Last week I held a corporate talk discussing the benefits of sustainable travel, and thought now might be a good time to share them here. Despite the recent news of battery-powered cruise ships, and flight fuel made from algae, we’re a long way away just yet. Whether you’re thinking of booking a holiday, or already have one lined up, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to lessen your footprint, wherever your destination…
How To Travel More Sustainably: 9 Steps
1. Stop Flight Shaming
Holidays provide us with much needed respite from our lives’ routines, and with that comes an opportunity to reflect on how we’re living our lives. I would rather approach sustainable travel from a place of acceptance and belonging, than to point the finger and guilt you. Especially when you’re taking a break from work, where, let’s be honest, your employer is probably more polluting than you are.
As I said in my guide to holidaying sustainably, flight shaming doesn’t work. Simply skipping a flight isn’t a sustainable option that you can always make. What if your family live abroad? What if you want to visit one of the wonders of the world? Flying is sometimes inevitable.
What’s more important is to review the entire context of your travel…
2. Calculate Your Annual Impact
In my guide to carbon offsetting, I noted that “travel may be good for the soul, but it certainly isn’t for the environment.” It’s often the first worry I have when planning to travel. But what about the emissions? The impact? Will this trip undermine everything else that I do?!?!
Let’s first frame travel alongside the rest of your carbon impact. Consider your travel alongside:
- Size of your home
- Distance you drive per year
- Typical diet that you eat
- Amount that you shop
How does it add up? Don’t grab a pen and paper – instead, try my favourite carbon calculator.
When I used the calculator, I’ll be honest, I was quite staggered at my score. Despite being conscious of my impact (i.e. no car, shared home, less than 10 hours of air travel per year, pescatarian and dairy-free diet) I create an estimated 6000 kg of carbon dioxide emissions per year. That’s the equivalent of driving 38,000 miles, or flying for 63 hours straight!
When compared to the UK average of 11,000 kg per person per year, it’s not bad. But we can all do better.
(If you got a good score – well done! But don’t start booking a carbon-intensive holiday just yet – individual emissions are only part of the picture).
3. Figure Out How To Soften Your Footprint
In Do Earth: Healing Strategies for Humankind*, Tamsin Omond suggests making five changes to soften your footprint on the earth:
- Have one day a week where your whole menu is plant-based
- Replace short journeys with walking, cycling, or public transport
- Research the climate and ecological emergency
- Take one year off any of the following:
- Buying new clothes
- Taking short-haul flights
- Travelling abroad
- Eating meat (especially beef)
- Buying new tech
- Decarbonise your finances
Out of all of five, I think you can do four of them while on holiday (and even five, if you really want to spend your time off researching the climate and ecological emergency). While the message is clear – flights aren’t helping the environment – what I am trying to highlight are the other ways we also need to lighten our footprint, across our habitual lives, rather than simply fretting about holiday travel.
4. Choose Your Location Wisely
When planning your travel, it’s most likely that you’ll start with a destination first. Maybe you want to swim in the Mediterranean, maybe you’d like to ski, or maybe you simply want to see toucans in the wild. Before you select a destination, ask these questions:
- How can you lessen the impact you have on the local environment while taking your trip?
- How will you affect the local communities, whose land, wildlife, and economy you’ll be visiting?
- Is tourism damaging the area itself?
Here’s a few examples of popular tourist destinations, and how tourism is negatively affecting local people and wildlife:
1. Bali, Indonesia
Bali is known for its sandy beaches, exquisite temples, and welcoming culture. But did you know, in 2022, the island declared it was in the midst of a “garbage emergency”? This was partly as a result of years of tourism. Today, it still has thousands of tonnes of plastic pollution wash up on its beaches. This image comes fro Laura in Waterland, who helps to run beach cleans in Bali.
In 1988, Maldivian authorities claimed that rising seas could entirely cover the nation within the next 30 years. Now, the prediction is that by 2050, 80% of the country could become uninhabitable due to global warming.
Yet tourism is responsible for 30 percent of the Maldives’ GDP. And the air travel these tourists take is a major contributory factor to the carbon emissions that are driving the climate crisis and threatening the Maldives’ existence.
3. Alexandria, Egypt
Alexandria is Egypt’s most popular coastal city, and it receives millions of visitors every year. However, during the high season, the town’s traffic can become heavily congested. To fix this, Egyptian authorities have erected flyovers along the beach front, which is subject to huge controversy both for its disruption of the beach and view, and the coastal erosion it will cause.
To summarise, when choosing your location, try to:
- Consider the impact of tourism as a whole
- Take a staycation if you’re looking for a simple break – here’s how I’ve been doing just that here in Brighton
- Visit a holiday destination in low-season, which will lessen your impact as a tourist
- Go somewhere off the beaten path and integrate yourself with the local people and culture
- Avoid resorts, cruises, and other high-impact tourism activities that give nothing back to the local population
(Plus, for holiday destinations I’d personally recommend, check out my list of eco-friendly holidays!)
5. Buy Less Stuff
Next, let’s talk about consumption. I practice mindful consumption in my day-to-day life, so holidays are tempting to take a break from that; to throw caution to the wind and buy buy buy. With a level head, I have to say there has to be a fair middle ground here. Holidays can be especially tempting to buy new stuff for – clothes, shoes, toiletries, tech, books – so be sure to ask yourself:
- Do I need it?
- Can I buy it second hand?
- Can I buy ethical instead?
You’ll not only save money, but you’ll save on unnecessary environmental impact and waste, too. It’s also true that if you pack light, you’ll reduce the emissions that your luggage produces too!
While on holiday, of course, have fun. Sometimes being mindful should translate into indulging yourself. But I urge you to do this through meaningful activities, sightseeing, and food, rather than buying clothes you don’t need, souvenirs you don’t want, and anything else that’s mass produced and probably doesn’t even originate from the local area anyway. Choose meaningful souvenirs – perhaps a painting of the local place, a shell from a beach, or a book from an independent store.
5.1 Buy Less Clothes
In the UK we buy more clothes than any other nation in Europe. It averages out to 67 new items of clothing per person, per year. It’s just too much.
Holiday shopping is one of the big pushes to buy things we don’t need – I have to admit, I have a matching sun hat for one of my bikinis and honestly it’s probably a little unnecessary.
To avoid adding to the above statistics, I recommend not buying new clothes for your holiday. Instead:
- Check your wardrobe
- Borrow from friends, family, or coworkers
- Rent (skiing equipment, evening dresses, beach coverups, etc.)
- Shop second-hand
- Choose ethical instead
As I live by the beach here in Brighton, it’s also worth noting that on every beach clean I’ve been on, I’ve found fashion waste. Be it a bikini label from SHEIN, or a TKMaxx hang tag, buying clothing while heading to the beach – or even on the beach – is a big no from me. Littering the packaging – that’s an even bigger no.
5.2 Buy Less Single-Use Items
Next, let’s talk about holidays and the convenience of single-use items. Sometimes it’s inevitable that you’re going to need to buy something disposable. For example, I’d rather you be hydrated while travelling than avoid bottled water altogether.
Holidays, and travel more generally, can often cause decision fatigue. This is when you become overwhelmed after making many on-the-spot decisions, which often occurs when doing something outside of your routine, when travelling, or when in an unfamiliar place. Deciding what to eat while waiting in a train station can feel like a difficult task when you’re trying to stick to a schedule, find a platform, or even navigate delays and cancellations. Retailers even know and take advantage of this phenomenon, putting expensive bags of sweets next to checkouts and stacking shelves high so you can’t make a truly considered purchase. But it’s why I don’t prescribe only ever going for the most sustainable option all the time – that level of eco perfectionism is unreasonable.
If you are travelling, and want to avoid single-use items, I recommend preparing in advance. That way, if and when the time is right, you can make more mindful decisions. I’d recommend packing:
- Water bottles
- Coffee cups
- Reusable cutlery
- Wax wrap
I’d also recommend researching where it’s safe to drink tap water, so you can cut back on lots of plastic.
However, you may find yourself running around an airport to find the single water refill station like I have in the past. And in the grand scheme of things, one single-use plastic bottle that you’ll most likely recycle after use just doesn’t compare to the emissions about to spew out of that plane…
5.3 Buy Less High-Impact Items
Finally, if you are going to buy new things for your next trip, why not get them from sustainable sources? Here’s a few guides to get you started:
- 150+ Sustainable Fashion Brands
- 40 Plastic-Free Swaps
- Eco-Friendly Tech
- Eco-Friendly Sunscreen
- Sustainable Swimwear
- Sustainable Sunglasses
- Waterless Beauty Products
And in other news, we’ll be allowed to travel with full-sized beauty products by June 2024! Hurrah!
6. Choose Alternative Transport
Last week I was part of a corporate talk on sustainable travel and one stat that really surprised me – 57% of the UK population don’t fly! And only 15% of the population take 70% of all flights! ✈️🤯— Besma | Curiously Conscious (@BesmaCC) June 27, 2023
Did you know, 57% of the UK population does not fly abroad at all? And on top of that, 15% of UK travellers take 70% of all flights? It shows that flying is a privilege. Despite the constant coverage in adverts and media, it’s not something a lot of the world does, or even the UK population.
The reason flying is so heavily scrutinised is because it makes up a large chunk of tourism emissions. In fact, 2.5% of the tourism sector’s overall global gas emissions come from aviation. However, cars also make up 1.5% of the overall figure. So choosing to travel less, and in a lighter impact way, is best.
6.1 Reduce Unnecessary Trips
The first way to reduce unnecessary travel is to refuse and reduce trips. In a post-covid world, virtual meetings and events are quite normal, and can be preferred over expensive, timely, travel.
It’s also safe to say that if you work in the environmental space, you’ll be aware that the optics of travel is often negative. I’ve refused press trips to Europe and even the Caribbean because it didn’t make sense to travel that distance to interview a CEO, or promote a resort. Flying politicians to COP is similar. Wasteful travel, while previously seen as luxurious, now just isn’t a good look.
Reduce travelling on either side. Travel from a local airport, and fly into the closest airport at your destination. Take public transport over renting a car.
Take the train. Travelling around the UK and Europe is incredibly easy by train. My favourite destinations to go by train: Bath, Paris, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, and of course, where I live now: Brighton.
Finally, it should go without saying, but don’t fly for the ‘gram. I’m really hoping that if you’re reading this, you already know that flying out somewhere just to take Instagram-worthy pictures is incredibly damaging to the planet and local communities.
6.2 If You Are Going To Fly…
Finally, if you can’t avoid flying, or you’ve decided it’s worth the emissions, try following these steps to lessen your impact across your flights:
- Fly less often: Take fewer trips generally.
- Fly less mileage: Consider short haul flights rather than long haul. You’ll save money and emissions.
- Fly direct: Avoid stop-overs even if they’re cheaper – aeroplanes use a lot of fuel taking off and landing, representing a higher proportion of fuel usage on a short-haul flight.
- Fly Economy: Flying First or Business Class means more space per seat, which equates to more carbon per passenger.
- Fly with less luggage: Again, less stuff, less weight, less emissions.
7. Choose Eco-Friendly Accommodation
The hotel sector accounts for around 1% of global carbon emissions. That’s quite a large chunk! And with construction being hugely negative for the environment, it’s no wonder. However, when travelling, you’re going to need a place to stay, so look for accommodation that:
- Is self-sufficient
- Uses renewable energy
- Supports the local community
- Pays staff fairly
- Has an eco-certifications
If you’re looking for certified sustainable hotels, there are two different types of certifications that are relevant:
- Environmental certifications for the building itself. Examples include LEED and BREEAM.
- Environmental certifications for how a hotel is operated. Examples include Green Key, Green Globe, ISO 14001, EU Ecolabel, Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) Criteria
I would also recommend looking for the Living Wage Employer certification for UK accommodation, as that can help you to see which hotels are paying their staff fairly here in the UK. For hotels with restaurants, certifications such as Slow Food or SRA are a good indicator that their sustainable approach is holistic too.
8. Respect The Local Culture
According to the Federation of Small Business, for every £1 spent with small businesses, 63p remains in the local economy. This figure drops to just 40p when you spend your pounds with chains, showing how money gets siphoned off from local economies. This is even more important abroad, where tourism spending will likely make up a larger proportion of the local economy. Here’s how you can be a better tourist while travelling:
1. Support small and independent business. When you visit a new destination, try exploring the small, independent businesses and supporting local people. Sure, McDonald’s and Pret provide a sense of familiarity, but big chains siphon money away from local economies, and sure don’t provide an authentic experience of the places you’re visiting.
2. Interact with the local people and their culture. One thing I learned from my year of living abroad in Paris is that no matter the competency of bilingual speakers, there is value in making an effort to speak the local language and keep up with their customs. In Morocco, for example, I ensured to wear clothing that covered my skin, so as to show respect and fit in. Sure, all-inclusive holidays or cruises may be easy to book, but they offer no real way to respect local people and customs, and often rinse areas of their best resources and aspects.
3. Do as the locals do. Often, the locals will know the best restaurants, bars, and green spaces, so keep an eye out for where they frequent!
Saying all this, leads me into how the social part of sustainability is often missed, especially when it comes to travel. So if there’s one thing I’d like you to go away thinking, it’s “how can I better support the local people in the places I holiday in?”
9. Make A Positive Impact
Finally, let’s talk about making a positive impact, rather than simply mitigating a negative one. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to experience more of the world. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d spend the rest of my life travelling! But travel is a privilege, and we need to look past just lessening our impact, and instead, making it a positive one.
How can you make a positive impact while travelling? Here’s four ideas:
1. Consider how you interact with the local area. As noted before, scout out local independents and small businesses. Not only will it make your holiday more memorable, you’ll also enjoy a more authentic experience, and help support the local economy.
2. Roll in some conservation. Our earth is home to so many beautiful places and wildlife, so if you’re planning on visiting any beauty spots, see if you can do so in a way that creates a positive impact. Donate to conservation efforts, volunteer, and respect local rules and laws.
3. Give back. Instead of fussing over your negative impact while on holiday, why not try to make a positive one? That could be through charitable donations, buying carbon offsets or even doing something as simple as a litter pick or a beach clean.
4. Offset your emissions. Carbon offsetting should be seen as the final act for unavoidable emissions. For flights, Atmosfair and Cool Earth are highly recommended (and please, don’t use airlines’ own offsetting programs!) More generally, I like Climate Wise to offset annual emissions.
Pay it forward, preserve the wanderlust, and leave it better than you found it!
Remember: Individual Change < Systems Change
Finally, it’s worth remembering that your individual impact can only go so far. In reality, we need to challenge systems to change them for better social and environmental sustainability.
In her book, It’s Not That Radical*, Mikaela Loach says: “Just making so-called ‘better’ choices – or ‘greenwashing’ the existing capitalist system – is simply not enough. We have to directly confront the system itself.”
So consider, which systems are you part of? Both where you live, and also where you travel to? And how can you change them for the better?