May 21, 2022

Passenger pressure

Aviation’s path to net zero carbon emissions will take time but the pressure is on for tactical change to sustainable onboard products now if airline brands are to maintain their credibility with the consumer, says Julie Baxter

Research airline sustainability and at every turn you find initiatives and innovation around bio-fuels and carbon off-setting. You’ll find talk of electric and hydrogen aircraft alternatives and inspiring ways to implement change.

There are even some hefty commitments and targets taking shape. The OneWorld Alliance of airlines has its Fly Green pledge; IATA has its #FlyNetZero – both working to net zero by 2050.

But ask airlines specifically for comments on inflight sustainability – initiatives on cutting waste, switching to eco friendly onboard products, recycling, reusing, cutting weight and the response is, to put it mildly, patchy.

Maybe this makes some sense. IATA estimates that 65% of the progress to net zero will come through Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF); 13% through new technologies, electric and hydrogen; 19% through offsets and carbon capture, and just 3% through infrastructure and operational efficiencies. Presumably inflight actions – catering and amenities – come under the operational efficiencies percentage, but read behind those stats and most of the discussion on that 3% is about better performance through revised air traffic navigation, retrofitting to lighten aircraft weight, and airport efficiencies. So how much difference does an inflight change make, and does it really matter? Could it help cut carbon 1%? 0.5%? Who actually knows? Has inflight service change even been included in these calculations? 

The answers to these are not yet clear. IATA has done some research into cabin waste and discovered (pre-pandemic) that on average every passenger created 1.43kilos of waste. 80% of waste came from the galley, 20% from the washrooms. It analysed galley waste and found 20% of that was untouched food and drink, 4% was unopened bottled water – all of it was headed to landfill or the incinerator thanks to the international catering waste regulations, designed to prevent the spread of animal disease which no longer really exists in many countries.

Clearly there is a problem and it is only going to get worse. Current projections estimate that demand for air passenger journeys by 2050 could exceed 10 billion. On current trajectories, expected 2021-2050 carbon emissions would be approximately 21.2 gigatons of CO2, cabin waste would be at over 15 billion kilos! If the onboard hospitality sector helped with even 0.5% of that, it would be substantial, but the fact that it doesn’t have its own clearly identified and defined goals does perhaps explain why airline sustainability directors are so much more overtly committed to sourcing SAF and updating their fleets than switching to recycled blankets, engaging with bamboo cutlery or repackaging in eco cardboard.

Frustrating times

For suppliers we are at a frustrating turning point. As they all work to support post-covid recovery, they have positive and impressive product portfolios to share. Suppliers across all product categories have had time to rethink and rework what they offer and now have ranges full of environmentally-friendly options. Their sales pitches are full of reuse, recycle and renew opportunities and many of their supply chain back-stories have been scrutinized minutely to ensure can help airline buyers jump onto sustainable solutions.

International catering waste regulations often undermine the credibility of change 

But are airlines buying? And should they be? IATA’s Jon Godson, assistant director environmental and sustainability, highlights the dilemma. “Airlines face some very a-symmetric regulations. They are different all around the world as far as single-use plastics are concerned and wherever international catering waste is involved the regulations often undermine the credibility of change to bio-based solutions because they still end up in the incinerator.”

So what is going to make the difference? How are we going to work it out and how is our industry really going to get motivated for change? Organisations like the ASF, IFSA, ACA and IATA are working to form some kind of roadmap for inflight service. They are looking to lobby for regulatory change and are trying to quantify the problems and standardise the range of best-practice solutions. These initiatives do seem to be gathering momentum, there is a big task ahead and it will be a long slow process through research towards recommendation and global change in regulation. Perhaps the real question is, can airlines really afford to wait?

Other industries clearly think the time to act is now. Many are well along the sustainability path, facing and overcoming just as serious and complex challenges as aviation and moving on fast. And the reason why? The consumer.

Consumer opinion

A recent survey from McKinsey & Co. showed 66% of all respondents and 75% of millennial respondents now consider sustainability before they buy. They want to align with brands that share their sustainability values.

The Economist Intelligence Unit reports that in the past five years there has been a 71% rise in online searches for sustainable goods globally. Consumers are now actively engaging with sustainable businesses as never before. Sustainability is now a global mega trend. In China 41% of consumers say they want eco-friendly products. In the UK, the market for ethically and sustainably sourced goods in 2019 was worth £41 billion, its value having quadrupled within 20 years. And in India sales of organic products have grown by 13% since 2018.

Annual research by Deloitte shows 32% of consumers are highly engaged in adopting a more sustainable lifestyle and 28% have stopped buying certain products due to an ethical or eco concern.

Among Gen Z consumers the stats are stronger with 50% reducing how much they buy altogether and 45% no longer buying certain brands because of ethical or sustainability concerns. Social media channels are noisily abuzz with younger generations demanding sustainability change. These are the consumers of the future. They increasingly expect sustainability and ethical considerations to be the standard and they want to see it transparently through the value chain.

The same survey also showed that consumers favour brands that help them to do the right thing – they want businesses to take the lead with 64% of consumers looking for reduced packaging, 50% for recycling information and 46% for clarity on the back-story of the sourcing.

The risk of reputational harm from delay on sustainability is growing for airlines

With customers switching to products and services that meet their sustainability values, there are without doubt growing market opportunities for companies that respond, especially those offering eco-friendly products or speaking up to support the environment. 

The Deloitte survey identified five sustainable brand practices that consumers value most. These include: waste reduction, reducing carbon footprint, providing sustainable packaging, commitment to ethical work practices, and respect for human rights. There was a 50/50 split between those willing to pay more or not for environmental and ethical brands.

Expecting change

Currently it is in the buying of essentials like groceries, household items, personal care and clothing that consumers most often consider sustainability but where these sectors have had to face change, so too will others, including aviation. 

An IATA survey of 4700 passenger showed travellers expect change. They rated the removal of single-use plastics as important as cutting CO2. Godson said: “The products onboard are a highly visible indicator of airline sustainability performance and passengers, media and NGOs are increasingly focused on this. The risk of reputational harm from delay is growing.”

No one under-estimates the task aviation is facing. All the work on bio-fuels and operational efficiencies shows leaders are making strategic decisions in the right direction, but these have long time lines and the industry needs passenger support – and cash – now. Tactical decisions that can be made now to show clear, coherent, consumer-facing change seem pressing. That means changes to inflight products and service, and fast.

In other industries much kudos has gone to those taking a lead. The likes of Nike and Adidas focused on reducing waste, creating greener supply chains, and eliminating plastic bags. Unilever made commitments on organic palm oil; Nestlé on lifecycle, water efficiency and waste. Pepsi and Coca-Cola focused on water stewardship and water replenishment; while on the high street, Walmart, IKEA and H&M moved toward more sustainable retailing, leading collaborations to reduce waste, increase resource productivity and improving local labour conditions. Even banks are embedding sustainability and community actions in their business culture.

Inflight product drives airline brands as a key differentiator and to ignore sustainability is to put that branding seriously at risk. Passengers are watching. They are increasingly sensitised to the sustainability issue and increasingly expect change. While they fly they have time to look around. They have time to notice exactly what you give them, how you retrieve and recycle it. Ultimately their curiosity will discover the scale of airline waste, and the thorny topic of incineration too.

Congratulations must go to those airlines who have committed to strategic decisions and have also begun to take the overt tactical changes too. Some are extremely useful initiatives not least because they show just what can be done. As passengers acknowledge them and they begin to drive choice, these initiatives will inspire others to make the change too. 

Increasingly we all understand it is not about one product or two, but about full engagement with the impact of every product and service boarded. 

Buyers need to fully understand their whole supply chain, to look left and right of the product they buy, because, without doubt, their passengers are looking, and those found wanting are set for a very rough ride. 

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