How to find sustainable travel companies

People said the pandemic made them want to travel more responsibly in the future.

Now the new data indicates that they really are.

According to a report published in January by the World Travel & Tourism Council and Group:

Nearly 60% of travelers have chosen more sustainable travel options in recent years. Nearly 70% are actively looking for sustainable travel options.

But finding companies that take sustainability seriously isn’t easy, said James Thornton, chief executive of travel company Intrepid Travel.

“You see hotels that say they are sustainable, and then you are using these little travel bottles for shampoos and shower gels,” he said.

It’s all just “greenwashing,” he said, referencing the term that describes efforts by companies to appear more environmentally sound than they are.

For a company to say that it is “100% sustainable” or that it is “environmentally conscious”… it means nothing.

james thornton

CEO, Intrepid Travel

The term has gained popularity along with the increase in demand for sustainable products and services.

The result is a mix of those who are truly dedicated to the cause and those who pepper green buzzwords and pictures of seedlings, forests, and other “green” imagery on their marketing materials, without any real action to back up their claims.

Find companies that are sustainable

Be careful with these tactics, Thornton said.

“For a company to say that it is ‘100% sustainable’ or that it is ‘environmentally conscious’… it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “I urge travelers to be very cautious when you see these words, and to really dig in and look a little more closely.”

Consumer interest in sustainable travel has changed considerably over the past two decades, Thornton said. He said that when he joined Intrepid travel 18 years ago, “people looked at us like we were a little crazy” when the company talked about sustainability.

Now, many companies are doing it, whether they are serious or not.

Thornton said he believes the travel industry currently falls into three categories. A third have “incredibly good intentions, and [are] working very actively to address the climate crisis… and they’re making good progress.”

Another third have “good intentions but [aren’t] still taking action. And often… they’re not quite sure how to act.”

The last third “is just completely burying your head in the sand and hoping this will go away, and the truth is it doesn’t.”

To identify businesses in the first category, Thornton recommends travelers look for three key things.

1. A history of sustainability

To determine if a company is jumping on the green bandwagon, look at its history, Thornton said.

He advises looking for “a long history of association with sustainability issues, or is it something that just came along?”

Intrepid Travel CEO James Thornton.

Source: Intrepid Travel

If the message is new to the company, that’s not a deal breaker, he said.

“But that would encourage the client to probably want to look a little deeper to see if what a company actually does has rigor behind it,” he said, “or if it’s something that’s just done for marketing sake, and therefore so much green wash.”

2. Check the measurements

Next, travelers should see if the company measures its greenhouse gas emissions, Thornton said.

“The honest truth is that all travel companies are ultimately contributing to the climate crisis,” he said. “So the best thing any travel company can start to do is measure the greenhouse gas emissions it generates.”

To that end, Thornton advised travelers to consult the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism.

“The Glasgow Declaration website lists organizations that have agreed to actively reduce their emissions… and actually have a climate plan that shows how they are doing it,” he said.

Signatories must publish their climate plan, which is monitored by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, he said.

“Consumers can use this as a way to check if the company they are booking with is serious about decarbonising,” he said, adding that more than 700 organizations are on the list.

Thornton said travelers can also check out the Science-Based Targets Initiative, which is a partnership between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, the World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Its website has a dashboard detailing the emissions reduction commitments made by more than 4,500 companies around the world, including American Express Global Business Travel, the UK’s Reed & Mackay Travel and Australia’s Flight Center Travel Group.

3. Look for certifications

Finally, travelers can check out independent reviews, Thornton said.

One of the most rigorous and impressive is the B Corp Certification, he said.

“It took Intrepid three years to become a B Corp,” he said.

Other companies with B Corp status include Seventh Generation, Ben & Jerry’s, Aesop… and Patagonia, which Thornton called “arguably the most famous B Corp in the world.”

To get it, companies are reviewed by the nonprofit B Lab, and a certification lasts three years, Thornton said.

Kristen Graff, director of sales and marketing for Indonesia’s Bawah Reserve resort, agreed that B Corp is the “most respected” certification.

Graff also recommends the World Council for Sustainable Tourism, saying that he and B Corp are “actually… legit.” The GSTC does not certify travel companies, but rather accredits third-party certification bodies that use its standards.

Bawah Reserve, a resort in Indonesia’s Anambas Islands, is applying for B Corp certification. The resort uses solar power and desalinates the island’s drinking water.

Source: Bawah Reserve

Other travel ecocertifications are less demanding, Graff said.

“A lot of them are just a scam to make money,” he said.

Bawah Reserve began the process to become B Corp certified in November 2022, Graff said. “We anticipate that it will take about a year to complete,” he said.

B Corp uses a sliding scale for its certification fees, which start at $1,000 for companies with less than $1 million in annual revenue.

“The cost is pretty minimal,” Thornton said, especially “if you’re serious about sustainability.”

He said Intrepid pays about $25,000 a year for certification.

other tips

Thornton also advised travelers to ask questions like:

Do you use renewable energy sources? Is the food locally sourced? Are the employees from the local communities? Who is the owner of the hotel?

He said there are places that are perceived as sustainable but are “actually owned by a casino.”

Lastly, Thornton recommends travelers check online reviews.

“Often a little bit of Googling…can give you a really good indication as to whether a hotel or travel experience is doing what it says it’s doing, or actually doing a greenwash.”

Clarification: This article has been clarified to reflect that the World Sustainable Tourism Council accredits third-party certification bodies that use its standards.