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Comment: Travel brands should dial up sustainability messages

Focusing on environmental and social considerations will help firms bounce back better, says Jason Triandafyllou, executive director of marketing agency Designate

This year was ushered in on a tide of vaccine-fuelled optimism for a return to something resembling normality.

The idea of lockdown without end and pervasive restrictions on every aspect of life is most unwelcome. We all want to be free to return to living, not just existing.

But when we are permitted to travel again, is it possible to travel better than normal?

Did normal travel help us to get into an almighty environmental mess on this planet of ours? How could travel brands benefit from embracing sustainability and offering people the chance to make the world a better place in a post lockdown era?

The first lockdown last spring was a unique experience for all of us. There was a resounding silence across the world, when you could almost hear the planet take a deep breath.

Clearly that was only ever going to be temporary, and in spite of all the evidence of the benefits of reduced pollution and emissions of all kinds during that first half of the year, the world economy and our collective livelihoods cannot stay in neutral indefinitely.

We have a huge opportunity to rethink what comes next, and to avoid a full-scale return to all our old – and sometimes bad – habits.

The connected themes of ethical responsibility and environmental sustainability have been gaining momentum in the public consciousness, and people are voting with their feet on these issues, with brands responding, and sometimes even leading.

Take Unilever. It is well on its way to becoming the world’s biggest B-Corp parent company, and chief executive Alan Jope says the pandemic has only increased people’s desire to buy products from companies with good credentials when it comes to doing the right thing.

Could the next battleground in the travel sector be one of environmental and social considerations, rather than price, convenience or range of product?

The tide has been turning in many industries, from the opaque financial services sector with its increasing focus on ethical investment and environment, social and government policies, to the more visible energy and automotive sectors, helped along by government policy here and there.

But what about those criss-crossed contrails in the skies, and the floating cities traversing the world’s oceans? What is changing in travel?

The United Nations Development Programme’s global survey tells us that no less than 64% of people across 50 countries believe climate change is a global emergency. The UK topped the rankings at 81%, and most of those who believe in this emergency want their countries to do everything necessary, urgently, to address the situation.

Look at Responsible Travel, an activist travel company which promotes more ethical and sustainable travel. It believes you can go on holiday and do good in the process.

It talks about ‘nature positive’ holidays that do good for endangered species of flora and fauna whilst generating much-needed employment and income for local communities in these destinations.

We know about the need to control emissions, temperatures and sea-levels, but Responsible Travel also highlights the need to protect and re-wild at least 50% of all land by 2030. Holidays that are kind to nature will help regenerate the earth’s lungs.

Director Tim Williamson says “there is no getting away from the fact that we have to fly less, and not just buy cheap offsets”.

He believes people will choose to fly less but that it doesn’t necessarily have to adversely affect destinations dependent on tourism, as people may choose to travel for longer and go on trips that benefit local communities.

Reports about the rich chartering private jets to escape lockdown have been doing the rounds lately. It’s worth pointing out that a traveller flying alone in the lightest class of private jet is responsible for up to 20 times the carbon emissions of an economy passenger on a commercial flight.

For most, a staycation beckons this summer. This may be better for the planet in the short term, but that ‘massive pent-up demand’ for foreign travel remains.

With all the time people have to plan for their next holiday, the opportunity travel brands with a responsible and sustainable approach have right now is to get themselves on the consideration list.

If travel companies can show people that they can travel better, they will attract the increasing number of environmentally-conscious holidaymakers who want a break that makes a difference.

This will not be a return to normal, but better than normal, perhaps even exceptional.

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