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the best way to find sustainable travel firms


People said the pandemic made them wish to travel more responsibly in the longer term.

Now recent data indicates they’re actually doing it.

In response to a report published in January by the World Travel & Tourism Council and Trip.com Group:

  • Nearly 60% of travelers have chosen more sustainable travel options within the last couple of years.
  • Nearly 70% are actively looking for sustainable travel options.

But finding firms which might be serious about sustainability is not easy, said James Thornton, CEO of tour company Intrepid Travel.  

“You see hotels saying they’re sustainable, and you then’re using these little travel bottles for shampoos and shower gels,” he said.

It’s all just “greenwashing,” he said, referencing the term that describes firms’ efforts to look more environmentally sound than they’re.

For an organization to say they’re “100% sustainable” or they’re “eco-conscious” …  doesn’t suggest anything.

James Thornton

CEO, Intrepid Travel

The term has risen in popularity alongside the rise in demand for sustainable services and products.

The result’s a mixture of those that are truly dedicated to the cause — and people who sprinkle eco-buzzwords and images of seedlings, forests and other “green” imagery of their marketing materials, with no real motion to back up their claims.

Finding firms which might be sustainable

Be wary of those tactics, said Thornton.

“For an organization to say they’re ‘100% sustainable’ or they’re ‘eco-conscious’ …  doesn’t suggest anything,” he said. “I might urge travelers to be very cautious once they’re seeing these words, and to actually dig in and look in a bit more detail.”

Consumer interest in sustainable travel has modified considerably up to now 20 years, said Thornton. He said when he joined Intrepid travel 18 years ago, “people would take a look at us like we’re a bit crazy” when the corporate talked about sustainability.

Now, many firms are doing it, whether or not they are serious, or not.

Thornton said he believes the travel industry is currently divided into three categories. One third have “incredibly good intentions, and [are] working very actively on addressing the climate crisis … and so they’re making good progress.”

One other third have “good intentions but [aren’t] actually taking motion yet. And infrequently … they are not quite sure the best way to take motion.”

The ultimate third “is just utterly burying its head within the sand and hoping that this thing goes to go away, and the reality of the matter is — it is not.”

To discover firms in the primary category, Thornton recommends travelers search for three critical things.  

1. A history of sustainability

To establish whether an organization could also be jumping on the eco-bandwagon, examine its history, said Thornton.

He advises in search of “an extended history of association with problems with sustainability, or is that this something that only just appeared?”

Intrepid Travel CEO James Thornton.

Source: Intrepid Travel

If the messaging is recent for the corporate, that is not a deal breaker, he said.

“But that may then encourage the shopper to probably wish to look in a bit more detail to see if what an organization actually does has rigor behind it,” he said, “Or whether it’s something that is just being done for marketing sake — and due to this fact greenwashing.”

2. Check for measurements

Next, travelers should see if the corporate measures its greenhouse gas emissions, said Thornton.

“The honest truth is that each travel company is ultimately contributing towards the climate crisis,” he said. “So one of the best thing any travel company can begin to do is measure the greenhouse gas emissions it creates.”

To do that, Thornton advised travelers to check the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Motion in Tourism.

“The Glasgow Declaration website lists the organizations which have agreed to actively reduce their emissions … and truly have a climate plan that shows how they’re doing that,” he said.

Signatories must publish their climate plan, which is monitored by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, he said.

“Consumers can use this as a option to check if the corporate they’re booking with is serious about decarbonization,” he said, adding that greater than 700 organizations are on the list.

Thornton said travelers can even check the Science Based Targets Initiative, which is a partnership between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Its website has a dashboard that details emission-reducing commitments made by greater than 4,500 firms worldwide, including American Express Global Business Travel, the UK’s Reed & Mackay Travel and Australia’s Flight Centre Travel Group.

3. Search for certifications

Finally, travelers can check for independent assessments, said Thornton.

One of the rigorous and impressive is the B Corp Certification, he said.

“It took Intrepid three years to change into a B Corp,” he said.

Other firms with B Corp status include Seventh Generation, Ben & Jerry’s, Aesop — and Patagonia, which Thornton called “arguably probably the most famous B Corp on the planet.”

To get it, firms are reviewed by the non-profit B Lab and a certification lasts for 3 years, said Thornton.

Kristen Graff, director of sales and marketing at Indonesia’s Bawah Reserve resort, agreed that B Corp is the “most generally respected” certification.

Graff also recommends the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, saying that it and B Corp are “actually … legit.” The GSTC doesn’t certify travel firms, but relatively accredits third party certification bodies that use its standards.

Bawah Reserve, a resort in Indonesia’s Anambas Islands, is applying for B Corp certification. The resort uses solar energy and desalinates drinking water on the island.

Source: Bawah Reserve

Other travel eco-certifications are less exacting, said Graff.

“A lot of them are only a racket to generate profits,” she said.

Bawah Reserve began the method to change into B Corp certified in November of 2022, said Graff. “We anticipate it would take a couple of 12 months to finish,” she said.

B Corp uses a sliding scale for its certifications fees, which start at $1,000 for firms with lower than $1 million in annual revenue.

“The associated fee is fairly minimal,” said Thornton, especially “should you’re serious about sustainability.”

He said Intrepid pays about $25,000 a 12 months for the certification.

Other advice

Thornton also advised travelers to ask questions like:

  • Are you using renewable energy sources?
  • Is the food locally sourced?
  • Are employees from local communities?
  • Who owns the hotel?

He said there are places which might be perceived to be sustainable but which might be “actually owned by a casino.”

Lastly, Thornton recommends travelers look to online reviews.

“Often a little bit little bit of research on Google … can offer you a very good indication around whether a hotel or a travel experience is doing what it says it’s doing — or whether or not they’re actually greenwashing.”

Clarification: This text has been clarified to reflect that the Global Sustainable Tourism Council accredits third party certification bodies that use its standards.

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