• We can all take steps to reduce the environmental impact of our work-related travels.
  • Individual actions - like the six described here - can cumulatively help prompt more collective changes, but it helps to prioritise by impact.
  • As the saying goes: be the change you want to see in the world.

For those who, like us, operate in work environments that demand significant amounts of travel, the toll it can take on both their health and the planet is significant - but eco-conscious professionals concerned about their environmental footprint can take tangible and impactful steps to reduce it while they are on the road.

The important overarching principle for reducing one's environmental footprint is “don’t sweat the small stuff”. Study after study shows that people tend to focus their attention on small, tangible things to help the environment; our intention here is for you to get the most bang for your buck with the actions that are still within your power as an individual. The cumulative impact of these can be absolutely transformative thanks to the buying power of consultants and active professionals, and can help shift entire industries. Furthermore, modelling eco-conscious behaviours at work can encourage colleagues to reflect on their own footprints, particularly for those in senior leadership positions, ultimately creating a “ripple effect” of green behaviours.

Here are six ways we recommend you get started, in order from the easiest to implement to the most environmentally impactful:

1) Travel with trust: When looking for a place to stay, look for accommodations that utilize various sustainability standards. This may include facilities that use renewable energies or are a part of coalitions such as We Mean Business that are striving to reduce waste in all aspects of their operations. Use the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s list of trusted standards used in different countries as a guide.

2) Travel light: Just like at home, travelling is an opportunity to think carefully about what you consume and how. Minimize your use of the mini toiletries at your hotel (most of which are being phased out since they are single-use, non-recyclable plastics). Reduce your overall water footprint by opting for “green choice” programs to reuse your towels and sheets during your stay. Better yet, leave a note saying you would like to see more package-free, sustainable purchasing in all of the hotel’s operations! Take a step further by reducing or eliminating your own waste by bringing your own items, like a reusable coffee cup, water bottle and other utensils. (Foldable cups, bottles and utensils are ideal for most business baggage and are a great way to impress clients and colleagues.) More impactfully, change your dietary choices by opting for red meat-free or plant-based meals.

3) Travel small: Whether flying, on the ground, or in your room, small is generally better. If you must fly, get better carbon savings by staying in economy. If you can’t take a train or bus and need to take a car (taxi, ride-hailing, or otherwise) opt to pool, and look for a small hybrid, or ideally an electric vehicle (EV).

4) Travel slowly: Avoiding air travel all together is an impactful way to reduce your carbon emissions. Compared to most of our European counterparts, those of us in North America have a hard time getting a good train or bus; but Amtrak, VIA Rail, regional transit and bus services are improving and, throughout the world, many of these options are readily available. “Slow travel” is gaining traction around the world and offers opportunities to travel not only with lower emissions, but more comfortably, too.

The relative carbon footprints of the most common modes of transport
The relative carbon footprints of the most common modes of transport
Image: Sightline Institute

5) Travel regeneratively: Concepts like carbon offsetting can be complex, but the principle behind them is simple: if we cannot avoid certain negative impacts in what we do, we must always search for ways to mitigate those impacts. To be fair, there are many valid and varied critiques of carbon offsets and other mechanisms like them. However, so long as air travel and other environmentally significant travel are options that cannot be avoided, negotiate with your employer to purchase carbon offsets as a meaningful way to help repair some of the damage we inflict while doing sometimes unavoidable work.

6) Travel carefully: The most important decision that someone who travels for work can make is whether or not they need to travel at all. Telecommuting isn’t always ideal, but the energy associated with travel — particularly for high-income or high-ranking professionals — is immense and one has to really be able to make a clear rationale for why a particular trip matters. Use carbon calculators and have a clear sense of the metrics you’re measured on, as to how this trip can contribute (or not) to your work.

From behavioural change to systems change

As Millennials and Generation Z move into positions of greater authority in the workplace, it is incumbent on us to leave a better path for those who come next.

Many Global Shapers are starting to explore ways to embed sustainable travel in both our individual and organizational practises and we invite you - the reader - to reach out to us with any ideas and suggestions on our list. This could look like building a contractor or employment agreement for your job that explicitly mandates or supports sustainable travel. Better yet, use your conscientious travel as an opportunity to spark an organization-wide conversation about developing a sustainable travel policy.

In the end, the climate crisis and environmental challenges around the world require both individual and collective action. Global Shapers, and members of the World Economic Forum, are privileged, connected and prominent leaders. We cannot wait for policies or procedures to be in place before we start mobilizing for change, but rather we can and must leverage our positions in society to create the baseline of expectations for living in balance with the planet. As the old saying goes, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.