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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Radical Sustainability Experimentation in Tourism Highlights Challenges, Opportunities

“We don’t need everyone to do it perfectly to change the world; we just need double-digit percentages from a heck of a lot of buy-in.” — Natural Habitat Adventures’ Court Whelan

In responding to the climate crisis, companies have committed to a wide range of ambitious sustainability goals. The need to cut carbon emissions is a very real and urgent need; so, on paper the claims to be “carbon neutral” and “net zero” outline the ideal situation.

However, the reality behind those buzzwords may be little more than greenwashing — especially since many companies have turned to dubious carbon-offset schemes to achieve their goals. This is as true in the tourism industry as anywhere else: According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC)’s Net-Zero Roadmap for Travel & Tourism, 74 percent of travel and tourism businesses use carbon offsetting as part of their climate-action strategies.

But let’s be real: The drawdown solutions for an industry currently creating 8-11 percent of the world’s carbon emissions (WTTC) won’t be found by passing responsibility off to others. However, it could potentially manifest from the hard work, creative thinking and investment by companies embarking on radical experimentation to see what it truly takes to hit “zero” and be “neutral.”

“We asked ourselves, what might a trip look like today that could potentially be the future as a whole, across every single trip that we run? We set this very ambitious target: How low can we go now?” said Paul Easto, founder of UK-based Wilderness Group — which is committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 90 percent by 2030.

To test that question, Easto and his team set out to design and deliver a trip that created as close to no carbon as possible. They deliberated carefully over all elements of a three-day, four-person trip — which incorporated train travel, electric vehicles, off-grid accommodations, low-carbon food options and human-powered activities — while not worrying about the commerciality of it.

Ultimately, Easto said, the trip trimmed off approximately 60 percent of the carbon footprint typically generated by a Wilderness Group trip — which, at 140kg to 150kg carbon equivalent per guest per trip, is already quite low compared to industry standards.

Similarly, the team at Colorado-based Natural Habitat Adventures (Nat Hab) — which has invested in a wide range of sustainability and conservation initiatives — has also embraced audacious challenges as part of its learning journey. In 2019, the company ran a zero-waste trip in Yellowstone National Park — where it found managing food waste to be the biggest challenge. Building on what it learned during that experiment, Nat Hab rolled out waste-management practices across its portfolio. It has been most successful on those trips where the team has the most local control and can visit on-the-ground facilities in advance, such as those hosted in the US National Parks.

“Recycling is amongst the biggest challenges,” Nat Hab Chief Sustainability Officer Court Whelan said. “I think it’s because the mentality of people is ‘Oh, this trash goes in the recycling; so, it’s sustainable.’ But it goes a lot deeper than that. Obviously in progressive places, there are some great recycling programs; but that’s not the case in a lot of places.”

Importantly, Whelan emphasized that prior to recycling even coming into play, it is essential to consider all opportunities for refusing and reducing anything that could potentially become waste in the first place — which Nat Hab did on its zero-waste trip.

“This is a valuable lesson — it’s super important — but it gets very overwhelming, because you have to go through everything with a fine-toothed comb,” he said, to ensure potential waste never even makes an appearance in the trip experience.

This highlights one of the most challenging aspects of scaling these extreme sustainability experiments in tourism: Despite the success of and lessons derived from these highly controlled experiences, a single trip touches dozens of suppliers — all of which are in different places on their own sustainability journeys.

“There are three core elements to experiences that govern how much carbon is consumed on any one trip: transportation, accommodation and food,” Easto said. He said that, while service providers can control transportation and food choices, low-carbon accommodation options are far more limited — pointing to the challenge of addressing Scope 3 emissions.

“100 percent, the biggest challenge is our supply chain and working with suppliers to reduce emissions,” he said. “We can influence and try to shape and encourage; but it’s ultimately up to businesses to make that decision.”

This can be a particularly hard ask for small businesses — especially, those still trying to rebound from the pandemic.

According to Whelan, the supplier touchpoint offering the greatest opportunity for improvement are picnic meals: “This is partly because of how easy it is to be sustainable and how substantial it is when you go the ‘easy,’ unsustainable route,” he said.

Boxed lunches filled with individually wrapped items (many of which aren’t eaten) can be replaced with what Whelan calls a “deconstructed” picnic lunch — a scaled-back meal presented buffet-style that satiates hunger without giving into the hospitality expectation of overabundance.

While these experiments offer bountiful lessons, both Easto and Whelan note that perfection was never the goal — only the conversation starter. At Nat Hab, this meant moving away from implementing the zero-waste goal one trip at a time and incorporating manageable waste-reduction actions across all offerings.

“Rather than have 40 people each year do zero waste perfectly, let’s have 4,000 or 40,000,” Whelan said. “Let’s teach other companies to do zero waste imperfectly. We don’t need anyone to do it perfectly to change the world; we just need double-digit percentages from a heck of a lot of buy-in.”

Both Wilderness Group and Nat Hab are transparent about measuring and reporting on their environmental impact, which is reported on their websites. Additionally, both companies openly discuss their experiences and lessons learned with others across the industry.

“If you can see what is possible, then you can start to imagine how you would replicate this across the business,” Easto said. “This is extremely challenging; and I think the only way we’re going to get to where we all want to be is through collaboration and sharing those things that work.”

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