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Workers Want Their Companies to Make Business Travel More Sustainable

  • Business travelers want to cut their carbon footprints, even if that means changing how they travel.
  • Companies are implementing sustainable-travel programs to meet employees’ demands for changes.
  • A lack of standardized carbon-footprint calculators and disparate reporting makes it hard.

So long, free pretzels: Many business travelers say that much of the flying and driving they do for work just isn’t worth the cost to the climate.

For most business travelers, pandemic lockdowns meant spending more time working from a couch at home than in an airport lounge. Now, as travel continues to pick up, many workers are taking another look at the effects of scooping up all those frequent-flyer miles and car-rental points. But it’s not always easy to get a clear picture. 

A recent survey of 1,000 business travelers from SAP Concur found that 88% of respondents were willing to take steps to reduce their environmental impact while traveling for work, even if doing so could mean opting for a less-fancy hotel or going by bus instead of car.

About four in 10 respondents said they would take fewer but longer business trips, 40% said they would stay in a “less preferred but greener hotel,” and about one in three said they would take public transportation. 

Overall, younger generations were most keen to adapt their travel plans, with 93% of Gen Z and 89% of millennial respondents saying they were willing to make changes.

Above all, employees want more information about their business trip’s climate impact — almost nine in 10 respondents — along with the opportunity to compare sustainability measures for accommodation and transport options.

“More comprehensive sustainability reporting will not only help guide organizations down a more eco-conscious path but establish worldwide industry standards that can make a real impact on global travel emissions,” Brian Hace, the head of travel products and travel-management company services at SAP, said, adding that he was heartened by the data.

“Making business-travel programs more sustainable can be a game-changer in enabling companies to meet net-zero goals,” he said. “We’re in the midst of a fundamental shift in how businesses respond to climate change.”

Business travel’s sustainable face-lift

In the past 12 months, 76% of US travel managers surveyed by SAP in a companion survey said their companies had updated travel guidelines or policies to have a greater sustainability focus. 

They’re not alone: About 13,000 companies disclosed data on climate change, water security, and deforestation in 2021, a jump of 37% year over year. And 1,000 companies have set targets that align with the Paris climate accord, which aims to limit global warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. 

It feels like the ground is starting to move. 

Organizations are increasingly taking sustainability into account. As part of this, many issue reports on how they’re doing when it comes to their environmental, social, and governance goals.

James Dent, the ESG and sustainability lead at the business-travel specialist TravelPerk, said more companies were setting science-based targets for cutting emissions.

“We’ve seen a huge recent increase in corporate climate disclosures,” he said.

And according to Dent, employee demands are just one factor.

Other incentives include pressure from customers and investors, many of whom want to see companies glove up in the fight against the climate crisis. Plus, making these steps toward sustainability can make a company eligible for inclusion in ESG investment funds, which are growing in popularity.

Companies are responding to these incentives in numerous ways, including by prioritizing direct flights, focusing travel on essential trips, choosing rail over air travel, and using defined budgets instead of corporate cards.

“We’ve also seen businesses compensate for avoidable emissions through offset programs,” Hace said.

More is needed 

But we are not out of the woods — even if those woods have sprung from plant-a-seed offsetting programs. Because, as Hace put it, both a lack of standardized carbon-footprint calculators and disparate sustainability-reporting criteria can result in a misreporting of emissions.  

Dent said some necessary changes weren’t happening as quickly as they should.

“The aviation industry isn’t decarbonizing anywhere near fast enough,” he said. “Electric planes are still a good couple of years away but would completely revolutionize the way we travel short-haul, not only for business but more generally, too.”

Plus, sustainable travel options are often pricey. Sustainable aviation fuel is typically three to four times as expensive as conventional jet fuel, Hace said, and eco-friendlier direct flights often cost more than those that are indirect.

This might not matter as much for big companies that can adjust budgets to make up for climate-conscious spending. But small companies with limited funding are likely to have a harder time affording the sustainable route. 

“It’s a problem of accessibility,” Hace said, one that needs addressing fast. Employees want their employers to take action.