One of our predictions for 2020 was that technology is going to play an increasingly central role in addressing environmental issues, with innovations such as dockless bike-sharing schemes helping to reduce pollution and improve users' ability to travel efficiently, cheaply and sustainably. The Footprint Calculator on the WWF website lists travel as one of the main categories of a person's carbon footprint, and the message is getting through to consumers.
Although research by Hitwise suggests that the traditional profile of environmentally conscious travellers is likely to be an affluent metropolitan millennial, there is growing interest among other demographics such as the 65+ age group.
A survey by TravelTechnology Europe indicates that sustainable travel and climate change are among the top three challenges facing the travel industry, with 45% and 44% of those polled putting these respective issues among their top concerns behind economic conditions (53%). 47% of the respondents also said that customers are asking for more "eco-friendly, sustainable travel options", seemingly reflecting the heightened visibility given to the climate change crisis in recent years. The Swedish term "flygskam" (flight shame) has also gained momentum in some quarters, as environmentalists aim to raise awareness of the environmental impact of flying and persuade people to use alternative forms of transport.
Many TravelTech solutions already seek to enable more eco-friendly travel. Want to check your carbon footprint? Oroeco tells you your impact on the environment and suggests ways in which you can make more eco-conscious choices. Trying to figure out the greenest way of flying abroad? Travel search engine Glooby shows the most fuel-efficient flights and eco-labelled hotels, while Alternative Airlines tells you which airlines (and airports!) are taking steps to reduce their carbon emissions. Want to refill your bottle of water while you're on the go, so that you don't have to buy disposable plastic bottles of water every time you run out? Refill enables you to find "refill stations" where you can refill your bottle with drinking water for free. Want to clean the beaches while you're sunning yourself? BeachClean collects data on the kind of debris being found and allows you to track your cleanup and locate potential pollution hotspots.
Investors are starting to pick up on the potential of this subset of the TravelTech sector, with Booking.com announcing that the startups receiving funding from its 2019 Booking Booster programme would include Clean Travel, which creates business management software aimed at ethical hotels and tour operators, and I Like Local, which aims to offer local experiences for travellers such as homestays with indigenous communities, the money from which is paid directly to them.
Other startups that have received funding over the last couple of years include Eco Companion, which offers eco-friendly trips based on the principles of ecotourism and has been invested in by Startup Funding Club, and Whim, which offers MaaS (mobility as a service) by allowing public transportation, bikeshares, taxis and carshares to be booked from the same app, encouraging people away from using their own private vehicles.
What remains to be seen is whether these startups will change the behaviour of the big players. While industries such as food and cosmetics are picking up on consumer demand for environmentally conscious businesses, there is still a substantial opportunity for businesses in the travel sector to capitalise on growing consumer awareness of the environmental impact of their travel, either by investing in or doing business with innovative green startups or by developing their own solutions.
This is already starting to happen is in the hotel industry where businesses are using everything from smart energy trackers to reduce consumption, to waste prevention tools such as LeanPath, to reduce food waste, while also implementing simple but effective tech-based solutions including going paperless with customer receipts, reducing the frequency with which towels and bedlinen are changed to save on water and energy, and moving to tablet-based POS systems, which use significantly less energy than Windows-based systems with on-site servers.
The aviation industry is beginning to follow suit, with Singapore Airlines working on developing renewable aviation fuels and United Airlines launching its biofuel-powered "Flight for the Planet", which it claims is "the most eco-friendly commercial flight of its kind in the history of aviation".
Awareness of the need for sustainable travel seems likely to continue to grow in coming years (despite scepticism about climate change from some powerful, high profile politicians). Finland recently joined countries such as Palau and Iceland in introducing a tourism pledge for visitors. The Finnish pledge includes the line "in my choices the climate comes first", and explicitly ties sustainability to Finnish national identity or being "like a Finn".
With consumer demand increasing for sustainable alternatives, businesses must stay ahead of the curve by embracing technology to make themselves greener if they want to maintain a competitive advantage in an increasingly environmentally aware market.
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