Sustainability in Business Travel: A Conversation with Dr. Sally Eaves

July 1, 2022

Tahnee Perry: There seems to be more information available about the state of the environment than ever before, which is great for awareness of our shared concerns. But how do people really feel about sustainability? How is that impacting businesses that rely on travel and business travelers themselves? Our conversation today will help us learn more about how employers and their employees feel about sustainability and some of the actions that can be taken if you want to be part of the solution for our climate.

I'm here today with Alexa Buffum, Deem's director of product and a resident expert on sustainability. And our guest speaker today is Dr. Sally Eaves, CEO of Aspirational Future and an advisor on Tech for Good, and a soon-to-be-published author. Ladies, it's an honor to be having this discussion with you today.

Dr. Sally Eaves: Awesome to be here, thank you.

Alexa Buffum: Yeah, thank you so much for having us.

Renewed interest in climate action

Tahnee: It seems like there's more awareness among the public for the urgency around climate action. In fact, a recent survey of business travel has found that as work trips return, 66% of employees expect their employer to make sustainable options available to them. And nearly three quarters of those travelers want employers to provide clearer information about the impact of their business travel. 

So, Sally, I'll start with you. Do employees now have more influence over this issue? Why or why not?

Dr. Sally: I would say a resounding yes. I think employees have more agency than ever before, driven by different things. I think one is information awareness. You know, we've talked about conscious consumerism quite a lot over the last 12 months. I think the same thing applies to employees as well, that people want to work for organizations that have that same value set. And sustainability is right up there and compounded by the employment market at the moment. 

You have a lot of supply talent gaps. So it's more an employee market around employee agency for drop roles, for promotions or hiring or moving elsewhere. And we're seeing people making choices around their employment, not just based on remuneration and not just based on flexibility of work, but about brand purpose.

So if you're not delivering on sustainability in, for example, travel, you might walk away from that organization. So. Absolutely, yes. Big agency for employees right now, I would say.

Tahnee: There was a study in BTN today that talked about how people are less inclined to take on a role with a company if they don't believe in sustainability efforts. So I think we're definitely seeing that. 

So, Alexa, when employees do get this information such as carbon emissions, which you can find in Google flights or even in our new feature EcoCheck, which is in Etta, how are they using that? And what are they doing with that information? 

Alexa: So when we were thinking about building EcoCheck, we wanted to make sure that the information on carbon emissions was really upfront to the user as they were making their booking decisions. So being able to see carbon emissions for flights and car rental and sustainability scores on hotels right in the search flow, when you're deciding which flights to take or which hotel to pick, I think is really key. Because you don't want to have to go off to another website or it's not useful to see that information after you've made the selection. So it really needs to be during the search flow.

And that's kind of our first phase around the visibility of that information and putting that right in front of the consumer. And we're seeing that that's been really popular. And especially with younger employees, this is an area—as you've both mentioned through the surveys that we've seen—this is really something that is usually very important for younger generations.

It really is something that they're looking for and they've grown to expect that. For example, I was buying something on an e-commerce site and they gave me the option to offset my shipping. So even outside of travel, we're seeing sustainability initiatives across the board.

So it's really important to be able to incorporate these into a corporate travel program, and we've been able to do that with the EcoCheck launched recently.

Employers vs. employees in sustainability initiatives

Tahnee: Employers and employees seem to be on different sides of the issue right now. A survey found that 74% of employers will keep asking employees to travel for business, but about the same percentage of employees want to reduce their travel or make their travel less of an impact on the environment.

So if there's an argument about who travels and when and how, are there other constructive ways to set people's expectations? 

Dr. Sally: That's a great question. I think, for example, the metaphor of a bridge is springing to mind for me. One of the things I've seen is, for example, you’ve got more companies going out there with SDG commitments and being very transparent around that. You’ve got more employees pushing forward to really make their sustainable choices. But sometimes there's a bridge in between where there aren't really clear guidelines of how to bring those things together.

So I've seen a lot of people coming back saying, “I'm not quite sure. Have I got the permission to make those choices? Is it really clear to me? Have I got a budget constraint for that particular channel?” If there's a cost difference, for example. So getting those guidelines to support employees bridge that with those commitments I think is really important, too.

But also, I think maybe just changing the narrative around sustainability choices as well. I see a clear link between sustainability, safety, shared value, savings. So let's create some data stories of impact from making these different choices. 

I think it helps employers, for example, if they’re a bit more reluctant, you have those in place and it can really change a narrative about the impact you're making through those choices. So let's bring these things together, not treat them as separate silos.

Tahnee: And I think when you bring all those multiple elements together, it makes sense for a business because they can prove that they are hitting their sustainability goals when they're working on all of these things in tandem.

Dr. Sally: Definitely. It’s that move from, say, transparency to commitment to accountability is taking it through to that maximum. And I think that consumers and employees alike are far more aware, a lot more informed, and they can see the difference that really helps people on that journey. So that’s absolutely spot on.

Alexa: I would agree with that. And I would just add that I think that the communication aspect is really important, because what we've seen in some of the surveys we've done with employees is that they don't really know what their company's policies are around sustainability. 

So they want to make better choices, but they don't always know, “Am I allowed to spend a little bit more money? Or am I allowed to maybe combine two trips together so that I'm not traveling as much?” And so I think communicating that policy and being really clear on what the expectations are helps set a standard that then the employees can follow.

Sustainability in technology and design

Tahnee: Can technology and design make an impact in changing everyone's behavior, whether it's employers or employees? How or why would that be enough? 

Alexa: So I'm maybe a little biased because I work in technology, but I think that absolutely technology and design can change people's behavior.

I think that's actually a really important part about sustainability and sustainability goals in companies. You need to be able to communicate those goals and you need to be able to give people the information so that they can actually change their behavior.

One example from the product that we've just launched is we show information on carbon emissions throughout the booking flow. Initially when we were looking at it, we were thinking, OK, how do we show the amount of carbon? Do we want to show it in terms of kilograms? Do we want to show it in terms of a percentage difference? 

And so it's really thinking, “what is the best way to display this information,” in a way that’s understandable. Because if you just show someone, oh, this is five kilos of carbon, it's very hard to understand what that is.

So there's two things we've done there. One is showing it as a percentage that you can see if this is better or worse than the average. But then also taking it to the next level of showing an equivalency so that it's easier for people to understand how this amount of carbon emissions is equal to producing this amount of plastic bags, or it saves this amount of trees.

Being able to translate that into a concrete item that everybody is aware of can really help people understand, oh, this is the impact of taking this flight versus this flight, or taking a flight versus a train. So I think design absolutely helps in that aspect and bringing that in, making it really visible to the traveler and in a way that they can understand.

Tahnee: I think having concrete examples makes something go from being abstract to having a life, and it helps you understand exactly the impact. 

So, Sally, you have a long history in technology. What are your thoughts around this area?

Dr. Sally: I think, firstly, from that design point of view, because I think you have to look at it from a whole lifecycle point of view. So from design, the ease of use really matters. Personalization really matters as well. Some recent research I've just been involved in was kind of saying familiarity with any new technology or a new tool really matters. It needs to be as natural a communication tool as possible to help people to use it. So I think that matters. 

And beyond that, I think it's visibility, measurement, and also integration. You can't have tools over here for one aspect, over here for another. You need to make sure it's truly integrated and again, easy to use. But dashboarding I'm finding really effective at the moment, bringing different types of measures together, not treating them as separate entities.

And again, data enablement. Data is the tool here that makes such a huge difference. It helps us get buy-in from stakeholders in terms of the organization, but also having the right type of process flow as well. So lots of roles are involved in these travel decisions. It's not just employee/employer-specific roles. There are travel managers, senior execs, etc., who need to get the right data to the right people at the right time.

And I think the example of active intelligence, conscious decision making—so you've got everything when you're looking at those different options, you can see all those different impacts from a savings point of view, sustainability point of view, time of journey point of view, et cetera, et cetera. We need to bring it all together. We can't treat it separately. From that point of view, I think data tech makes a huge contribution, supported by culture, people, empowerment, and skills. So it's not separate things—it's all these elements as well.

What is the most sustainable way to travel?

Tahnee: What activities, technologies or solutions could make the biggest difference in reducing carbon emissions in travel? 

Alexa: I think there's a lot of really interesting, innovative things going on in this space. We see things like sustainable aviation fuel becoming a bigger thing. And some of the companies that we work with have started to talk about how that plays into measuring their emissions and how that plays into things like looking at flights or measuring flights. I think that's a space where there’s going to be a lot of progress in that over the next couple of years. 

Another one would be electric cars. This is obviously huge and it's going to make a big change in how we travel. And we're just starting to see this impact on corporate travel. 

One area that we're seeing at Deem is we're launching a partnership soon with Uber for ground transportation. Uber's making a really big push towards electric cars, especially in Europe. We were speaking with them recently and they were telling us how 40% of their fleet in France is actually already electric cars, which is really impressive. And they're giving their drivers a lot of tools to try to get them to switch over to electric vehicles. So I think that's also a space we're going to see a lot of progress in, and it will definitely impact corporate travel. 

Then another one that's kind of an interesting one to think about: During the pandemic when a lot of us couldn't travel, we started using tools like Zoom and this had a huge reduction in travel. And this obviously then reduces carbon emissions. So I think there's other tools out there that you can use in place of traveling and this obviously has an impact on reducing emissions. It's just really finding that right balance. 

Tahnee: Sally, you have experience with infrastructure. What do you think are some of the elements there that might be helping us with carbon emissions?

Dr. Sally: Yeah, I think the EV space is a really interesting example of that. And again, data is helping to change decision making, and changing the narrative. But there was a big push in certain countries at the moment about new charging points and where to put them. And there were assumptions that, for example, put them with service stations on the motorway, or put them in coffee shops. 

But actually when you look at the data, that doesn't really make sense. You’re not there for very long. So for example, the data show that partnered with new housing developments, or putting them in your driveway or garage development. So it's helping to drive decision making about the right infrastructure to scale EVs, and at the moment there are scaling issues so I think that's really important.

We’ve got a new rise around low carbon emission technology as well. That's making a big difference. And in terms of Google and some other organizations, as well, there's been a lot of investment around telematics, which I'm thinking is a great advance forward. And it's this link again between not just looking at sustainability, looking at savings and looking at safety as well.

So think about logistics. Think about Uber, for example. If you've got the telematics in your vehicle, you can get lots of data insights about reducing consumption, looking at battery degradation, but also driver performance and preventative maintenance, helping to reduce accidents. All of these things come together if they are integrated, invisible, and used in the right way, supported by the right training as well.

So I think we've got really exciting developments here that bring all these benefits together, and not treat them separately, which I think is so important for the sustainability cause. Now we can show that we can really create a shared value business here. Benefiting business with efficiency, benefiting from safety, but benefiting environmental impact and brand love too.

According to some research I've been involved in, people are walking away from organizations in the travel sector and beyond if they don't see people really delivering on what they're promising. So I think it's a massive step forward. And technologies are huge conduits for change in business.

Tahnee: Travel news actually released some survey information earlier today that talked about how people will no longer take a job at a company if they don't feel like they're approaching sustainability in the right way. So it's exciting to see all of these different things happening out there in the industry. I'm excited to see as that progresses and as we actually make a bigger impact on sustainability.

Advances in sustainability science

Tahnee: The pandemic placed a significant pause on travel, which had a big impact on the environment. In that time, there was a lot of talk about the environment and how there were fewer emissions. We saw wildlife in cities in places we hadn't before. 

So what have we learned from this pause in travel, from the data that was collected? And what can we do now that we have seen some of the examples of what happens when we travel less?

Dr. Sally: So many insights have come from this period of time. To put on my research hat on for a moment, the first thing I’ll point out is the closeness, the link between climate warming and air pollution. I don't think we realized quite how close that association was until the research we've seen coming out over the last year or so. 

It really puts to the fore the acceleration we need to have around low carbon-emitting technology. We need to go further, faster. I think we've shown the power of the narrative in a communication to collaborate. I think it's huge. 

And on that point of collaboration, I think I'd love to use an example, if I may. It was something that was developed over the Covid period around vaccine interventions, so it was a health care initiative. It was called the HPC Consortium.

We had the biggest tech companies of our time, probably the top eleven. We had top-level government, civil society, individual scientists, local councils, education establishments, all coming together for that common goal. And we accelerated that innovation curve, in some cases by 18 months. It was a huge, huge impact. 

If we can put that model to play around other big challenges, other SDGs, like around sustainability and ESG, I think we can pay a massive dividend and help everyone to really accelerate and move forward here. So I love that as a collaboration model. 

And my final point would be agency. We've seen that impact every single one of us personally, so we can all make a difference. So we could all come together and really create a positive contagion of change here so we can all make a difference. That would be my keynote here.

Tahnee: At Deem, we have a platform, Easier to Travel Anywhere—Etta—and so we're supporting people to travel and we know that travel is necessary. But I think what we're finding is that we have to be more responsible about the travel that we're taking. 

So, Alexa, talk to me about your thoughts in this and this area.

Alexa: I think this is such an interesting one because I feel like often before we talked about sustainability, it felt like this is something that the government has to do, or that big corporations have to do. And you as an individual have so little impact on this. But I think that what we actually saw during the pandemic was that that's not the case. Like an individual not traveling, and when we all stopped traveling, it actually had a huge impact. 

And you saw it right away. I remember the fact that the air felt cleaner. As you said, there are animals in the cities that we had never seen before. It was kind of crazy how things just change so quickly. And so I think it's important to remember that we actually do have a big impact and that by making a small change here or there and reducing our travel slightly or just changing the way that we travel or the way that we organize our travel, it actually can have a really big impact.

As Sally was talking about with agency, I think that the big takeaway for employees and employers is that you actually can have a big change on this by just rethinking some of your habits around travel.

Advancements in sustainability technology 

Tahnee: So, Sally, what advancements are we making around measurement of ESG?

Dr. Sally: I think it is a huge area. We've said it always. I think measurement matters, but I think particularly around anything on social impact, it's always been the biggest challenge. It's always been the blocker to scalability, I would say. 

So we talk about ROI—we’ve done it in business for years. How do we return on investment? What I've been working on is in universities and with enterprise partners and citizen scientists, as well, is moving beyond this to ROSIE—return on social impact evaluations. It’s a new index launching in about a month's time. It's going to help people make better informed comparative choices. 

We see a lot of reporting, like ESG reporting, say once a year, but not more regular measurement and not consistency or standardization of measurement. Whether you are a consumer or an employee or an ecosystem partner, it can be hard to compare like for like. 

So that's what we're trying to do. Bring this forward so you can make comparative informed choices. I think that's going to be a great move forward to helping to scale measurable impact right across the ESG criteria. And so I'm super excited about bringing that to the fore very, very soon.

Tahnee: Well, that's all we have time for today. Thank you so much Alexa and Sally for joining us here. This was a great conversation and I learned a lot. And thanks to everyone watching.

Curious to learn more about how Etta can help you with your sustainability efforts? Learn more about EcoCheck. 

Author

Deem Editorial

The Deem editorial team brings important, informative commentary and data to travel managers and everyone interested in technology and the corporate travel industry.

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