Did you know that the amount of CO2 produced on a business class flight from London to San Francisco is double what a family car produces in one year and half the carbon footprint of a person living in Britain during the same period?1

These statistics are eye-opening. If they don’t highlight the importance of travel sustainability, I don’t know what does.

An industry-wide push for sustainability

Over the past decade, the travel industry has embraced sustainability as a pillar of their strategy. Our look at publicly-available sustainability reports reveals that 42% of leading travel and tourism businesses have set a climate target, either interim, long-term or both.2

Consumer and shareholder pressure is driving these changes—as is a recognition that sustainability isn’t just good for the planet; it’s good for business, too. A full 83% of travelers worldwide told Booking.com last year that they believe sustainable travel is vital. Yet 49% say there aren’t enough sustainable travel choices.3 While the industry has made impressive inroads, there is always more work to do.

Making a difference starts with data

If you peel back the layers and complexities associated with making travel more sustainable—and there are many—data is fundamental to this transformation. In fact, I think it is among the most critical element of sustainability transformation. 

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Companies can have wonderful intentions and ambitious targets, but without the right data, and systems to manage it, they will never know where they stand and which initiatives to prioritize.

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It's not just travel companies that need quality, comprehensive and timely data to know what targets to set and measure their progress. The more sustainability data the industry can put in travelers’ hands, the more they can influence people to make sustainable choices.

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The power of data transparency

Travelers clearly have the will when it comes to making sustainable travel choices. But they don’t have the way. They don’t always know how to reduce environmental impact in tangible ways. Data insight can change everything by empowering people to make informed decisions about how they travel.

The industry’s move to embed carbon emissions calculators in booking tools starts to provide the data transparency that consumers need to make these decisions. They finally can select service providers based on their de-carbonization efforts.

I believe that sustainability measures like this will increasingly become as important to travelers’ purchasing decisions as price, hotel location or flight departure times. Also, when travelers have this level of visibility and easy data comparison, travel players are incentivized to accelerate their path to net zero because it’s an important competitive asset.

Given the emerging nature of this trend and its associated potential, there are still many exciting opportunities for travel companies across the industry:

  • Service providers, such as hotels or airlines, can capture growth opportunities and improve brand differentiation, which attracts customers, funding and talent.
  • IT providers can expand their product portfolios with services that consistently display and report emissions data for companies and consumers.
  • Resellers, such as travel agents, can increase their relevance by offering tools to manage and reduce their clients’ environmental footprint. These tools are particularly important for corporate travel management companies as most businesses are actively looking for measures to reduce their Scope 3 emissions, which cover other parts of the supply chain.

The barriers to more data transparency

It’s hard to argue against the value of carbon calculators and other ways of sharing sustainability data with consumers. So what’s stopping more progress? The biggest culprit is the lack of a single source of truth that all stakeholders can agree on, understand, have confidence in—and act on.

This is the case for two primary reasons. First, travel companies still struggle with data access challenges. Airlines typically have the carbon emissions data for their own flights because of how thoroughly they track fuel consumption. But hospitality players don’t always own all their properties, which means that carbon emissions and energy consumption data is not under their management control. Plus, there’s the fact that Scope 3 data is notoriously difficult to track.

Lack of data standardization is the second major barrier to more data transparency. Different methodologies for calculating the carbon footprint of a flight or hotel night create multiple versions of the truth. The reality right now is that everyone has their own way to calculate emissions.

Consumers don’t know who to trust. Service providers have no control over how resellers and IT providers display their data to consumers. And without an industry-wide push for standardization, this problem will only escalate as resellers add more sustainability metrics into their sales processes. I worry that it could ultimately result in a slow-down of travel players’ investments in sustainability initiatives.

But luckily there are initiatives that aim for more consistent industry standards, such as the new IATA passenger CO2 calculation methodology for airlines. Also, in hospitality, initiatives like “hotel sustainability basics” (driven by several hospitality players) or the alignment around “sustainable travel labels” as part of the Travelyst coalition (which e.g. includes Booking.com and Google) drive toward more commonality in how players communicate their sustainability credentials.

Data makes partners in sustainability

The travel industry is on a continuing journey to improve sustainability. Companies have a lot of work to do to set the right targets, develop strategies and roadmaps, and put systems and governance in place that will ensure that emissions are measured and managed. Data insight is critical in all of this— and providing trusted and standardized sustainability data must be a top priority.

With so much work to do, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it’s not just travel companies that value sustainability data. Consumers do too. The more insight they have, the better they can become true partners in travel sustainability. It’s a win-win-win for travel companies, people and the planet.

Think big, start small

Looking to understand more about the impact a solid data strategy can have on your organization? Delve into more articles from our data digest:

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1Jocelyn Timperley, “Should We Give Up Flying for the Sake of the Climate?,” February 18, 2020
2World Travel & Tourism Council, “A Net Zero Roadmap for Travel,” November 2021
3Booking.com, “2021 Sustainable Travel Report,” June 3, 2021

Tuba Guclu

Managing Director – Travel

Dr. Jesko-Philipp Neuenburg

Managing Director – Global Travel & Aviation Sustainability Lead

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