Greening Your Company's Business Travel

One of the dirty little secrets of environmental business conferences is that the environmental impacts of the participants' travel often negate any benefits resulting from the gathering itself.

The precise environmental costs of travel and meetings are elusive at best, but the point is not: business travel is not particularly environmentally friendly. The impacts come principally from the fuel used by planes, trains, and automobiles, and from the solid waste and other emissions associated with the $175 billion business travel industry.

Consider: A typical jet emits roughly one pound of carbon dioxide for each passenger-mile it travels, according to Trees for the Future, which operates a program to offset travel-related emissions. A round-trip between New York and Los Angeles creates about three tons of C02 per passenger -- 400 tons or more for a typical, fully loaded 737 aircraft. When you consider that in a typical year U.S. business travelers flew some 240 billion passenger-miles, according to data from the National Business Travel Association (NBTA), we're talking about a rather large forest needed to offset the emissions. And that doesn't consider private jets, or business travel by other means.

Of course, transportation isn't the only environmental impact of travel. Hotels, restaurants, and conference centers each require a variety of resources to operate and produce a myriad of waste streams.

A great deal of business travel is unavoidable, of course, though some companies are trying to change that. According to a 1998 NBTA survey of 450 companies, 54% said they intend to send fewer employees on business trips, up from 36% in 1996. The principal reason is economics, not environment, but the reduced eco-impacts will result in any case.

Beyond simply cutting travel, there are early indications of interest among corporate travel buyers in integrating environmental factors into their purchasing criteria, much as many companies already do in other aspects of procurement.

One encouraging sign comes from the U.K.-based Institute of Travel Management (ITM) in the form of a new Business Travel Environmental Code of Contracting. ITM, whose 800 corporate members each spend between £50,000 and £20 million (roughly $80,000 to $33 million) a year in travel, created the code to help members incorporate environmental criteria into their purchasing decisions.

The code began in 1996 as the brainchild of Lynne Bicknell, at the time European Travel Manager for financial services giant Salomon Smith Barney, an ITM member company. She wanted to incorporate environmental issues into the company's travel purchases "but found it extremely difficult as there were no guidelines available," she says. Working with Tourism Concern, a British nonprofit, Bicknell surveyed other U.K. companies and found that they, too, were interested in environmental travel criteria but lacked adequate information to make informed decisions. The resulting code is now being distributed to ITM members, and more information about Project Icarus is posted on ITM's website.

Bicknell, now an independent consultant, emphasizes that, "We are still at a very early stage with this," and that no company yet has adopted the standards. She describes the code as a first step to ensure that "buyers at least have something concrete to turn to." She hopes to see an audited industry standard "so that purchasers know if a travel industry supplier has achieved certain environmental standards."

It may be a while before a significant number of companies adopt the code, either in word or spirit. Still, greener business travel options are growing. Here's a sampling of recent developments:

Trees for Travel

Trees for the Future (TFTF) operates a program called Trees for Travel, planting trees to offset the global-warming gases resulting from company travel. Each tree planted absorbs 50 pounds of CO2 a year for at least 40 years, according to the organization. TFTF, which operates tree-planting programs in more than 60 countries around the world, works with local farmers to ensure the trees will reach maturity.

TFTF's clients so far have been mainly eco-conscious travel agents, who use the trees as a marketing vehicle. But there is growing interest from corporations to plant trees to offset travel. So far, Interface Corp. is the largest firm that has pledged to offset travel-born CO2 emissions.

CONTACT: Trees for the Future, 9000 16th St., Silver Spring, MD 20910; 301-565-0630; 800-643-0001; plant-trees.org.

Greener Hotels

The hotel and motel industry discovered eco-efficiency several years ago. Many large chains and independents have aggressively reduced energy use and costs through the use of compact-fluorescent light bulbs, water-saving devices, and the like. Select properties have gone well beyond that. And, of course, there are those ubiquitous placards in hotel bathrooms allowing us to choose whether and when to have towels laundered, thus cutting laundry costs and emissions.

Such efforts seem to be accelerating. The American Hotel & Motel Association offers a variety of print and video resources to member properties. And Green Seal, the U.S. eco-labeling group, has partnered with Green Globe, an environmental awareness project of the World Travel and Tourism Council, to certify U.S. hotels based on seven environmental criteria. Hotels that meet the standards can display both the Green Seal and Green Globe logos. Green Globe has a similar program in other countries.

Green Seal also recently launched a demonstration project to evaluate the potential for eco-efficiency improvements at hotels. The project will involve hotels' supply-chain partners, such as travel agents and suppliers of maintenance and energy products. Green Seal is working with Marriott and other chains to document the economic and environmental benefits, and plans to disseminate the results.

Contact: Green Seal, 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Ste, 827, Washington, DC 20036; 202-872-6400; 202-872-4324 (fax); greenseal.org.

Meanwhile, hotels are getting in on the act in a big way. An early example of the luxury hotel trend is the 193-room Sheraton Rittenhouse Square Hotel in downtown Philadelphia, which billed itself as the first "environmentally smart hotel." The hotel emphasizes indoor air quality, including a 40-foot-high bamboo garden in the lobby, designed in part to filter dirty air. Also: recycled granite is used for flooring; night tables are made from recycled pallets; beds are "organic sleep systems" that use 100% organically grown cotton; mattresses and covers are chemical-free, without toxic bleaches or dyes; and high-tech allergen filters trap minute air particles.

CONTACT: Sheraton Rittenhouse Square Hotel, 18th at Locust St., Philadelphia, PA 19103; 215-546-9400; 215-875-9457 (fax).

Greener Meetings

The waste associated with conferences -- from disposable utensils to paper use to promotional geegaws -- has long been a sore spot on the environmental front. Meeting Professionals International, the largest association of independent and in-house conference organizers, hosts an extensive roster of green meetings tips on MPIweb.org, including tips on how to hold a carbon-neutral event, a Green Meetings wiki and a list of what its chapters are doing to promote green meetings.

Meeting Strategies Worldwide, a Portland-based event managment company, has developed online resources for green meetings, available on their website at http://meetingstrategiesworldwide.com.

Alternative-Fueled Vehicles

It's fair to say that the rise of the Prius put green driving in a whole new light. Ever-increasing gas prices didn't help any, either. Green driving doesn't have to stop when you leave your home ZIP code, thanks to programs by car rental firms like Enterprise and Hertz. Both companies are offering increasing numbers of hybrids and fuel-efficient vehicles, and Enterprise has launched a carbon offset program for customers.

CONTACT: Hertz Green Collection: http://hertz.com; Enterprise "Keys to Green" program: http://keystogreen.com.

ITM Policy Statement

"The aim of the Environmental Code of Practice is to provide a tool for travel buyers wishing to incorporate environmental issues into their travel purchasing and policy and to encourage travel suppliers and buyers to work together to consider the impact of travel on the environment.

"By providing a mechanism for identifying suppliers of business travel who are committed to environmental improvement, we hope to encourage better standards industrywide.

"Suppliers of travel products and service should comply with all relevant legislation, including pollution control, health and safety, workers' rights, child labor, etc., in the countries in which they operate.

"Suppliers and their suppliers will show commitment to continual improvements in their products and services to increase health and safety measures, increase efficiency, and reduce the environmental impact of their products and services."