Industry Update
Opinion Article19 November 2020

Why The Tourism Industry Needs Sustainability Champions

By Carlos Martin-Rios, Associate Professor at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL)

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In the absence of leading role players in sustainability, the tourism landscape currently benefits from an eco-system of academics, startups, entrepreneurial businesses, NGOs and the public sector

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Tourism is one of the world's biggest sectors and contributes substantially to the global CO2 emissions. Moreover, COVID-19 has emphasized the importance of travel and tourism to many economies, but also the volatility of the business. Questions loom large:

  • Given the Co2 emissions, can tourism ever be sustainable?
  • How can the tourism sector transition to more sustainable practices?
  • How can the current crisis be an opportunity for a more sustainable industry?

Sustainability is a buzzword that is often overused. Nowadays every company and every senior executive in the tourism value chain tries to position themselves as representing responsible organizations and citizens, (even if it is not always clear how they meet their sustainability obligations). Central to this discussion is the concern about how the tourism industry is looking to the future and what needs to be done to reduce its social, financial and environmental impacts, and stay within the planetary boundaries.

The travel and tourism industry is one of the largest industries in the world. In that sense, it is different from other goods and services: tourism brings together a melting pot of some of the largest global multinationals with tens of thousands of smaller local, regional and national participants. Also, different from other sectors, sustainability initiatives in tourism tend to follow a bottom-up approach. A growing number of smaller players are entering the field with innovative approaches and disruptive business models.

Sustainability champions

The tourism industry is in great need of mavericks - role model companies that make strong commitments to sustainability, as to transform their business philosophy in its entirely. When the current move towards more sustainable and regenerative activities turns into a global transformation, every firm needs to designate a role model to guide their strategic decisions. Here's why:

  • Leadership: Sustainability mavericks pave the path to bringing about a positive change. Champions and ambassadors take risks and invite others to also carve out a path that isn't already there.
  • Accountability: These iconic companies unleash the power of influence as industry leaders. These companies increase accountability, limit opportunism and shape an industry´s sustainable future - in the environmental sense as much as in social and governance terms (2020 Global 100 ranking of the world´s most sustainable corporations).
  • Innovation: Big companies help to build so-called sustainable business ecosystems. These companies are the keystone to co-creating value and redefining supply networks.

According to Eccles, Ioannu and Serafeim (2014), "the boards of directors of high sustainability companies are more likely to be formally responsible for sustainability and their organizations, to establish processes for stakeholder engagement, to be more long-term oriented, and to exhibit higher measurement and disclosure of nonfinancial information." Yet, seldomly does a tourism company make it to the top list of key global players in sustainability.

Take for example the latest Greenbiz' s 20 C-Suite Sustainability champions for 2020 or the Corporate Knights Global 100, an annual ranking of the 100 most sustainable companies by Corporate Knights, the company for clean capitalism. None of these well-known rankings include any tourism or accommodation company nor any of their C-Suite members.

It is worth noting that Global 100 companies consistently outperform MSCI ACWI companies on ESG (environmental, social, governance) dimensions: CEO-to-average-worker-pay ratio, board gender diversity, paying their fair share of taxes, and on various other specific metrics that factor into the ranking.

Smaller ventures are the bedrock of sustainable tourism

In the absence of those groundbreaking pioneers that inspire transformation at a massive scale, grassroot organizations are stepping up in an effort to take a leading role in shaping a more sustainable tourism industry by means of bringing together businesses, academics, startups, SMEs, NGOs and the public sector searching for answers to today's biggest challenges.

These associations ensure that the bedrock of the new industry - smaller companies - has access to sustainable initiatives and resources. Interest groups and movements develop networks and build communities. They also play a vital role as a source of innovation, a liaison with funding and institutional resources and, above all, a force for change.

GreenBuzz illustrates how grassroot organizations create legitimacy in the sustainable tourism landscape. It was founded 10 years ago and is a global network of sustainability professionals with branches in Zurich, Bern, Geneva, Amsterdam and Berlin. Through events, UNconferences, workshops and peer-to-peer learning groups, GreenBuzz connects professionals as well as organizations, companies and institutions from across different sectors to share knowledge and to inspire and motivate each other to push sustainability forward.

Last September 2020, GreenBuzz Zurich, the biggest sustainability network in the region with over 3,000 people, got together for a thematic evening around the question "How can Tourism be a Force for Good?" The event was organized by EHL Alumni including: Alexie Duncker Grosse and Carol Gerhard, and volunteer Marie Cristina Nieddu.

Several experts were invited to share their perspectives on sustainability action plans and relevant opportunities to implement them, including Mr. Luigi Cabrini, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC); Franziska Altenrath, Managing Director of Tutaka; Daniela Schöb the Project Manager of "Smart ZRH" at Zürich Tourism; Alexandra Pastollnigg, the founder of Fair Voyage; and Carlos Martin-Rios, Associate Professor of Management at EHL.

While big players in the industry get ready to step up on sustainability, events promoted by associations like Greenbuzz champion sustainability development and become a great opportunity to building lasting alliances across academia, business, policy and activism.

Additional information

More information about GreenBuzz and GreenBuzz Zurich can be found here and here.

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