Op Ed: Clayton Nelson On A New President, New Rules And A Fresh Mandate For Sustainable Travel

The U.S. government’s reorientation to more sustainable thinking is a signal to businesses, according to Egencia head of strategy and business development Clayton Nelson. He offers a roadmap for travel management pros to get involved.


In its first few weeks, the Biden administration has committed the United States to the Paris Agreement climate treaty, cancelled the Keystone Pipeline, signed executive orders regarding climate change, established the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and ordered a review of dozens of environmental policies.  The message to industry is clear: sustainability is a top U.S. priority. 

Despite the flurry of net-zero pledges and announcements about science-based targets, most businesses struggle to translate good intentions into tangible impact. According to a pre-pandemic study by the United Nations and Accenture, just 48 percent of CEOs said they were implementing sustainability into their operations. This new wave of White House pressure will prompt many more to join them.

As their boardrooms wrestle with the wide-ranging list of sustainability issues – from supply chains to clean energy – travel managers must play their part by scrutinizing the carbon footprint of their travel programs and identifying ways to reduce it. The global aviation industry produces around 2 percent of all human-induced carbon dioxide emissions.

The first step on the sustainability journey for travel managers is building a strong understanding of the relationship between the company’s travel program and its carbon emissions. The tools that do this best leverage dashboards to provide a single source of truth. Leadership can view trends, make comparisons and predict the impact of travel policy adjustments on future carbon emissions. Organizations can establish a baseline from which to measure future performance and analyze the efficacy of new initiatives.

Clayton Nelson, Egencia

Clayton Nelson, Egencia head of strategy and business development

The next action is adapting policies that encourage more sustainable traveler choices. For example, according to a recent UTSA study, an average of 100 kilograms of carbon dioxide is saved when a passenger chooses a direct flight over a connecting one. Rail travel for short-haul trips is also more eco-friendly, yet many corporates currently encourage travelers to select the cheapest option rather than the most sustainable one.

Travel managers, in partnership with human resources, must also take steps to educate and inform travelers about their own individual roles in creating positive change. A 2019 National Geographic survey revealed that 42 percent of U.S. travelers would be willing to prioritize sustainable travel in the future. Requesting a hybrid or electric rental car, using a digital boarding pass rather than a paper one and packing a lighter suitcase are small steps. At scale, they can have a major impact.

Measuring and communicating the impact of policy changes throughout the organization to create a constant feedback loop is also critical. Some businesses have experimented with allocating a carbon budget per team. They incentivize positive behavior by using analytics to show how the team’s eco-friendly choices lower the organization’s carbon emissions.

The two decisions that most impact an organization’s business travel-related emissions are also the most challenging: who can travel, and which trips are necessary? The answers to these questions vary due to many factors – job role, sector, geography – and must be weighed against the potential downside of limiting in-person interactions in favor of virtual business. However, along with employee safety, sustainability should be a key consideration as organizations plan their return to travel.

The United States remains a powerful, catalyzing force in the world. President Joe Biden has shown he is prepared to take action, and businesses will need to follow suit. Acting boldly and decisively now to stay ahead of regulation will pay dividends both for the C-suite and for the travel manager.


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Clayton Nelson

Author: Clayton Nelson

Clayton Nelson is the head of strategy and business development at Egencia. He is responsible for building Egencia’s long-term strategy and identifying the right partnerships for Egencia and its customers. Prior to joining Egencia, Clayton spent five years at Bain & Company as a manager in the New York office where he led strategy and mergers and acquisitions teams. During his tenure at Bain, Clayton partnered with global management teams across a variety of industries to drive innovation, efficiency and transformational growth. Prior to Bain, Clayton worked for BTS, a consultancy focused on strategy execution and innovation. Connect with him on LinkedIn
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