Will 2009 be the year green issues are forgotten?

31 Dec 2008 by Sara Turner

As the credit crunch bites and the travel industry looks to cut costs, Business Traveller asks if environmental initiatives may be quietly dropped.

2008 was billed as the year of travelling green, with airlines offering carbon offsetting and hotels plying guests with Fairtrade and free bikes, but as the year drew on it was the credit crisis that was grabbing headlines, along with the soaring cost of oil and airlines going bust. As 2008 draws to a close, many in the industry are taking stock after heavy losses.

Cost will be the driving factor that will make or break the green revolution, experts agreed at a round-table discussion on corporate social responsibility (CSR), organised by Carlson Wagonlit. While some initiatives may mean spending plenty of money with little return, others will bring in the cash in the long term. In 2009, going green will be all about money.

“CSR needs to reinvent itself,” said Alexandra Hammond, responsible business manager, UK, for the Rezidor Hotel Group. “We need to look at how CSR can address the bottom line – how it pays for itself and then some. For example, the lighting in Park Inn hotels is being changed to use less power and be more environmentally friendly, so there is that initial outlay, but in the long term we will save money. The economic viability is crucial.”

Savvy business travellers being more demanding will also drive the agenda. Hammond said people are asking for more from their hotel stays, which is fuelling change. “The CSR questions are getting more intense and guests are asking for fair trade food and drink. They are looking for it and have come to expect it,” she said.

David Tibbles, global product director for online booking and environment at travel management company Carlson Wagonlit, agreed. “Customers want to know about the green measures they can take. They are asking more questions, with many still needing answers,” he said.

In response, the travel industry is introducing green measures to reduce the impact of business travel, but travellers will need to ask themselves whether the trip is really necessary.

“It really depends on the nature of the trip,” said Caroline Allen, regional director for northern and east central Europe and Russia at the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. “For example, training is necessary and has to be done in person, so you have to travel. It’s also important to be more forward-thinking when you travel, such as organising more meetings for the one trip.”

People should not lose sight of the importance of CSR, believes Frauke Spottka, a co-ordinator for VCD, the Transport Club of Germany. She suggested that face-to-face meetings requiring travel should be replaced by web conferences. “What is important is avoiding business travel, only making trips that are vital for the business,” she said. “The economic crisis will go away, but the environmental crisis will not.”

Using carbon offsetting to reduce the impact of travel was also a point of debate. While Spottka said carbon offsetting should be a “last resort”, Allen said it was “a first step”. Jonathan Shopley, executive director of the CarbonNeutral Company, suggested “offset and reduce strategies” were the way to go. “You can offset by investing in growing economies that have plenty of opportunities to reduce carbon,” he said.

The CSR mantra isn’t simply about being green, it’s about the welfare and well-being of staff, guests and the local community. But it’s not about charity, Shopley pointed out. “I think CSR has become fuzzy,” he said. “There are a range of things we can control directly and those we cannot. CSR and philanthropy are different things.”

Overall the future for CSR looks bright despite the downturn, especially as many green initiatives can bring economic benefits. Even so, there should be no complacency, said Hammond from Rezidor: “I think we are all aware that if we decide not to do anything we are going nowhere. With the economic crisis it may slip a little as companies get their house in order, but we can’t regress. Progress may be slower than we would have hoped for.”

Report by Sara Turner

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