‘A great deal of power lies with the consumer. Ultimately, we can ‘reward’ those companies that do the right thing and ignore those who continue to drive their profit margins by sacrificing vulnerable people and the environment.’
As both an environmental scientist and frequent enthusiastic traveller, Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University in Australia Dr. Susanne Becken was one of the first to link tourism with global problems. She has pioneered research on climate change and tourism, and is behind tools such as the world’s first tourism-specific carbon calculator. She was also involved in the development of the Global Sustainable Tourism Dashboard which tracks global progress towards sustainable tourism development. We asked her how travellers and hoteliers can work together to safeguard people and planet but still allow business to prosper.
If you had one hour in a room with all the world’s leaders today – what would you say to them?
I would tell them to hurry up, we don’t have much time – accept that we need to make deep changes that will hurt. Don’t try to invent solutions that look good on paper but will not work, because all they do is legitimise the status quo and allow some people to exploit them to their benefit. Let us agree on those things that we know will work, and then think how we need to restructure our societies so that quality of life does not depend on growth and consumerism. This will require a completely different global system, but there are ideas out there.
Do you have any real hope that this can happen, given President Trump’s announcements on climate change?
I have great hopes that the world, including the majority of the American population, are waking up to the danger that Trump is posing. Also, I firmly believe that he and his dubious sidekicks will soon trip over their lack of morality, foresight and wisdom. We must continue our good work, and trust in the fact that America will soon be back on track with other leaders from Europe and China.
All the environmental crisis we face take a huge toll on humanity – on poverty, security, public health and disaster preparedness. The interconnected nature of our eco systems and climate means that no country or community can be immune to any of these threats. How can we best harness human power and creativity to come up with solutions for all of our sakes?
By tapping into multiple sources. It’s important to take seriously what scientists say, but we also need to pick the brains of young people, including the very young, who see the world fresh and without any prior judgement. My 8-year old daughter inspires me – she asks questions that no adult would ask and sometimes has very straightforward solutions.
Our strong belief in technological fixes and market forces has not always served us well, and we need to listen more to those from different cultures with more traditional knowledge and consider alternative solutions – including those that require us to change behaviours. I am inspired by wise, political leaders who ‘make things happen’ such as Barack Obama, Helen Clark from New Zealand and of course Nelson Mandela, who fought for his beliefs in the face of greatest adversity.
There are examples of the negative environmental and social impact of corporate greed all around us. Some companies are starting to realise that addressing sustainability issues can actively spur economic activity and growth – how would you galvanise more companies to act responsibly?
A great deal of power lies with the consumer. Ultimately, we can ‘reward’ those companies that do the right thing and ignore those who continue to drive their profit margins by sacrificing vulnerable people and the environment. In some countries, we have seen progressive governments supporting the push towards greater corporate responsibility, but in many countries it is the industry that leads. Incentivising good practice through policies, mandatory sustainability certification and reporting schemes and preferential treatments can have a great impact. I believe that those companies who actively work on their various footprints are the smarter companies. Innovation and best practice go hand in hand, and companies that combine both will have a long term competitive advantage.
What in your opinion is the most pressing sustainability issue facing the travel industry today?
There is no doubt in my mind that it is climate change, but coupled with ecosystem loss, as this limits the opportunities we have to respond to climate change and maintain the planet’s resilience. When our ecosystems get weaker, so does the environment on which humans depend, with further pressure added by higher temperatures, more extreme events, ocean acidification, sea level rise, changing rainfall patterns and so on. Addressing the root causes of climate change by moving away from fossil fuels and stopping deforestation will automatically reduce many of the other problems we are facing.
Do you think it’s important for hotels and travel companies to prove they are sustainable, rather than just say they are?
Yes it is absolutely critical to prove what you are claiming. We are very used to accounting and reporting financial performances, and companies publish Annual Reports. Imagine if there was the same level of activity and transparency for environmental and social issues – we’d be making considerable more progress.
Do travellers care about sustainability?
In my view, an increasing number of travellers care about the sustainability of the product or service they consume. Some travellers are already very aware and educated and proactively make responsible decisions, and others need to be guided a little more. Research that we have done shows that even people who have very little experience (or one might say intrinsic interest) actually can become quite engaged when they are given the right tools and when they understand that sustainability often equates to common sense. So for example, nobody really wants to be in an air conditioned room (maybe as chilled as 18 degrees) with circulated air, unless they have to. Providing options to become comfortable with fresh air is very welcome by travellers – and when they learn that this is more sustainable they are delighted.
What do you do in your daily life and when you are travelling in the name of sustainability?
When I travel I try to travel light as additional weight means more fuel. I also try to combine several things into one trip where possible. I do buy carbon offsets, but not often enough. We are now developing a carbon policy at the University, and I hope it will become mandatory, at least in my Institute.