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Four Steps to Create a More Sustainable Travel Program

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Four Steps to Create a More Sustainable Travel Program - SAP Concur


Business travel is a significant producer of economic activity. It generated $1.65 trillion revenues in 2019 according to the World Bank ($1.4 trillion according to McKinsey, and $1.1 trillion according to Bank of America); that’s 2% of the world GDP ($87.752 billion). It creates jobs and contributes needed tax revenue for governments around the world. Americans alone make more than 405 million long-distance business trips in a typical year, which is why the return to travel is essential for economic recovery. 


Simultaneously, the travel industry has been responsible for around five percent of global carbon emissions in previous years. Though the decline of travel in 2020 has reduced carbon emissions momentarily, companies must plan to contain their environmental footprint long term. 


Since many travel programs are still slowed because of COVID-19, now is the ideal time to pause and adjust travel policies to better align with corporate sustainability commitments. The following four steps can help organizations determine what needs to change, take action, and ensure impact through a more sustainable travel program.


Step one: Analyze


As a first step, companies should analyze what they are currently doing to travel more sustainably. This assessment will help determine goals for further progress and pinpoint changes needed to meet them. 


Companies should also identify any existing processes and policies that could become bottlenecks or barriers. Anticipating change management is also key. Are there limiting mindsets or behaviors that might hinder executives or employees from making desired changes a reality?


"It's worth looking into the travel policy to see how flexible it is and if there are answers or statements given regarding how much shall be traveled, who decides who needs to travel, and any restrictions or guidelines, like if business or economy class shall be used," said Antje Vogel, former Sustainability Manager at BCD Travel, during an SAP Concur Travel Industry Summit. 


Step two: Strategize


Next, companies should develop specific, tactical recommendations to reduce their greenhouse gases and empower employees to travel more sustainably. It may be beneficial to work with consultants specializing in sustainability efforts or enlist the help of travel vendors, such as booking tool providers or travel management companies (TMCs).


One consideration may be adopting a climate or carbon budget supported by technology and data analysis. Many travel and expense platforms offer analytical tools to review how much carbon is released by the organization in a typical quarter and help set lower targets. Individual travelers can understand the environmental impact of their flights before and after booking by using add-ons for business travel platforms, free online calculators, and TripIt's Carbon Footprint feature.


"The annual climate budget is, in theory, the maximum allowable budget you can spend per person and per year if we want to limit global warming to a maximum 1.5 to 2 degrees until 2050," said Vogel. "The international community and scientists put all the figures together, and they broke it down to a maximum allowable budget of 2,300 kg CO2 emissions." 


Another solution is to evangelize sustainable booking and travel decisions:  Employees should be advised to select the most sustainable route when booking travel. According to Julien Etchanchu, Sustainability Practice Lead at Advito, a new generation aircraft is 20-25 percent more efficient, on average. When feasible, traveling by train is generally less expensive and may be more sustainable than by plane. Switching from air to train when traveling from Beijing to Shanghai can save around 300 kg CO2 per round trip, for instance, and provide cost savings to the bottom line. Resources are available to make this easier for travelers, including booking tool add-ons that highlight more sustainable choices and offer impactful ways to offset their footprint.


Also, consider encouraging travelers to prioritize text or email receipts. According to the nonprofit Green America, up to 10 million trees and 21 billion gallons of water are used every year to create receipts in the U.S. alone. Those receipts generate 686 million pounds of waste and 12 billion pounds of CO2, equivalent to the carbon released by one million cars on the road. 


Step three: Engage


Regular communication across the organization provides a more comprehensive, transparent view of where things stand and what might get in the way of change. Communicate on an ongoing basis about why sustainability is important to the organization, what employees can do to travel more sustainably, and how their individual contributions really do matter. 


In addition, offer training to help inform employees about policy changes and the actions they can take, on an individual level, to make a difference. In August, TripIt from Concur conducted a survey of its customers that revealed 65 percent find understanding how to travel sustainably challenging. An effective training session may outline the organization's sustainability goals in detail, explain what employees can do and the tools available to help achieve them, and ultimately permit travelers to make booking decisions based on sustainability over other factors.


Step four: Measure


Just as teams are held accountable for sales, revenue, recruiting, or other performance metrics - hold the organization accountable to its sustainability goals by measuring and reporting on progress. Track the company's overall carbon budget spend and how the average traveler sticks to their allocations. Highlight measurable ways that the company and its employees have offset their impact through meaningful investments. Build these conversations into performance management discussions, quarterly business reviews, and more.


Lastly, be sure to adjust policies and procedures based on the company's results to ensure continued progress and greater impact over time. Companies mustn't become complacent or allow these corporate social responsibilities to take a backseat to other organizational priorities. 



COVID-19 has been an impetus for companies to re-evaluate and re-shape their travel policies to better align with existing and emerging needs, including protecting the planet's health for generations to come. This temporary pause in business travel is a key inflection point to establish and reinforce more extensive corporate sustainability commitments. Now is the time to act.


Need help with your travel policy? Watch this video to learn how TMCs can help you. 

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