January 17, 2022

Sustainability: Are you doing enough?

Pockets of positive thinking and good work around onboard sustainability are emerging across our sector but significant and frustrating blocks to progress remain, Julie Baxter asks – are you doing enough?

Sustainability has become the buzz word of our times. Growing engagement across the travel sector is of course to be welcomed but as global leaders up the ante with COP26 climate change pledges, what are the meaningful implications of the topic for our industry? Can the onboard hospitality sector ever really become sustainable when it is often powerless to act and much of the decision-making process is totally out of its hands?

In conversations around the sector it is clear that good work is in hand and intentions are positive, but some hard, possibly irreconcilable truths remain. Let’s consider a few and as you read ask yourself: “What am I doing to remove these potentially fatal flaws from the onboard sector’s sustainability credentials?”

Are you: Working in a sustainability silo?

Where once airlines shied away from the sustainability topic conscious of, and even a little embarrassed of, their polluting reputation and in fear of eco scrutiny, now they compete for coverage of their biofuel initiatives, plastic-free flights, carbon off-set programmes and sustainability strategies. Airlines may have come late to the sustainability issue but now many have truly engaged sustainability departments championing the cause, developing commitments and backing global endeavours. But how much do these big picture departments really interrogate the detail and understand the end-to-end life-cycle of each specific onboard product, or liaise and listen to those procuring at the service frontline?

Ask yourself: Does the sustainability deep think of your organisation really connect with final buying decisions and budgeting departments?

Are you: Thwarting collaboration?

Airlines turn to suppliers to help solve the issues of onboard sustainability. Product tender briefs increasingly demand ‘SUP alternative’ materials be used, that supply chain credentials are ‘clean’, and that recycle or reuse priorities are ticked. Airlines want a simple, clear answer but often there isn’t one. Suppliers are working out exactly what sustainable means for every single product in their portfolio but the eco answer for one route and destination is often very different to the eco answer for another. Suppliers are forced to compete around the sustainability of their offer, effectively asked to out-eco each other, but for real solutions they should be collaborating, sharing complex specialist analysis of packaging and substrates, rotables and supply chains to better support buying decisions.

Ask yourself: Can anything change without collaboration? Are you sharing your eco insights? Do you make suppliers compete on their eco credentials?

Are you: Empowering procurement?

While airline sustainability policies stress good thoughtful choices, the buying process means decisions end with procurement and finance departments where the dominating value metrics are often around costs, not sustainability. Sustainability departments are developing strong opinions on what’s right and wrong in the onboard environment, and increasingly use these conclusions to write contracting briefs that can be overly precise and ultimately proscriptive. Many airlines want one-fit global solutions, where one-fit will rarely work sustainably. And many, of course, want it to be cheap, willing to pay very little premium for truly sustainable products. As a result good choices can get dismissed way too easily and without any internal consequences.

Ask yourself: Is your airline increasingly opinionated regarding sustainability rights and wrongs? Has your team closed its mind to debate on what is best for each individual situation, each individual product? Where does sustainability rank in the priorities of your true decision-makers and budget holders?

Are you: Onboarding board?

In the rush away from plastics and in eagerness to feature overtly ‘green’ recycled or recyclable paper and board products onboard, a new problem is emerging. Packaging suppliers report a global shortage of corrugated and solid board due to the global move away from plastic and this is driving a growth in paper products made from virgin forests. Mills producing recycled board are in fact closing down due to a lack of investment or profit. As the impact of this becomes clearer, paper products could well become the next big eco problem.

Ask yourself: Do I know where my board and paper products are sourced from? Is it recycled or from sustainable forest sources? Do I support recycling businesses? Is board about to become the new plastic?

Are you: Creating for the dump?

Follow any one of the products that go onboard from farm/or factory through an often complex transport journey, to the passenger and beyond, and you are likely to reveal good, bad and extremely ugly truths in terms of sustainability. The majority of products end up in the onboard rubbish bags – bound for landfill sites. If they cross an international border, they are headed straight to the incinerator negating all efforts to sustainably source anyway.

Ask yourself: The sustainable back story of a product may be as honest and good and sustainable as can be but do you know its end of life destination? Can a sustainable choice ever be sustainable if it has ultimately been created for the dump? Do you understand the recycling options offered in the airports you fly to? Do you and your crew care?

Are you: Lobbying on regulations?

Even the best intentions are being thwarted at the final hurdle due to legal restraints. Rules and regulations around food waste removed from aircraft make a complete mockery of many sustainability initiatives. Efforts to standardise substrates, build recycling systems and optimise the use of every product board are vital.

Ask yourself: Have I followed the end of life trail for every product I put onboard? Have I done something to change final outcomes? Am I driving legislative change around waste? Am I changing my systems to avoid loading what will likely become waste?

Are you: Using meaningless words?

Sustainability has become a totemic word but do we as an industry really know what we are talking about in detail? Sustainability has been dumbed down to: ‘being green’ and has led to numerous examples of ‘green-washing’ – products and services designed to look eco-friendly but ultimately as wasteful and unhelpful to the planet as before. The language and thinking around sustainability is widening and needs to be more precise – it is time to talk about the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and speak plainly about the planet damage onboard products can do. The UN Sustainable Development Goals have put 17 topics into the sustainability framework with a universal call to business to develop in ways that will ‘end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity’. It’s no longer enough just to look like you are doing the right thing, every business needs to take care with the language it uses and the claims it makes.

Ask yourself: Are your sustainability initiatives open to detailed scrutiny or are you ‘green washing’? Are you thinking beyond the surface perception of your products are you truly commited to sustainability?

Are you: Ready for consumer backlash?

A vociferous minority is getting angry and loud, they are increasingly taking direct action on the environment and are determined to raise awareness where they see inaction and drive change through publicising eco wrongs. From Greta Thunberg and the Flygskam movement in Sweden, to Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion, ordinary people are increasingly taking extraordinary actions to draw attention to the damage being done to our planet. Eventually this group’s attention will move to the onboard sector, spot-lighting the waste and inconsistency of eco actions across the global aviation network.

Ask yourself: Are you ready to resist a tidal wave of bad publicity around our industry’s activities? Will it be your buying decisions that trigger global scrutiny of our sector? Are you ready for that big reveal?

Are you: In the race to zero

It’s not all bad news. Everyone can make a difference. Organisations within our sector including the Aviation Sustainability Forum (ASF), APEX and IATA, IFSA and ACA , ACI and IAWMA are all working on solutions and trying to find ways to collaborate for good. Scratch below the headlines and global organisations too exist to help find pathways through to good decisions and sustainable solutions. Check out the UN’s current Race to Zero global campaign to rally leadership from business and build momentum towards a decarbonised economy. Check out the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for strategies on building circular economies for your product and services.

Ask yourself: Am I in? What am I personally doing to support a more sustainable onboard hospitality sector? Do I really know what I am talking about? Am I building my understanding of sustainability. Am I ready to change?

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