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What Is Sustainable Travel and Is It Possible?

The word sustainable is a hot buzzword these days, and you can find it attached to products and services in pretty much every market and industry. It sounds like it should mean something good, but how do you know if it does?

Let’s define the word first, then see how it applies to travel and how you can incorporate it into your habits.

When used correctly, a sustainable product, practice, or service presumes resources are finite and should be used wisely to protect and promote ecological health, human rights, and economic vitality.

When applied to travel and tourism, sustainable options are those that protect or preserve and promote the earth’s environment and local cultures and economies. This can mean reducing your carbon footprint by taking public transportation or biking to destinations, eating at local restaurants that responsibly source local ingredients from the native ecosystem, and purchasing tour services and souvenirs from local populations who are paid a living wage for their work.

It’s not about perfection; it’s about making smarter choices when you can to minimize negative impacts of travel (over-tourism, environmental damage, etc.) and maximize the positive (job creation, wildlife conservation, cultural heritage preservation, etc.). Now for some examples.

Transportation

Transportation can feel like the hardest area to make more sustainable choices. Afterall, if you’re striving to reduce your carbon footprint, shouldn’t you just not fly at all?

Not necessarily.

Here are some more eco-friendly steps and options to keep in mind:

  • When possible, choose a direct flight to use less fuel and emit less carbon.
  • See if you can travel with one of the IATA (International Air Transport Association) member airlines who offer carbon offset programs to neutralize the aircraft’s carbon emissions by investing in carbon reduction projects.
  • Review the latest reports by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) to see top airlines for fuel efficiency on Transatlantic flights.
  • Use the Airline Index (www.atmosfair.de/en) to see a comprehensive ranking of airline carriers by fuel efficiency and renewable energy project support.
  • Or use Skyscanner (www.skyscanner.com) to also view lower-emission flights.
  • To offset your carbon emissions, you can use any of these sites:
    • Glooby.com
    • Flygrn.com
  • If possible, choose to support renewable energy projects or capturing methane gas from landfills, as these are more impactful than only planting more trees

Accommodations

This might be one of the easiest areas to change your travel habits—mostly due to the explosion of alternative accommodation options available for booking online.

What to look for:

  • Hygiene and other packaging options in-room and in public spaces that aren’t single- or limited-use plastic
  • Signs about conserving water and not having your towels washed everyday by housekeeping
  • Alternative energy sources they are using
  • Energy-efficient lighting
  • Low-flow toilets
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Signs indicating monitored utility consumption and sustainable sewage management
  • A high percentage of local resources used; this means hiring local staff, buying local food, etc.

If chain hotels are your only option, look for these things:

  • No large gardens or golf courses (they require so much water to maintain!)
  • Eco-friendly policies are usually proudly displayed online and in the hotel
  • Seals of approval from green certifiers
  • A listing for a hotel sustainability manager as a part of their staff
  • Employing local people with living wages
  • Recycling bins in public spaces and in your room
  • Show reported data of their policies and efforts rather than solely marketing claims

Food, packing, and shopping

When possible, the food you eat should be sustainably grown in the local ecosystem and prepared by locals paid good wages. Avoid pre-packaged foods that most likely come in single-use plastics and with a hefty carbon footprint.

Packing should follow the “less is more” mantra. If you pack light, you’ll be able to walk further with it (fewer emissions from a cab). When you can, choose re-usable containers for your toiletries and not the mini, limited-use ones that are mostly packaging.

Buying souvenirs from local artists will mean more to you and the planet than something made in China and shipped abroad.

Avoid falling for greenwashing

This could require the most work in pursuing truly sustainable travel practices. Companies can use many terms that sound appealing but require no certification, authentication, etc. When terms like “all natural,” “eco-friendly,” “sustainable,” “earth friendly” are used, look for a certification to show what work they’ve. Simply using words like these to attract more customers is called “greenwashing” or “bluewashing.”

Be suspicious when:

  • They put tourists’ needs before the locals’ or the environments’
  • They use unskilled voluntourism with projects and efforts that are too short to make a real difference
  • They can’t answer your questions about their eco policies
  • They have fake or paid-for green certifications (you can find lists online of the real and fake ones)

Your goal is to support businesses with high ethical standards for Environment protection, social welfare, human rights, and animal welfare. It can take some extra time to find proof a company is serious about their sustainability claims, but it is always worth it.

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