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Reducing business travel emissions in professional services – How firms can engage employees to drive change

By Josh Eaton
6th December 2022

Travel remains an important way for people to connect, but in the pre-Covid world business travel was often one of the biggest contributors to total emissions for professional services firms. Our emissions calculations show that today business travel typically accounts for around 30% of a professional services firm’s total GHG footprint (Scope 1, Scope 2 market-based, and Scope 3).

In 2020 McKinsey reported that the total amount of business travel expenses across all sectors dropped by 52%.1 However, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in 2024, the number of passengers using air travel is set to exceed pre-pandemic levels.2

Many professional services firms have committed to or are making plans to reduce scope 3 emissions. For example, UK law firm Kennedys has recently committed to reducing its scope 3 emissions, including those produced through business travel and by its suppliers, by 28%. In light of these commitments, we sat down with Josh Eaton, Head of Engagement Services at Carbon Intelligence, who shared his thoughts on why an effective internal engagement strategy is crucial to reducing business travel as well as providing recommendations on how to create a more mindful culture when it comes to business travel emissions. 

What makes lowering business travel emissions so hard?

You have to engage a lot of people to drive reductions in this area – you can’t just flick a switch or create a policy, instead you need an effective internal engagement strategy in place to change the working culture and put the issue on people’s agenda. Without this there is a risk that employees may not fully understand why they are being asked to rethink their travel choices.

In our experience, when a firm is struggling to reduce emissions in this area it is because teams or individuals within a business are unconvinced the issue is being taken seriously across the business and are therefore unmotivated themselves to change the status quo in case it prevents them from doing their jobs effectively.

No longer does the communication have to be about stopping something but instead it becomes about improving relationships. 

As well as questioning what the purpose of any trip is, it’s also worth considering the methods of transport available. Trains are often the best alternative in Europe and parts of Asia-Pacific but not a viable option in the US. Impact can also be reduced through downgrading the class of travel. The UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)  report on the emission factors for air travel from 2022, showed that for long-haul and international flights, emissions increased by 190% when an individual flies with business class rather than economy class. On short-haul flights, emissions increased by almost 50%.

Why is it important to engage on this topic internally rather than just setting rules?

Setting a policy is fundamental and sets the limits of what’s expected from colleagues, but ultimately reducing travel is a behavioural challenge – and a policy won’t speak to a person’s motivations, fears, opportunities or imagination. That’s where engagement comes to play,  tapping into the drivers of behaviour, rather than just setting a policy to remedy it.

Why is it important to share the responsibility and accountability regarding emissions reductions across a company?

Naturally, there will be teams or individuals who fly more than others or work in more carbon -intensive parts of the business. However, it’s not always helpful to point fingers or focus on the negatives. You can go much further in driving change internally by creating a shared sense of enthusiasm and responsibility to reduce emissions.

How do you best get employees to really understand the environmental impact of their travel choices? 

The most obvious challenge for communicating any type of environmental impact is that emissions are invisible and intangible. Their impact contributes to a global problem, it isn’t a stand-alone issue. 

We are hardwired to process visual/tangible information – so if you want the penny to drop about the impact of business travel in people’s minds, getting visual and putting it in a more immediate context is a must. Even as somebody who has worked in sustainability for years, I struggle to visualise 1 tonne of CO2 – so using analogies and equivalences can really help. For example, the carbon created from one eight hour flight (LHR > JFK) would emit the same amount of CO2 as leaving a typical household LED light bulb on for over 45 years! We all know we should be turning the lights off at home right? Imagine if you didn’t for that long, how would that make you feel?

How would you recommend businesses engage with their employees around reducing business travel?

You can engage employees in lots of ways, but to break it down we believe there are two levers you need to pull on. First of all, awareness; awareness that the business is actually recording and reporting on business travel emissions as it has made net zero commitments and set targets to reduce emissions (as not everyone will know this.) and finally an awareness of the impacts of flying – this gives people the context as to why this is a business priority, whilst bringing the issue/impact down to an individual level.

The second lever is empowerment, this is about empowering people to make informed travel decisions based on their specific needs or priorities – carbon budgets are a great way to do this, putting the onus on colleagues to decide what travel is important and what is not. They allow large organisations to set individual annual targets for their offices based on real-world travel operations so that countries or offices that have a specific business need for travel can have adjusted targets. For example, a country with limited access to high-speed rail can have a less ambitious target than a country that has other viable travel options. All the targets can be designed so that their overall decarbonisation ability aligns with the business’s overall net zero strategy, whilst providing realistic targets for different travel needs. An example of this in action is where Shoosmiths, one of the UK’s largest law firms, announced in October that it would deduct about $230 (£200) from a team travel budget each time lawyers flew to meetings.3

Carbon budgets can also be used to get better visibility of specific areas of a company which are high emitters such as  specific areas or offices that emit a larger proportion than most. Targeted engagement in these areas offers the best ‘decarbonisation return’ and is the best way to utilise resource when it comes to business travel decarbonisation. 

Another way to empower people is to equip them with a suite of tips and advice, so they can make more informed decisions for themselves. Finally, we can empower employees to share their own experiences, challenges, ideas and advice. It is likely employees will have similar challenges to navigate in reducing travel so get into the habit of talking about this and sharing  learnings across teams and organisations.

Once engaged, what does success look like?

In my view, a more mindful culture towards business travel equals success – for example creating an environment, where anyone can ask the question “Could we be travelling more mindfully?” And where colleagues are equipped with the facts and solutions needed to drive reductions. In practice that could mean:

  • Approaching internal conversations with a more mindful travel lens. This includes team meetings, events conferences – act collectively to rethink the ways of working together
  • Giving client-facing colleagues the confidence to lead in starting the dialogue about business travel with their clients. It’s very likely the client will have a shared ambition to lower their impact too, so get the topic on the agenda long before a meeting is arranged and start working together on this

How can you maintain client relationships without travelling to see them in person?

This is where we can get creative. If you re-framed the time, energy and resource required for a business trip and instead invest just a % of that into improving your relationship with the client. What might that look like?

It is possible to create experiences and resonate with clients without meeting them in person. Do you know what is currently front of mind for your clients? Identifying their interests, objectives and the challenges they are facing is always helpful in order to engage with them. Could you send them a little something to show your thinking about them? These are all questions we can ask to start thinking imaginatively about improving your client or new business relationships, without having to travel to an airport and step onto a plane.

How we can help

Our engagement services help you change the way sustainability is thought about within your company and externally. We motivate your stakeholders, from suppliers to investors to adopt more sustainable behaviours so together you can achieve your environmental targets.

We ensure the right people are engaged and bought into your sustainability initiatives and maximise impact across your entire supply chain. We can supplement your internal communications team and provide on-site experts to ensure your stakeholders fully buy into your low-carbon vision.

An effective behaviour change or communications programme encompasses an integrated range of activities and initiatives. We help you action change through face-to-face engagement, workshops and events, digital media, print collateral, e-learning modules, training and more.

If you would like to find out more or are looking for a partner to support with engagement services, please get in touch, info@carbon.ci.

 

 

(1) www.mckinsey.com, July 2021, The comeback of corporate travel: How should companies be planning? https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/travel-logistics-and-infrastructure/our-insights/the-comeback-of-corporate-travel-how-should-companies-be-planning, Accessed 12 Nov 22.

(2)  https://www.iata.org/, March 2022, Air Passenger Numbers to Recover in 2024, https://www.iata.org/en/pressroom/2022-releases/2022-03-01-01/, Accessed 12 Nov 22

(3)  skift.com, 25 October 2022, Large UK Law Firm to Cut Travel Budget When Lawyers Take Unnecessary Flights, https://skift.com/blog/large-uk-law-firm-to-cut-travel-budget-when-lawyers-take-unnecessary-flights/, Accessed 12 Nov 22