From opting out of airline meals to eschewing amenity kits and hotel toiletries, micro decisions help make our trips more sustainable.

Before long, it will be a legal requirement for companies to have a plan to reach net zero by 2050. Business travel is a significant, if not the largest, source of many companies’ carbon emissions.

The task of achieving net zero business travel is a lofty one but one that many of us are simply overwhelmed by. In the ‘Top Priorities Survey 2023’ by the Institute of Travel Management, 48 per cent of travel buyer respondents noted that influencing sustainable travel practices was one of their biggest challenges. And’s 2022 Sustainable Travel Report found that while “sustainable travel is no longer the ambition of the few but of the many”, there is an increasing gap between what travellers say and what they do in this space.

Glenn Thorsen, global sustainability lead at FCM Consulting, commented in Skift’s ‘Megatrends’ that this is a result of ‘thinkwashing’, where the task at hand becomes so complex, you don’t do anything. While corporate travel buyers and their sustainability compliance counterparts trouble themselves with global travel policies to plot a path to net zero, it’s important that individual business travellers are engaged to contribute to this goal.

This obviously involves considerations around ‘purposeful travel’ and when it is appropriate to make a business trip, but it should also involve guidance on much smaller, more relatable behavioural choices. These may seem inconsequential on their own, but collectively they can make an enormous difference.

Thorsen also referred to the need to avoid ‘carbon tunnel vision’, where passengers only worry “about what type of winglets a plane has, or how efficient the Pratt & Whitney engines are” while ignoring other key metrics over which they have more control. Many of these ‘micro decisions’, whether onboard an aircraft or in our hotel room, have been available to us for a long time. However, some are more recent and should be increasingly offered to travellers.

Skipping the airline meal

In January, Japan Airlines started giving all passengers the choice to opt out of the meal service when making a booking. There may be many reasons why one might choose to forgo an airline’s catering offerings, but for JAL its “Ethical Choice Meal Skip” option is aimed at reducing food waste.

A single cancelled meal may not sound like much, but IATA states that airline food waste amounts to almost six million tonnes every year. It is estimated that 20 per cent of food served in the cabin is returned untouched and subsequently incinerated. Many airlines also offer the option to order your choice of meal before you fly to reduce unwanted food.

We have other choices as well. How many of us have requested a second key card in a hotel (or used your Boots Advantage card) to keep permanently in the room’s electricity card slot to power the aircon or charge your iPad while you’re out? Previously in this column, I have confessed to being a habitual remover of in-room toiletries (of a certain quality) to pointlessly fill my bathroom cabinet at home. While I have seen the error of my ways and ceased this wasteful pursuit, this is a choice we can all make on a regular basis. I’ve recently stopped using the second bath towel in the room as well, although I’m pretty sure it still ends up in the laundry basket.

Another choice I now make is to decline the onboard airline amenity kits. Admittedly, this is partly driven by the often-useless contents, but also an effort to avoid waste, in the (probably naive) hope that they will be returned to the catering department for redistribution.

A sustainable choice that I often fail to make (for no good reason) is to use a mobile boarding pass instead of a paper one when checking in at the airport. I stupidly allow the comfort of a piece of paper to prevent me from doing the right thing.

Finally, as a solo business traveller, I rarely have the opportunity to rideshare to and from the airport, but I’m sure there is more I could do to make better choices in this area.

I have the privilege of sitting on the Institute of Travel Management Taskforce for ‘Building Responsible Travel Programmes’. This is an initiative set up to provide guidance to travel buyers at companies of all sizes in shaping a sustainable travel programme.

It covers all the macro considerations when making travel policy but we are also looking at practical tips for travellers that they can action immediately. Ultimately, the journey to net zero feels more achievable if broken down into smaller steps that we can all take, with micro decisions adding up to make a massive difference.

Richard Tams is an airline consultant and executive coach