self-serving, but, to the guest, it may be perceived as staying in a hotel that cares about resource use.

Why promote the low-hanging fruit in the first place?
Many industries are doing this because they’re aware that a segment of the population is concerned, if not alarmed, by the environmental impact of our lifestyles. Many companies want to be good citizens, but they also want to appeal to a customer that is concerned about the environment. The ingredients they use, the information provided on labeling—it’s happening across many industries. It’s not entirely self-serving, but it garners a segment of the market where these values do matter.

So, is sustainability a zero-sum game?
No. I think in many ways improving the sustainability process, practices and operations at the corporate level can benefit everybody, both shareholders of the company and society at large.

Do we have a low bar for sustainability in the travel industry?
Yes, it’s a very low bar because of the elephant in the room.

To the extent that the travel industry is relying on nonrenewable resources like petroleum for jet fuel, petroleum for gasoline, it can’t be even close to something you would call sustainable.

Going back to my definition in reflecting on the well-being of future generations, we know that the amounts of petroleum in the ground and coal are limited; we can’t make more. And burning them threatens the viability of future generations, so there’s nothing sustainable about the continued use and other nonrenewable resources for energy.

If the bottom line is profit, how seriously can a company take sustainability?
People in my field talk about this all the time: How hypocritical is it for us to fly around the world going to academic conferences to talk about the science of climate change? In many ways we are contributing to it. Is that the airline’s problem? Or is it the consumer’s problem? I don’t think consumers are going to reject air travel any time soon.

As a consumer, I’d like to see airlines do what they can, but they are limited in their ability to transform their sector, and that goes beyond the low-hanging fruit. So, finding ways to power jets that don’t rely on petroleum, that would be transformational in lowering the industry’s impact.

Publishing a shorter in-flight magazine to save paper or putting an LED overhead light in the passenger seat? Those are all inexpensive. That would save some energy, no doubt, but that’s not where the real impact of airlines is coming from; it’s coming from emissions.

Travel at all is going to have environmental impacts that exacerbate the very things that are changing the climate.

@RyanBarwick Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.