Sustainable Travel

Travel is an inescapable part of most people’s lives, and for many of us, work travel can be a big contributor to our carbon footprint. So what suggestions can we make to our organizations, big or small, to reduce that footprint? Here I present four potential principles to keep in mind when designing a sustainable travel policy for the workplace.

Principle One – Sustainability begins at home.

Sustainable travel is not just about long distances. We have to use some form of transport to get to work or to move around our towns and cities, and organizations can help their staff to make more sustainable choices about how to do this. For example, the Quaker UN Office (QUNO) in Geneva will be installing a shower in an upcoming revamp of their building, which will make staff more likely to cycle, run or walk to work. All QUNO staff will have free passes for the local transport network. When an organization takes such steps—along with interest-free loans and other sorts of discounts—all staff are encouraged to travel sustainably.

Principle Two – Do we need to travel?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” and the first of those can apply to travel. Face-to-face meetings do have a certain human quality to them, but for meetings that involve traveling long distances for short periods of time, we should first ask, “Is this really necessary?” Technology has advanced to the point where high quality video conferencing programs can be used with ease, and documents can be worked on together using remote collaboration software. These options are so appealing because they range from the high-tech and expensive to the functional and free. It is always useful—with regard to staff time as well as the environment—to pause and ask ourselves what value we will really take from a face-to-face meeting.

Principle Three – Trains before planes.

All travel has an impact, but there is undoubtedly a hierarchy of sustainable methods. Traveling from London to Geneva by plane releases 186kg of CO2 per passenger, while a small car (depending on the number of passengers) releases 98kg. A train, on the other hand, only emits 38kg per passenger. (Walking, of course, has the lowest carbon footprint.)

Principle Four – If all else fails, offset responsibly.

There are many reasons why, ultimately, people prefer planes to other methods of travel.  They may not enjoy spending long hours in transit, or they may find it difficult to get work done on trains. If a person is going an implausibly long distance, or if the plane simply costs a lot less,  the obvious solution is to offset the emissions in a responsible way. Choosing a decent carbon offsetting company requires research and sometimes correspondence to address particular worries, but in the end, it’s worth it. Used responsibly, carbon offsetting can ensure that the environmental impact of our work can still make a positive societal contribution.

While I don’t intend these principles to be the definitive considerations for work travel, I hope they will at least spark some thought and conversation.



Steven Heywood

Steven Heywood works for the Quaker UN Office in Geneva on the human impacts of climate change. He has had a blog for almost four years and not written a single post.

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