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Sustainability in travel: Recognizing the human factor

Closing the gap between intentions and actions in sustainable travel

September 24, 2023

Many people are looking for more information on travel companies’ sustainability practices. As a traveler, I would like companies to go one step further by making their offerings more transparent, intuitive and easy to access. They can do this by tapping into the substantial, readily available data that indicates travelers are interested in sustainable travel. Yet, while many people say traveling sustainably is important to them, many of those same people do not prioritize sustainable options. Studies on sustainable traveler behavior have identified the “say-do” gap, or the difference between intention and action.

The Consumer Pulse Survey, conducted by Accenture, Accenture’s research has found that when it comes to sustainability, organizations and people often aren’t aligned either. Researchers call this disconnect the “relevancy gap”.1 This is the difference between how organizations assume they should define sustainability, connect with people and stimulate sustainable action, and how people define and connect with sustainability and the factors that stimulate sustainable actions. The gap between these two worlds is so wide that three in five people don’t strongly relate to the idea of living sustainably. Travel companies will have to enable consumers to make changes that align with both their values and life circumstances beyond their wallets.

According to The Human Paradox report from Accenture, consumers are increasingly facing complex choices due to evolving forces ranging from inflation to social movements. And 60% of consumers say their priorities keep changing because of everything going on in the world. Similarly, Accenture’s Sustainability Studio research found that 47% of people surveyed are thinking less about sustainability right now because they’re grappling with inflation and rising prices.

While sustainability is a hot topic for businesses, the human factor must be considered as travel companies develop their sustainability strategies.

Let’s take a closer look at the two gaps and how travel companies should re-think their approach to consumers and sustainability.

The Say-Do Gap

In our latest report on sustainable travel products (which we developed alongside the World Economic Forum), we highlighted the most common say-do roadblocks and the six steps Travel and Tourism companies can take to overcome them:

1. Develop sustainable travel products

Consumers want to seek out new sustainable travel alternatives, but there aren't many current options available. Travel companies must invest in developing new sustainable offerings while refining existing ones. They should interact with travelers to gain feedback through surveys or reviews about sustainable products and practices, refining and evolving offerings periodically based on this input. With 78% of respondents in a recent BBC survey revealing that sustainable practices and commitments are important when making purchase decisions, and 80% agreeing that clear demonstrations of sustainability add value to a brand, it’s safe to say that sustainable actions from travel companies can help go a long way to fostering brand loyalty and new ways to generate value.2

For example, I recently hailed an Uber Green ride in an electric vehicle. It was the same price as a normal Uber and available within a couple of minutes of the normal Uber X. Needless to say, this felt like an easy choice to make.

2. Provide a smooth and sustainable travel experience

To encourage sustainable practices, travel companies should simplify the booking process: Add filters and options to compare alternatives and select sustainable products to help travelers make informed decisions. Also, they should allow travelers to purchase sustainable products, if applicable, throughout the different phases of the trip customized to the specific product.

For example, during the booking process and the flight itself, Lufthansa Group engages with its travelers at multiple points throughout their journey. The crew also offers the opportunity to purchase sustainable products during the flight.3

3. Improve the value proposition

Companies must reduce the price premium charged for a sustainable travel product vs. a traditional comparable product. While this strategy may affect a company’s bottom line in the short term, it can increase demand and improve brand image in the long term. Companies can improve sustainable product price competitiveness by working with vendors to reduce the higher internal costs associated with such products. At the same time, companies should highlight the benefits sustainable products can deliver to customers, which can go a long way to improving consumer perception and their willingness to pay more.

Like most organizations, travel companies have enormous power to shape people’s desires and expectations, and they should use this power to sway customers in ways that take the planet’s well-being into account more fully.

4. Recognize and reward customers

A simple way to overcome say-do roadblocks is to provide incentives. Travel companies should offer discounts or loyalty points. Offer rewards for feedback on how green a journey was compared to others. Give travelers options to showcase their green choices and practices with others on social media.

I recently installed solar panels on my roof. The corresponding app keeps track of my energy savings (over €1000 in the last 6 months) and my carbon savings (>3.2 tons to date). What if I could get a similar tally every time I took a lower-carbon flight, chose a lower-carbon dinner option in a hotel or took the EV taxi ride instead of the petrol car?

5. Increase awareness of ways to travel sustainably

Travel companies should educate travelers about sustainable travel products and alternatives to help ensure they are aware of the availability and the impact of such choices. Additionally, collaboration with local governments and tourism offices could help showcase sustainable offerings.

To provide visibility for guests, Marriott International integrates sustainability-related information on its website, such as CO2 footprint and water footprint information at individual properties. Marriott International also shares its sustainability information with third parties, including booking platforms.4

6. Improve transparency and alignment

The travel industry is currently fragmented when it comes to its approach to emissions calculation, green badges and certificates. However, when offering these features and products, companies should provide more transparency and elaborate on the methodology and factors taken into consideration. This will help ensure that travelers have a clear understanding of the sustainability benefits of their choices and avoid the potential loss of credibility.

The relevancy gap

Companies must stop asking: How can we make humans more sustainable? Instead, they should ask: How can we make sustainability more human? Travel companies need to make sustainability easier to grasp and apply, more relatable, and more human. This is the key to better aligning sustainability with people’s lives and creating greater customer engagement.

Here are six universal human values that connect people most strongly with sustainable action. My colleagues who worked on the research call them “Life-Centric Entryways” and suggest that organizations use them to review all existing programs and see if they trigger one or more of the entryways. If not, you’re likely missing opportunities to connect with customers and should revisit your sustainability strategies.

  • Caring: Appeal to people’s desire to connect deeply with the things that matter, without relating it to the planet. Activate salvaging, donating and future-proofing behaviors. For example, Hilton Hotels, in partnership with Clean World, collects used bars of soap for recycling and distribution to people in need.5
  • Self-fulfillment: Appeal to desires for physiological and psychological health and social status without needing to relate it to sustainability more explicitly. Activate product swaps and lifestyle habit changes that improve people’s lives. Many car rental companies now give people the opportunity to choose electric cars—allowing them to enjoy a quiet, comfortable ride while fostering more zero-emission vehicle trips.
  • Belonging: Play into social dynamics and sustainability as a social performance without talking about it explicitly. Activate adherence and collective behavior change. Hotels can provide guests with bicycles and walking maps. They can develop farm-to-table restaurants, invite guests to pick vegetables for their evening meal, and even offer nature excursions.
  • Resourcefulness: Appeal to people’s drive to get the most out of things without focusing on the angle of using less to save the planet. Activate reduced purchasing, repurposing and sharing behaviors. Many hotels offer guests loyalty points for reusing towels.
  • Empowerment: Capitalize on those who already have the drive to create positive change without needing to incite activism to save the planet explicitly. Activate sustainable purchasing power, community initiatives and the mobilization of others. As an example, corporates can use Avelia, a blockchain-powered digital sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) book-and-claim solution for business travel.6
  • Openness: Appeal to people who are naturally open to new experiences and lifestyles to trigger broader behavioral shifts. Activate experimentation, reflection and learning. Recommend vegan menu options to travelers so they can try out new things while significantly lowering their CO2 footprint.

By incorporating these values into their offerings, travel companies can make a meaningful difference to their customers and our planet. They have the opportunity to inspire more people to make sustainable choices by addressing both the say-do gap and the relevancy gap.

Read the full report: Our Human Moment


Dr. Jesko-Philipp Neuenburg

Managing Director – Global Travel & Aviation Sustainability Lead