Why have only 30% of the UK’s biggest travel companies have published comprehensive sustainability plans?

A tourist beach with sun loungers

Our team in partnership with the ITT’s Sustainability Committee, examined the top 50 UK ATOL holders, analysing their websites for robust environmental strategies, whilst also evaluating their efforts in promoting sustainable travel choices.

We found that more than 40% failed to mention sustainability in any capacity, while just 30% had shared thorough sustainability strategies and only 14% had set science-based targets aligned with the SBTi’s Corporate Net-Zero Standard.

Currently, tourism is responsible for between 8 – 11% of global carbon emissions and The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) forecasts a 64% increase in the sector over the next 10 years. Managing this growth while minimising environmental impact poses a significant challenge for the industry. It is essential that the largest companies, those with the longest supply chains and greatest influence take the lead.

Although Jet2 plc, Tui, easyJet, Booking.com, and Expedia deserve recognition for their efforts, it’s worth noting that these major players usually have ample resources at their disposal. But there is evidence to suggest that being part of the transition to responsible tourism needn’t be resource dependant, we are seeing a rise in small travel companies embracing sustainable practices (many of whom have achieved B-Corp certification). Moreover, businesses further down the top 50 such as Audley Travel or Midcounties Co-op, are also showing what can be achieved and have made the Glasgow Declaration.

We won’t be alone in scrutinising the top UK travel businesses; many others will share our concern and be asking why 70% of these giants have not yet disclosed comprehensive strategies. 

For us to meet the essential global reduction targets, responsible travel needs to transition from being a specialised form of tourism to becoming the norm.

So, what’s holding businesses back?

Let’s explore some of the factors that we believe are impacting progress and dismantle the barriers that are preventing it. 

Concerns over cost

The cost-of-living crisis has dampened the much-anticipated post-pandemic rebound in travel. Plus, historically, managers have prioritised short-term profit and growth over environmental concerns, as many believe that implementing sustainable strategies will be costly and time consuming. Yet, although it often requires some initial investment, businesses incorporating green practices typically improve operational efficiency, reduce costs, increase staff retention, and improve their brand reputation.

Progressive travel companies are quick to recognise that failing to embrace sustainable practices can threaten the long-term viability of their businesses. A thought echoed by Fiona Jeffrey OBE, founder of Just a Drop

“Travel businesses should be more than just good at business; they should drive and affect change by taking direct responsibility for doing the right thing. Unless we protect the very product we promote; we’ll destroy both our own business model and the environment.”

Changing hearts & minds

Embedding sustainable initiatives requires organisations to put sustainability at the heart of their purpose, but most employees lack a thorough understanding of sustainability terminology and frameworks, making it difficult for companies to live up to their ambitions. Couple this with a resistance to change which often accompanies any cultural transformation and it can be difficult for businesses to gain the traction they need. However, a relatively minor investment in staff upskilling sessions can ensure your team are equipped with the tool kit and confidence they need to accelerate progress. For example, a variety of cost-effective “carbon literacy” workshops now available on the market. 

Fear of ‘getting it wrong’.

Sharing sustainable initiatives holds the power to inspire, change mindsets, and encourage collaborative approaches that accelerate change. Yet, fear of ‘getting it wrong’ often leads brands to refrain from publicising their achievements. This phenomenon, often termed “Green hushing”, is as detrimental to progress, as greenwashing (where brands create a false impression of higher environmental commitment than they genuinely possess). If fear is holding you back, TTG owner and CEO Daniel Pearce has some advice;

“Finding your ‘why’ is crucial for authentic communication.

As a media organisation, not a supplier of travel, TTG Media’s contribution to the travel and tourism sector’s carbon footprint is relatively small. But our ability to influence and unify the industry community into taking action on climate change is considerable, such as through TTG Fairer Travel Month or our TTG Sustainable Travel Heroes initiative.

Discovering your own purpose can sharpen your focus and ensure that you remain relevant as a business in the future.”

Waiting for it to become a legal requirement.

To date many organisations have not considered sustainability a priority, as there was no legal requirement to report on their environmental impact. With the introduction and planned expansion of the EU – led CSRD (Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive), this is set to change. 

Currently, EU businesses meeting criteria such as annual turnover of more than €40 million, must submit non-financial (sustainability) reports alongside their financial accounts. By 2030 every business will be within the scope of the CSRD, including SMEs and fines for non-compliance will be up to 5% of global turnover. 

Whilst CSRD is an EU-led initiative, similar legislation is currently being planned within the UK, US, and some Asian nations, reflecting a global recognition of the importance of corporate responsibility and transparency in addressing environmental impact.

Compliance with CSRD requires a solid understanding of its requirements and a detailed internal assessment, supported by accurate and transparent data and robust data management systems. Forward-thinking businesses will view it as a strategic opportunity to adopt the right tools and seek necessary guidance now to maintain a competitive edge and stay ahead of the evolving requirements.

It’s crucial for the future of the travel industry and our planet that we reduce the environmental impact of tourism; as pressure grows from customers, governments, and investors, the spotlight on companies (particularly the largest) will intensify.

If your travel business hasn’t yet begun its journey towards sustainability, take a moment to consider what’s holding you back. Identifying and addressing these challenges promptly is crucial, our team can help you quickly recognise roadblocks and construct a practical pathway towards a greener future.

*We evaluated the top 50 ATOL holder’s website based on the following criteria. First, the presence or absence of sustainability discourse on the company’s website. Second, the publication of formal sustainability documents and plans. Third, the comprehensiveness of these documents. Documents were considered comprehensive if actionable steps were road mapped. Fourth, which plans aligned with science-based targets & the GHG Protocol Corporate

This article also appeared in TTG: https://www.ttgmedia.com/fairer-travel/more-top-atol-holders-must-make-firm-commitments-on-sustainability-45486

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