It's time to bring travel and its associated emissions out of the closet
Delve deeply into most companies' environmental and carbon targets and the chances are that, if the company is growing, costs and emissions from travel will be increasing. Most companies will happily talk about behaviour change initiatives to cut waste or office energy use, but if the conversation moves towards travel, it all goes quiet.
When you talk to people about the reluctance to address carbon emissions from travel, you get a variety of stock answers. The CEO is wedded to his beloved car and doesn't want the debate; our high achievers are literally high flyers and we can't curb their travel; company cars and travel benefits are an essential part of our rewards package; clients demand that we meet them face-to-face. And so on.
But the times they are a-changing. Fuel prices are soaring, profits are being squeezed and hard-pressed chief financial officers are starting to demand instant solutions. Cue a range of draconian top-down initiatives, one of the current favourites being no-travel days and even weeks. These are typical of an attempt to fix a major cultural and behavioural challenge with a piecemeal sticky-plaster approach.
Global Action Plan, with support from Telefónica O2, has been bringing together a range of diverse businesses and organisations to openly discuss the transport challenges they face. The ultimate aim is to increase collaboration and provide freely available guidance as to how a more strategic approach could help organisations deal with this most obstinate of issues.
The debates have been fascinating. An overwhelming consensus quickly emerged that dressing up no-travel weeks as green initiatives, when they are really about cost saving, won't fool anybody. This is greenwash, and it can damage internal trust in the organisation's whole CSR agenda. Besides, employees will often simply move meetings to after the no-travel week, or classify their travel as essential. The sticky-plaster approach fails because it ignores the fundamental cultural change that is required if businesses are serious about changing the way in which their employees travel.
A range of other common themes have emerged. Most organisations admit that they have no strategic policy in place to cut travel without damaging business efficiency. Responsibility for the issue floats between human resources, fleet management, CSR teams and ICT departments.
This lack of strategic overview manifests itself in a mishmash of procedures and policies with no consistency. For example, encouraging people to work from home doesn't chime with line managers' expectations of bums on seats in the office. The plethora of different ways to book travel means that it is hard to track actual costs and carbon emissions. Taxis are a prime example of this; the financial and carbon cost is often lost as people claim the money back on expenses.
Almost every organisation bemoaned the fact that their video conferencing facilities were under-utilised because staff feared that, if they tried to use it for an important meeting, it wouldn't work or they'd do something wrong. Yet simple solutions are available and the openness of the discussions quickly brought these to light. A simple buddying system has helped one company increase uptake; another company is using a system that shows the comparative cost and carbon emissions of virtual meetings versus face-to-face; and another simply ensures video conferences always start 10 minutes before the hour to allow time to sort out any IT glitches.
A strong strategic lead is key when it comes to client relationships. The endemic culture is that clients expect to see you face-to-face to ensure that they are getting value for money. All the companies we spoke to agreed that this narrative needed to change. Stronger messaging needs to highlight that travelling less is more efficient, costs less and leads to a more productive use of time and the client's money. Clarity is also required as to who owns the carbon in the client relationship and whether transparency in this area could be used as a driver for change.
A clear consensus emerged that this was a non-competitive topic around which there should be more collaboration, on many levels. Businesses could combine their buying power to help stimulate the changes they wish to see with suppliers; jointly they could highlight to the government a wide range of policy issuesthat they feel are hindering progress; and they could share examples of best practice to speed the uptake of sustainable solutions.
Addressing how people travel is always a sensitive subject and the barriers to organisations making headway are cultural, policy-driven and organisational. Equally, there is next to no incentive from the government for them to change. That said, there are examples of businesses employing genuinely innovative solutions. What our recent conversations clearly highlighted is that transport is an area that needs considerably more discussion and collaboration if tangible long-term solutions are going to become commonplace. Global Action Plan will continue to openly explore this issue and, encouragingly, many organisations seem keen to join us in this important discussion.
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