Sustainability, Business Travel and You


By Robert McGarvey

87% of us want to travel sustainably, said a recent poll via But more of us fail than succeed.  39% said they always or usually travel sustainably. But 48% of us admit we fail.

Business travel is a substantial offender. Said pwc: “Business travel remains our single largest source of carbon emissions, and – as we’ve continued to reduce our emissions from energy – has grown to around 80% of our total carbon footprint in 2017.”

Most big businesses would have to say ditto. Where their pollution is biggest is in travel.

The prime offender of course is air travel:  it amounts to 70% of our total emissions, per pwc.

The more I dig into sustainability and business travel, the more questions and concerns I have.  Suddenly sustainability seems a life or death issue.

One look at starving polar bears ought to persuade you that this stuff is serious, it is way beyond a crunchy granola fear.

Here’s the idea that frightens many business travelers: “The simplest way to cut emissions caused by travel is to avoid it,” said pwc.  


I am a product of a time and a work culture where a possible trip produced quick assent: sure, I’ll go.  It could be a convention in Chicago, an angry client in Washington DC, a prospective new client in Los Angeles, or a speech in Boston. It didn’t matter. Sign me up.

Now I am beginning to question every trip: is it necessary? Can I do it via telephone?  

When the impact of business travel was mainly on my time, I shrugged off the time burdens and said sure.  Now – increasingly – the impact seems to be on the planet itself and that is a much bigger issue.

A bonus: traveling less is also good for our personal health.  The evidence is strong that a heavy travel load is bad for our bodies.

That’s another reason to really question our trips.

Do you remember when it was common for a big company to send a few hundred junior execs off to a conference center to spend three or four days learning, say, Lotus 123 or WordPerfect? That was the norm and, for many Boomers, it seemed fun.

Millennials, who today are carrying the bulking of the business travel load, aren’t buying the rationale of that trip, mainly because they know that they could learn new software perfectly well at their desks – with no new carbon hits such as are associated with those those trips of yesteryear to learn new software.

Oh, I also vividly recall a story told me by the VP of HR at a Fortune 100 company where, in the mid 1980s, as a junior exec, he was sent off to one of those trainings where he in fact learned Lotus 123. Just one problem.  When he returned to his office, he still did not have a computer and by the time he got a computer a few years later, he didn’t remember a thing about Lotus 123.

But he did tell me that under his leadership the company was minutely scrutinizing all planned educational meetings – and he hoped to eliminate most.

That’s a harsh reality. As I look back I see a lot of trips that I now see as unnecessary.  

I am a fan, incidentally, of big, glitzy, high energy sales conferences – they pump up attendees in ways that won’t happen when you sit at a desk and watch a video of even a high impact speaker like Tony Robbins.  In person just is more powerful.

Small meetings where intimate exchanges happen also can only be in person.

But a lot of business travel remains a product of habit, of how we have always done business.  And maybe it’s time to rethink.

Right now, hotels are tripping over themselves to announce they will no longer use plastic straws.  Some also are replacing individual toiletries with bulk dispensers. Many others encourage us to use towels and sheets multiple days.

So what?

All those steps are good as far as they go but they don’t go far and if you never use a plastic straw again in your life it will have zero impact on polar bears.

We probably shouldn’t be in that hotel room at all.

What really matters is flying only as necessary.  Using public ground transportation. Walking is better still.

Always ask, is this trip necessary? Really?

What’s the lowest carbon impact to get this business handled?

The encouraging reality is that more of us are genuinely asking those kinds of questions and acting accordingly.  The old days of “sure, boss, I’ll be in Houston tonight, no prob” are over. Maybe we’ll go to Houston, maybe we won’t, and what’s new now is that we’ll carefully assess the alternatives. When flying is the better choice, off we go. When it isn’t, home we stay. And that’s a better reality. For us and for the planet.

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