“We fell short of our target…”
“We will use this data to identify our next steps…”
“Although we didn’t move as fast on this goal as intended, we’re now…”
If you see these as warning signs from travel companies that failed to meet their goals, I invite you to look at them through a different lens.
For years, companies across all industries have been opaque with consumers about business operations and tone deaf in response to the wider world in which they operate.
Those days of blatant disregard to reality and lack of transparency with consumers seem to (finally and thankfully) be coming to an end. Instead, we’re starting to see companies like Intrepid Travel and Exodus Travels (as noted in the quotes above, pulled from their impact reports) clearly state their goals, update consumers on progress toward those goals, and share action plans for ongoing action.
This evolution is, in large part, due to consumer demand: Several recent research studies have shown more people are becoming conscious consumers and they expect brands to follow suit. There is pressure on brands to prioritize and set goals related to reducing carbon emissions, addressing diversity and inclusion, and maximizing positive impact in affected communities — and rightly so. The way society has functioned under extractive, capitalistic-focused models of “progress” has been, and continues to be, unsustainable.
As we race toward 2030 — the benchmark year noted in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and a key pivot point for cutting carbon emissions — the pressure on brands and individuals to take action grows.
But this can feel overwhelming: Setting goals and then measuring and reporting on them takes time, energy, and financial resources that a lot of companies don’t feel they have. This is especially true of small businesses and particularly in industries like tourism, which are still trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The questions and doubts seem to compound each other: Where do we start? What do we prioritize? How do we avoid greenwashing? What if we get it wrong?
How do we do it all?
If you represent a travel brand and you are asking yourself these questions, know that you are not alone. We live in a very complex, interconnected world, so tackling any single issue inevitably leads to a whole web of other questions that need answers and problems that require solutions.
The truth is that there is no easy answer, nor is this a one-and-done task. Being a responsible brand — or individual — in this complex, interconnected world is a journey. It means taking one action today and another one tomorrow, slowly moving away from where you are now toward a more sustainable model.
It doesn’t require perfection. But it does require ongoing, measurable progress and truthful, transparent communication with consumers about that progress.
That truthful, transparent communication is key.
Is it scary to publicly share a journey where you or your brand might misstep or fall short? Absolutely. And it is hard, especially because so many systems within which we live actively work against this. But being transparent about your efforts to shape your company into a more sustainable and inclusive brand has many knock-on benefits beyond simply responding to consumer demand.
Cancel culture and public shaming can send brands into silence and submission. That’s a scary place to find yourself and your company. But “failure” to meet sustainability-related goals doesn’t mean you’ve failed as long as you’ve made quantifiable, meaningful progress.
When it comes to creating a more responsible brand, you’re rarely “done.” Instead, there should be a cycle of setting benchmarks, measuring progress, reporting on progress, and continuing to improve. Even those brands that often seem ahead of the curve acknowledge there’s always a way to do better: Patagonia’s refusal to use the word “sustainable” to describe itself because it is “part of the problem” is a great example of this.
It’s performative actions without real progress that will actually harm your brand — not falling short of stated goals but still showing improvement.
Learning from others
Reporting on progress is an opportunity for others to learn. There is no need to recreate the wheel if others have done some of the heavy lifting already — and with the doomsday clock ticking, we don’t have time to create millions of wheels for the first time.
It is particularly important for large, international, and more resource-enhanced companies to publicly share their goals and progress so that smaller, resource-strapped businesses can take advantage of what those larger companies have learned: What are they doing? Where is the low-hanging fruit? How are they measuring? What tools have helped them along?
This also grants permission for developing brands to embrace transparency within their ecosystems right away without fearing retribution for not being perfect. As more companies normalize reporting on progress, this invites others to start their own journeys.
When tourism brands embark on a more transparent sustainability journey, they respond to consumer demand. But beyond that, publicly stating sustainability goals forces brands to put pressure on themselves to actually do something about those goals. When these initiatives are penciled into a notebook shoved into a quiet corner of the office, it’s easy to forget about them. In the public domain, though, brands are accountable to consumers and themselves.
This public accountability is actually a good thing: Representatives from many companies I’ve spoken to say that investing time and effort in measuring incentivizes them to improve. Once there is a clear understanding of where they’re at, they eagerly look for ways to create healthier company cultures and become better stewards of the environment.
When your company knows it has a responsibility to publicly report on its impact, it’s far more likely to keep its goals front and center, track its progress, and ethically present itself in the public domain to those conscious consumers eager to support transparent brands like yours.