I recently hit an incredible post-COVID milestone: I took my first business trip. As I flew to our Portland, Maine, office for some much-needed face-to-face time with coworkers, I noticed that the flight attendants no longer pass out beverages. I figured this was in place to prevent passengers from removing their face coverings en masse, but found myself wondering about the environmental impact of keeping such a policy post-pandemic. If every airline discontinued single-use cups permanently, how much plastic could we save from landfills every year?
On a macro scale, we know the pandemic lockdown had a real, if incidental, climate impact. The global reprieve from commuting and travel contributed to a 7% drop in carbon emissions. Now, as travel corridors begin to reopen, every climate-aware executive has the same question: What happens to the planet when we go back to work?
Refraining from flying entirely is an obvious way to help. But research has shown that companies struggle to apply sustainability initiatives to their corporate travel programs. While close to two-thirds of companies have a sustainability policy, only 35% have one that includes business travel, per my company’s recent research. Yet business trips are one of the biggest corporate contributors to carbon emissions. Any sustainability program that leaves business travel on the table is missing a significant opportunity to reduce their carbon footprints.
As business trips return, now is the perfect moment to future-proof your programs for a lower environmental impact. Making green business travel choices won’t be easy. Ultimately, it translates to behavioral changes, and we all know those are the hardest changes to implement. But there are small steps every organization can take, even without a formal travel sustainability initiative, to encourage greener behavior while on the road. Here are five ideas to get started.
GIVE EMPLOYEES A CARBON BUDGET
Give all of your employees an individual carbon budget and enable them to make travel purchases that have a lower impact. Once they’ve used all their carbon allowance, they’ll need to opt for carbon-neutral airlines, sustainable ground transportation, or simply a virtual meeting.
RULE OUT ONE-DAY TRIPS
We’ve all been guilty of this one: jumping on a plane to attend a single meeting and flying back the same day. Challenge your company to eliminate one-day or one-meeting trips entirely. Instead, see if you can extend your trip to a few days and try to take as many meetings as you can at the destination. It’s a much more effective way to build connections—and the environment will thank you.
TAKE THE LONG, MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY CONSCIOUS WAY HOME
This might seem counterintuitive, but employees might be enticed to take slower and carbon-friendlier modes of transportation if they knew that these options actually lend for more productivity time. For example, taking the train from Boston to New York gives you about three hours of heads-down time, versus only 45 minutes by plane. When you factor the travel time to airports from downtown business districts and check-in times, the overall time difference can be minimal. Promoting this messaging internally can help you appeal to busy employees who otherwise wouldn’t consider traveling by rail.
EMPOWER EMPLOYEES TO CHOOSE SUSTAINABLE VENDORS
The same report from my company found that only 14% of organizations are willing to pay more for sustainable travel vendors. With U.S. companies spending tens of billions of dollars per year on domestic travel in pre-pandemic times, committing even 20% of that spend to green-certified businesses would have a significant impact on your company’s carbon footprint.
You don’t have to transform your purchasing habits all at once. Every year, try to transition another 5% of your travel spend to sustainable vendors. Of course, you’ll want to get employees on board, too. You might reward employees who choose sustainable transportation, accommodation, and food vendors with gift cards or PTO.
MAKE GREENER PURCHASING CHOICES AT EVERY LEVEL
Currently, only 22% of companies are using sustainability data when making supplier selections. At best, they might take an airline’s carbon offset commitments into consideration, but for every other purchasing decision, they’re in the dark. Expanding your expense tracking to measure everything that happens on a trip can help employees make conscious choices at every level, from the car they hire to the hotel they choose.
It’s important to remember “environmentally friendly” isn’t a yes/no setting—it’s a range. Green expense tracking can also help guide employees to mitigate their carbon impact within a certain purchase. For example, if time constraints mean an employee absolutely has to fly, you might guide them to select an airline that uses lower emission air fuel.
ENCOURAGE AND EMPOWER BEHAVIOR BEFORE YOU ENFORCE IT
As I said earlier, sustainable travel requires behavioral change. When companies struggle to implement these programs, it’s often because they’re focusing on writing the perfect policy instead of trying to instill intentional behavior at the ground level. That’s why many of the ideas listed are designed as challenges—not hard and fast rules. So, instead of feeling like they’re forced into helping the company meet ESG targets, employees feel encouraged and empowered to be part of the solution.
It’s hard enough to coordinate the return to the office, even without a sustainability approach. But since your employees will already have big life changes afoot, this is the absolute right time to “soft launch” an action plan. Once employees have successfully transformed green travel behavior into concrete habits, then, and only then, should you evolve them into formal policies.
At the end of the day, your employees want to work for a conscious, ethical employer. Show your commitment to the planet with action first.
Eric Friedrichsen is the CEO of Emburse, a global leader in expense management & accounts payable automation on a mission to humanize work.