Can Brands Bring Real Sustainability to the Travel Industry?

An ecological economist says it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game

Cruise ship at sunset in Greece
What does “sustainability” mean when it comes to the travel industry?
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When Virgin Voyage’s first ship, The Scarlet Lady, sets sail next spring, it will be without any single-use plastics onboard. That includes water bottles, straws and to-go coffee cups.

On the Virgin Voyage site, “sustainability” is given its own page, saying the company aims “to minimize environmental impacts, establish responsible supply chains, promote thriving local economies and play a leading role in protecting and restoring the ocean’s health.”

Delta Airlines also has a page dedicated to sustainability. As does JetBlue.

The tourism industry is responsible for about 8% of the global greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Transportation, including cruise ships and airlines, contributes a great deal to this.

Although Virgin has incorporated and invested in clean energy technology, is that enough to overcome the simple fact that it’s still a cruise ship? What does “sustainability” even mean?

Adweek spoke to Robert Richardson, an ecological economist and professor at Michigan State University who studies the economic impacts of climate change. Richardson doesn’t believe that sustainability needs to be a zero-sum game. Instead, he said, the low bar for sustainability in the travel industry might be too low to avoid the elephant in the room.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Adweek: What is your definition of sustainability?
Richardson: The way I use it in class is “non-declining human per capita well-being over time.” In other words, we can be sustained—and we can be sustainable— if the well-being of people, at least, is non-declining. And that sounds like an economics definition, which I suppose it is, but if we can meet our needs and demands and be happy, even while changing some of our behaviors, then that would seem to be sustainable.

What does that have to do with the environment?
Our well-being is derived in part from healthy natural resources and a healthy environment. If we jeopardize our ability to derive well-being by polluting, by overconsuming natural resources, it will be difficult or impossible to sustain well-being, or at least to sustain well-being for most or all people.

What is the corporate definition of sustainability? Is there such a thing as a sustainable cruise ship?
It’s interesting to think about “sustainability” as a noun and “sustainable” as an adjective. If you think about a sustainable cruise ship, that means it’s arrived at a point of sustainability; it’s not negatively impacting the future. I don’t know that any industry can declare itself “sustainable.”

I like “sustainability” because it suggests that there is a process, that you’re ever-improving the sustainability of your philosophies, your practices, your operations and so forth. To say that you’ve arrived—your industry or your business is “sustainable”—is open to all kinds of criticism. So, without getting a little too wonky, I think that distinction is important.

Can the cruise ship industry improve the sustainability of its operations? Sure, and I think corporations in that sector and other travel-related sectors are looking for ways to lower their environmental impact.

I would say that people like me, sustainability scholars, we tend to think about sustainability not just in the environmental context but the way that corporations interact with people and society.

When you think about sustainable travel, we also think about social responsibility, how communities at the destination are impacted by travel and tourism. Are workers paid fairly? Are tourists overwhelming cultural norms and destinations?

But how do corporations frame their sustainability? I think they focus on low-hanging fruit that can be easily understood by the public and get them goodwill among the public.

When they demonstrate that they’ve lowered emissions or that they’re procuring food and beverage from sources that are low-impact and local, those kinds of things are appealing to environmentally conscious travelers, but it’s low-hanging fruit.

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