Sustainability’s Journey from Sexy to Substantive

Sustainability Technology

Sustainability’s Journey from Sexy to Substantive

Apr 05, 2023 / By Vanessa Horwell

April is Earth Month, which means climate change and sustainability are top of mind for the ThinkInk team and many of our peers across the aviation, tourism and travel industries. And for the first time, it’s not the big-concept, blue-sky ideas that excite us about these issues. 

Instead, it’s the emergence of businesses – clever and innovative companies - dedicated to the nitty-gritty aspects of sustainability, like reporting and data management, that’s caught our eye. It’s the big-dollar investments by blue-chip airlines that say, ‘We’re not just paying lip service to environmental concerns; we’re putting our money where our mouth is.’  And yes, it’s even the high-profile pushback from a handful of industry executives (contradicting overwhelming traveler sentiment), signaling that the climate change movement is real enough to be taken seriously at the highest levels.

Up-and-comers on the travel sustainability scene

Let’s start with the fun stuff first - the fast-growing tech companies dedicated to under-loved but critical components of the travel sustainability ecosystem that we’ve got our eye on. 

A few weeks ago, we learned about CHOOOSE; it’s a platform built to help companies measure, reduce and manage their emissions (and empower consumers to measure, reduce and manage their own carbon footprint - I’m giving it a test run this quarter). We also just learned about BeCause, a startup that’s built possibly the first hub to help travel, hospitality and tourism companies (among other sectors) collect, coordinate and communicate the staggering volumes of sustainability data being generated and overcome the inefficiencies of how they manage and share their sustainability data with partners and other stakeholders.

Neither of these companies are trying for pie-in-the-sky ambitions like developing a solar-powered commercial jet that would be, at best, decades from viability. They’re focused on creating value from the essential nuts-and-bolts processes surrounding sustainability initiatives. That’s a sign of sector-wide maturity and a real reason to be optimistic.

Big green market, big green investments

There’s clearly a huge need for companies like BeCause and CHOOOSE, judging by some of the headlines I’ve been reading in our aviation and travel universe just in the last few days. United Airlines is doubling down with a 2nd investment in carbon capture, plonking down a cool $5 million (of its $100 million-plus Sustainable Flight Fund) into Svante, a Canadian carbon capture startup. Following the airline’s multimillion-dollar investment in carbon sequestration partnership 1PointFive three years ago, United has prioritized carbon capture as a path toward sustainability (and, at some point, profitability).

Other airlines are leaning into sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), the environmentally friendly air travel solution du jour. But some have moved beyond “exploring the viability” (the corporate doublespeak equivalent of ‘thoughts and prayers’) of SAF. 

Last week, Vistara Airlines became India’s first carrier to operate a wide-body using SAF, promising to reduce emissions of around 150,000 pounds of CO2 for each flight (in partnership with Boeing and GE Aerospace, on Vistara's newest GEnx-powered Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft). Qantas Airways and Airbus announced a joint $1.34 million investment in a biofuel refinery being set up in Australia's Queensland state, while in the US, Snohomish County and Washington State University have partnered to establish a center to develop new fuels, both efforts designed to increase large-scale SAF production.

EVA Air also finalized an order for five additional 787-9 Dreamliners, signaling the Taiwanese airline’s intention to prioritize carbon efficiency with its fleet, if not an outright embrace of SAF.

SAF might be dominating the headlines, but the very fact that it is, is indicative of an airline industry that is taking climate impacts very seriously and putting real force behind solutions to mitigate those impacts. On the flip side of the coin, however...

Nattering Nautical Naysayers

Closer to home in Fort Lauderdale last week, CEOs from the cruise sector debated the reality of their sustainability goals at the annual Seatrade Cruise Global conference. While the cruise trade body CLIA has set a goal for the industry to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, some skepticism prevails if NCL’s CEO’s comments are anything to go by: "I think everybody cares [about sustainability] to some degree. Will they pay for it?" That executive, Frank Del Rio, continued, “...we've been carried away by this narrative about sustainability and renewables and green and blue and everything else, and I think it's time to be more balanced."  

At the same conference, Del Rio’s position was supported by Henry Dennis, a leisure travel advisor for Frosch in Charlotte, who said, “I don't think that I have ever had a potential client inquire about what a vendor (cruise, tour, hotel/resort or airline) was doing to get to net zero or what their sustainability plans are.” His point is that travelers (cruise travelers, at least) really care about their experiences, not sustainability.

The traveling public begs to differ

But that discounts the fact that sustainability is part of a positive experience for many travelers. The editorial team at PhocusWire talked about this in a recent ‘Travel Talk’ session: A Virtuoso survey conducted in 2022 found that 75% of travelers were willing to pay more to travel responsibly as long as they knew how those funds were used, and 40% would seek guidance from travel advisors.

And speaking of travel advisors, BTN’s Elizabeth West raised an interesting point during the same Travel Talk session – that travel managers have an incredible influence and role in shaping demand for sustainable travel at the corporate level, thereby stimulating demand across the entire ecosystem. (Of course, the more widely adopted sustainability becomes in the corporate ranks, the greater the need for standardization and frameworks, so hello BeCause’s addressable market!)

The takeaway is that it’s not just those GenZ backpackers answering surveys that drive the demand for sustainable practices in travel and tourism; it’s institutional entities like corporate travel management companies. And just as high-profile criticism indicates a groundswell to be taken seriously, so is the tacit endorsement of traditional gatekeepers like travel managers.

All this contributes to our optimism and excitement about travel sustainability at ThinkInk.

Combined with big players in tech demonstrating their commitment to cleaner energy and our own adjacent industry (advertising) raising the profile of carbon impact in ad production, there are plenty of reasons to see the sustainability movement as mature and, well, sustainable.

So this Earth Month, we look forward to working with more companies that find novel approaches to making “purpose” profitable and accelerating the pace of change in the industries we serve.


Vanessa Horwell

Vanessa Horwell
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