Business travel is defined as the ‘socially acceptable form of pollution’ but environmental opinion is that the pandemic has now forced a reckoning

“The world is opening up again and the appeal of business travel is coming back – but the rational arguments against it still exist. It’s just not our own health that’s at risk with every work trip, but our planet’s,” were the concluding remarks in a recent article in Fast Company, the monthly American business magazine.

The article, ‘The pandemic killed business travel. For the sake of the climate, it should stay dead’, delivers a strong statement and pretty polarised view on business travel, but is one that perfectly highlights one of the biggest challenges for the sector and could ultimately define the future of corporate travel.

There have been debates about changes to employer travel policy, sentiment of travellers, technology substitution, but many believe that a renewed focus on sustainability and overcoming the environmental issues that have clouded the industry for some time will drive future business travel strategies.

While offering the observation that business travel should “stay dead” is an extreme viewpoint, such is the current sustainability push that it could tip attitudes. We are already seeking answers to how much business travel will be substituted by videoconferencing channels. It may be far from likely reality, but it all ultimately could be lost to technology.

The Fast Company article leans to the view that it is not about what is best, but what is right. In an emergency situation the likes of Teams and Zoom have provided the band aids. We have all learnt that as a solution these channels have many benefits, but ultimately we would all prefer to actually meet face-to-face.

An in person meeting means so much more than a virtual one. It is also argued that it provides business benefits that you value a client’s time and business. Face-to-face meetings are key to building strong relationships and those subtle changes in facial features important in fostering trust.

But does that value offset the costs? When you add the cost of travel, the time taken to get from A to B (often taking in a transit in city C and even D) and the environment impact of that journey then that could all easily force the scales to tip. This doesn’t even consider the mental and physical impact that pressures frequent travellers.

Suddenly the view that travelling to an in-person meeting is comprised. There is also compelling data to back up the thesis. Though air travel, and specifically business travel, represents around 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it accounts for an outsized portion of an individual’s – and business’s – carbon footprint.

The Fast Company article highlights that one round-trip ticket from London to New York City – one of the biggest international business markets – generates more emissions than what the average person in 56 countries produces in an entire year. Short-haul flights can produce even more emissions per passenger than longer ones.

The COVID-19-induced pause on travel “prompted an estimated 75% drop in aviation emissions at the peak of lockdowns in 2020,” says the article, and this has clearly shone a spotlight on the role that business travel plays in climate change. It has “forced companies and individual travellers alike to reckon more directly with the impact that their sales trips and team-building jaunts have on the health of the planet,” its author suggests.

It is widely accepted that business travel will rebound – it has after every previous crisis. This time it could come back differently, and it will certainly come back slower. Should it “stay dead” for “the sake of the climate” as the article suggests? Well, that’s a personal opinion and it has to be acknowledged that there are numerous ways the industry is already working to mitigate environmental concerns.

Business travel may have been slayed by the coronavirus pandemic, but it is not dead and will rise again, but with environmental concerns certain to be a key part of travel policies and business travel decision. It will be a much more responsible industry in the future and one where business trips are more efficient, rewarding and ultimately have little or no direct impact on the environment.

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