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Marketing and Comms
Tourism Carbon Labels Educate Travelers, Motivate Companies to Reduce Emissions

Given the pandemic pause, it’s hard to say whether these labels will sway decision-making for travelers. Regardless, these publicly shared labels hold travel companies accountable for measuring, sharing and continuing to reduce their carbon emissions.

If you had a choice between a five-day kayaking trip along Sweden’s Saint Anna Archipelago and five days paddling along the Pelion Peninsula in Greece, which would you choose? Would being able to clearly see that the trip in Sweden has an average carbon footprint of 48kg per person (including all local transportation, accommodation, food, activities, guides, staff, and office operations) while the one in Greece is 220kg per person influence your decision?

Carbon labels on food products and menus started making news in 2020. A natural extension of nutrition labels, they contain information about carbon emissions and occasionally other supply chain details. Now the concept has been adapted for the tourism industry — where a growing number of companies are measuring and publicizing the carbon emissions created on their tours, like those for the paddling trips in Sweden and Greece.

“Because it’s quite a new thing, I wouldn’t say there are a lot of people going out looking for it right now; but I think that will change,” said Claire Copeman, co-founder of Adventure Tours UK, which publishes carbon emissions alongside departure dates and trip duration. “At the moment, when people do see it, it’s an extra bonus. It’s like, ‘well, this trip looks great and I can see that it’s low impact,’ and they like that.”

For Adventure Tours UK, sharing carbon emissions online with other relevant trip information is just one of the ways it engages with travelers about the climate crisis and environmental challenges. The company also has a carbon-mitigation program that strategically plants one tree per traveler in its local area of Northeast Wales, in partnership with the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. When the company’s tour leaders actively talk about these carbon-mitigation strategies on trips, Copeman said travelers are genuinely excited.

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“Because we’ve measured the carbon in the first place, we know the footprint, we know the tree is doing more than it needs to, and there’s a tangible tree at the end, it helps people understand the whole process a bit. For some people, it’s not a gamechanger for them. It’s just interesting to know,” she said. “But for others, there’s a real genuine feeling of ‘I’m playing my part by traveling with this company.’”

Most travelers don’t understand what carbon emissions are or how to make sense of them in the tourism context. Yet more travelers are becoming more conscious consumers, so education is a key reason tour companies are publishing carbon labels with their itineraries. Perhaps more importantly, these publicly shared labels hold travel companies accountable for measuring, sharing and continuing to reduce their carbon emissions.

“The marketing team knows how much its website traffic has increased by exact percentages. The finance team obviously knows about revenue. The customer service team knows if the average review has gone up from 4.2 to 4.4 stars. But there’s been a lack of a numbers-based approach to sustainability,” said Charlie Cotton, founder of ecollective, which helps travel companies measure and reduce their carbon footprint. “When it comes to sustainability, no one is perfect,” he said, but measuring carbon emissions is required as a benchmark so that companies can begin reducing them.

Measuring carbon emissions is not simple, however; and tourism’s supply chains are particularly complex. In addition to calculating office and staff operations, tour companies must work with dozens of partners — including accommodation, transportation, food, and activity providers — to calculate carbon emissions for a single itinerary. “In theory, we should be at a stage where you should be able to contact your suppliers and get this information, but that’s not where we’re at,” Cotton said. “Instead, when you contact your quad-biking supplier in Dubai, they’ve got no idea what the carbon footprint is per trip.” Every time this happens, a tour company needs to work with that singular supplier to help it determine its carbon emissions, which makes carbon measurement the most challenging part of publishing carbon labels.

Recognizing this complexity, Much Better Adventures not only published carbon labels for all of its trips in February of this year, but called on all tour companies to do the same and made its methodology available: “Our hope is that by releasing both our measurements and the methodology we used, it will encourage other companies to more easily follow suit, and build on what we’ve done so far,” the company notes in its documentation.

ecollective’s approach is to make the measurement process as easy and as quick as possible, getting as much data as possible to calculate a fairly accurate benchmark score without getting too bogged down in details that keep tour companies from taking any action. “We want to get to the reduction side and start making reductions that we know will be quantifiable and verifiable and actually make a difference,” Cotton said.

The few tour companies publishing labels have only been doing so for less than a year. Given the pandemic pause, it’s hard to say whether these labels will sway decision-making for travelers. However, consumers are increasingly skeptical of companies that may be greenwashing; and clearly labeling carbon emissions is a transparent and objective way of communicating environmental commitments.

More importantly, measuring and publicly sharing the carbon footprint of trips is motivating companies to actively find ways to reduce emissions even further. Adventure Tours UK, for example, is currently working with partners to make improvements throughout the supply chain and considering changes to some of its itineraries so that more nights are spent at low-energy accommodations and less time is spent driving.

“Everything we do has a carbon footprint,” Cotton said. “But, as a business, you want to be able to tell a customer, ‘This is our carbon footprint. You know we have one. We know we have one. But we’re going to address the elephant in the room, and we have a plan in place to make sure that year on year, we’re going to make sure our carbon footprint is going to get smaller and smaller.’”