Heavy-handed approaches to sustainable travel policies risk alienating travelling employees

20 July, 2023

British business travellers are prioritising cost, convenience and loyalty ahead of sustainability, according to latest research completed for spend optimisation provider Emburse.

The May-2023 survey of British business managers and travellers by Censuswide reveals that while the environment is front of mind for many companies and their travelling employees, the majority are yet to turn good intentions into concrete actions, and are placing the onus on the other to implement sustainable travel.

According to the report, 38% of businesses reported increased investment in sustainability, with 71% reporting having a formal sustainability policy or guidelines in place (38% have a formal policy, and 33% have a set of guidelines in place).

However, only 37% of these businesses actively enforce these policies during bookings and travel expense approvals. Just two-in five (43%) are considering implementing initiatives and incentives (such as travel budget incentives, cycle to work schemes and remote training) to encourage sustainable employee travel.

One-in-four (25%) businesses do not have a business travel sustainability policy, and 6% do not plan to implement one.

When travelling, while the survey reveals that 38% of businesses have increased investment in sustainability, over a quarter (27%) have reduced sustainability investment, due to higher cost of doing business.

When booking business travel, 31% of business travellers prioritise cost-effectiveness, followed by convenience and accessibility (27%), loyalty and rewards programmes (21%) and then by sustainability (16%).

Only 26% of respondents said they would proactively cut down on travel to reduce their carbon footprint and only one in six employees cited sustainability as their key priority when making travel plans, significantly below both cost and traveller convenience.

Whilst environmental concerns remain a low priority during the booking process for business travellers, 71% said their employer should do more to enable sustainable travel.

Meanwhile, the majority (76%) of employees also agreed they would take a more sustainable mode of transport if financial incentives or sustainability programmes were available.

‘We can’t just go back to business as usual when it comes to emissions’

While business travel has “defied expectations” by seeing an almost complete return to pre-pandemic levels, “we can’t just go back to business as usual when it comes to emissions,” notes Jeroen van Velzen, SVP Travel & Mobility at Emburse.

“Businesses and travellers both need to work on reducing their carbon footprint. It’s promising that more organisations are putting sustainability guidelines and policies into place, but this data shows we still have a long way to go until it becomes a priority,” he adds.

Mr van Velzen acknowledges that whilst travel managers could strictly enforce their companies’ policies to help achieve carbon goals, such a “heavy-handed approach risks alienating travelling employees”.

Instead, educating travellers about the impact of their trips needs to be delivered in “easy-to-understand terms – like how many houses could be powered by the energy used on a trip,” he says, and can lead to “much higher levels of compliance”.

Above all employers “need to provide employees with tools to make smarter decisions, and employees need to use that insight to make more environmentally friendly travel plans,” he explains.

“We need to move beyond paying lip service to environmental issues and turn good intent into meaningful action,” he adds.

Employee demand for sustainable travel incentives has risen by a fifth since 2021

Since Emburse’s 2021 survey looking at sustainable business travel post-pandemic, employee demand for sustainable travel incentives has risen by 19%. The 2021 data also found only one in nine (11%) employers had listed sustainability as an important factor for business travel arrangements. Two years on, cost is ultimately the most important factor when it comes to booking business travel for both businesses and employees.