The business case against business travel

The battle against dirty aviation takes many forms. While community groups and direct action activists focus on environmental and community impacts, British businesses in the midst of a recession are reevaluating aviation, from an economic angle. Flying employees around costs money, takes people out of the office, and decreases productive time, at a time when rail, video conferencing, and web conferencing are becoming even better alternatives. We were at an AirportWatch coalition meeting when we bumped into Jean Leston, Transport Policy Officer at WWF-UK, which is working to get the message out via its One in Five Challenge. According to a WWF-UK report, 89% of the UK's largest public companies already expect to fly less over the next decade. That's a great place to build.

Jean Leston

THE CASE FOR REDUCTION: Launched in 2009, WWF's One in Five Challenge team works with organizations to help them cut one out of every five business flights within five years. According to coordinator Jean Leston, "for public service [i.e. non-manufacturing] companies, CO2 from flights can be more than 50% of their total emissions." According to Tim Johnson of the AEF, "Price Waterhouse Cooper's annual travel budget is $200 million--it's obviously important for them to produce value for money." The potential for cutting both costs and carbon emissions are enormous. WWF-UK found that 90% of British government flights are domestic, and it could save £300M (about US$450 million) and cut emissions by 60,000 metric tons over three years by replacing domestic flights with alternatives. Per WWF, "If all European companies cut their [air] business travel by 20%, it would save 22 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to taking one third of the UK's cars off the road."

GETTING COMPANIES ON BOARD: WWF decided to focus on a small number of high-profile companies they view as industry thought leaders. Participants include British Telecom, Capgemini, Marks & Spencer, Vodafone, and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. The success of these high profile institutions may signal a new way of doing business, and hopefully encourage others to reevaluate their own policies. Leston told us that she sometimes met some initial resistance from companies over certain aspects of the challenge. Some companies would have preferred a 20% reduction per employee, instead of a fixed company-wide cap (regardless of employee growth). Some also wondered whether they could use carbon offseting. WWF stood firm on both grounds; to be part of the program, companies had to make real cuts in the their overall flying--no cheating allowed.

ALTERNATIVES: UK meeting planners are increasingly turning to audio, video, and web conferencing technologies as an alternative to packing employees in metal tubes hurtling through the sky. Consulting companies are particularly sensitive to these issues. Our favorite new business practice was the "rule of two" -- meeting business partners in person the first two times to establish trust, and online thereafter. When in-person meetings are unavoidable, WWF-UK recommends trains as a lower-carbon higher-productivity alternative to flying: you can often be online during the whole trip, and don't have to deal with lengthy security and boarding procedures.

CHANGING CORPORATE CULTURE: Committing to reducing flights is the easy part. Following through is where the hard work begins. WWF-UK does its part by providing a green travel planning toolkit, access to an online tracking system, workshops, and consulting. Implementation takes cooperation from many departments; HR departments retrain employees of new ways of working, while IT departments focus on technology alternatives. The goal is to ensure that cuts are locked into the system, rather than being set up as one-offs. Policies and programs were easier to put into place if there was support from the top. Leston described how the most difficult part of the process is often the cultural shift necessary to accept reductions and adopt alternatives. Flying for business trips is still seen as a prestige issue; in most companies, 80% of the flights are taken by 20% of the people. Johnson told us how KPMG had to work with top employees to convince them that they are not valued based on how much time they spent in planes. Leston found that older employees sometimes enjoyed the jetsetting lifestyle, while younger employees with families were happiest about air travel reductions; work-life balance improvements are often a major benefit of the process. And yet face to face meetings are still seen as critical to running a business. The emerging leaner, greener business culture means getting comfortable with doing more business using audio, video and web conferencing technologies. Learning to build acceptance of aviation alternatives into everyday business culture is also a kind of future-proofing in what WWF-UK calls a "carbon-constrained world," where aviation is too costly, environmentally and economically, to be a viable option.

MAKING THE MARK: Participants go through an auditing process. Those that achieve the target reductions receive the ultimate prize: major cost savings, as well as the right to use a snazzy One in Five Challenge logo featuring the WWF panda. British Telecom, will be the first company to receive the award, achieving a stunning 23% reduction in the first year alone, by using their own videoconferencing systems. Other participants are making solid progress toward the five year reduction goal. The One in Five Challenge seems like it would be a great fit for technophilic American companies. Though WWF USA hasn't taken it on yet, there's nothing stopping us from pushing for smart reductions in aviation use in our own workplaces today; the cost and environmental savings are their own reward.

1 Comment

Very nice articles on the flight sequences and impact on saving and Co2 emission. It is important for companies to do such saving on their business flight and also directly protecting our ecosystem.

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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