Defining Sustainability in Travel Is a Struggle for Many Consumers

Travel companies’ efforts to be more environmentally friendly often don’t connect with consumers due to a lack of understanding about what sustainability means in the industry, writes travel & hospitality analyst Lindsey Roeschke
Graphic conveying sustainability in travel & hospitality industry
Unsplash / Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Kelly Rice
September 29, 2022 at 5:00 am UTC

This is part of Morning Consult’s What Sustainability Means to Consumers research, which gathers the views of roughly 2,200 U.S. adults on what sustainable actions consumers expect from the brands they purchase from.

Consumers don’t have a clear understanding of what sustainability means in the travel industry. Companies hoping to gain credibility for their environmental efforts must focus on defining sustainability, educating consumers and creating measurable impact.

Download the What Sustainability Means to Consumers: Travel & hospitality report here.

Consumers are growing more concerned about climate change, and companies across all industries have begun to respond. In the travel category, brands have pledged to work toward carbon neutrality, made their products more environmentally friendly and greenified their business practices.

When travel brands take action, they often hope that the work they’re doing to combat climate change will also gain them favor in the form of awareness, consideration or loyalty among consumers. However, that may not be a reality, as many consumers struggle even to define in a few words what sustainability means for a travel brand, according to a new Morning Consult survey.

Respondents described in their own words what it means for travel brands to be sustainable, and their responses were sorted into the following categories:
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Survey conducted June 30-July 2, 2022, among a representative sample of 2,365 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.

When we asked U.S. adults to provide their own definition of what it means to be a sustainable travel brand, their responses mostly fell into three categories: the first group citing the environment in some way, the second saying they were unsure or had no opinion, and the third attributing sustainability to broader brand or product attributes.

Most correctly associate sustainability with the environment but lack the specificity to be truly informed consumers

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common response themes were related to the environment. However, within this category, a plurality provided broad answers like “not harming the environment,” “to have a low impact on the climate” or “being eco-friendly.”

Among the few consumers who offered more nuance, their responses touched on some key themes, the most common of which was emissions. In large part, people connected emissions with reducing a company’s carbon footprint, which aligns with promises many travel companies have made to eventually achieve carbon neutrality. Other themes included energy and use of resources — within which respondents pointed to renewable energy sources and responsible use of water — as well as waste and recycling, which entailed mentions of reusable packaging and minimizing trash.

Respondents whose definition of a sustainable travel brand was related to the environment
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Survey conducted June 30-July 2, 2022, among a representative sample of 2,365 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.

Within the environmental theme, a small number of respondents pointed out that it may be impossible for a travel company to truly be sustainable. These definitions provided the most specific view and touched on tensions the industry is grappling with: 8% of emissions worldwide can be attributed to the global travel & tourism industry, so simply by existing, the category could be considered unsustainable. But despite the small group of those who made that connection, most respondents were optimistic that action could be taken.

It is encouraging that among our three categories, a plurality of responses were related to the environment. But the lack of specificity from many respondents suggests that there is no clear consensus on what actions a company should or could take to be sustainable. Putting a finer point on green initiatives and providing clear communication to consumers about what steps are being taken can help foment a more specific definition and bridge the gap between consumer expectations and brand action.

Nearly 1 in 5 respondents were unsure or had no opinion

Lack of clarity was deeper among the second category of respondents, who answered that they were unsure of or had no opinion on what makes a travel brand sustainable. Among these respondents, the majority were simply uncertain, with some saying that sustainability felt like an idea that applied to more tangible things like products and packaging. There was also a small subset of this group that rejected the premise that brands have an obligation to act sustainably because they deny either the existence of, or humans’ impact on, climate change.

Respondents who did not know or had no opinion on what it means to be a sustainable travel brand
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Survey conducted June 30-July 2, 2022, among a representative sample of 2,365 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.

Overall, this group represented nearly 20% of respondents, a number that raises flags but also opportunities for travel companies. There may be nothing companies can do to win over climate skeptics with sustainability messaging, but among those who are unsure, there is a chance to set the narrative and define exactly what sustainability means in the space. Education will be critical with this group.

A small but significant group viewed sustainability as a brand or product attribute

The word “sustainable” alone doesn’t always imply environmental sustainability to consumers. About 15% of respondents applied a definition that was related to brand or product attributes, the most common among them being affordability: having good, competitive prices. Reliability was also mentioned often, with some claiming that a sustainable brand is one that focuses on the needs of its customers and provides a high quality of service. Still other respondents interpreted the word “sustainable” in its most literal sense: that the company is able to stay in business.

Respondents whose definition of a sustainable travel company was related to a brand or product attribute
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Survey conducted June 30-July 2, 2022, among a representative sample of 2,365 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.

Company action and consumer education are crucial to moving the sustainability needle

Many consumers don’t understand what it means for a travel brand to be sustainable, and those who do tend to have broad or abstract definitions. Focusing on the specific actions a company has taken lends more credibility than a sweeping promise — however earnest — that risks being perceived as greenwashing. Companies must educate consumers on the options available to them, directing them to sustainable alternatives and quantifying the impact of each choice in relatable terms. A consumer who understands that their choice to go green will have specific and measurable results will be more likely to buy in.

Lindsey Roeschke is a travel & hospitality analyst. Lindsey’s work focuses on behavior and expectations in travel (among other categories), particularly through a generational and cultural lens. In addition to her research and advisory background, Lindsey has more than a decade of experience in the advertising world.
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