Should All Travel Companies Adopt Carbon Labeling?

A leading European adventure travel business is adopting carbon labeling across its entire portfolio of 156 itineraries.

A landscape view of Northern Ireland from a hike

The Wilderness Group

When Google Flights announced it would display emissions data next to every single search result, I suggested it could serve as a catalyst for both industry-led emissions reduction efforts, as well as more informed choices among a certain subset of travelers. Now The Wilderness Group—a leading European adventure travel business—is adopting carbon labeling across its entire portfolio of 156 itineraries in England, Scotland, and Ireland. (Think hiking tours of the Northern Irish coast, self-guided walks along Hadrian’s Wall, etc.) 

Here’s an excerpt from their press release describing the move: 

“Like reading the nutritional information on a box of cereal, each itinerary now has a carbon label, or score, indicating the amount of kilogrammes of carbon attributed to each trip, with an average of 142kg CO2e per traveler per trip across the whole business (compare this with a week at a Maldives resort, 603kg CO2e, or a Caribbean cruise, which is 445kg CO2e per day!) These labels were determined based on an analysis of the carbon footprint of over 5,000 services such as food, accommodation, transport, and activities.”

When I first read this announcement, I confess to assuming the discrepancy between emissions from the Maldives example and The Wilderness Group’s tours was largely down to flights—and yet it turns out that flights are actually not included in any of the examples given. So clearly planes are not the only problem. There is a significant difference in vacation-related emissions depending on what you choose to do at your destination(s), and schemes like this can help to educate travelers about the choices they make. 

They are also, of course, a first step toward actually reducing those emissions further. (You can’t change what you don’t measure.) And here, The Wilderness Group’s efforts appear to be yet another demonstration of the idea that not all net-zero efforts are created equal. That’s why the company is aiming for what it only slightly snarkily calls "true net zero" by 2030, which includes a 90% reduction in actual emissions over the next decade alongside long-term investment in tree planting and other efforts: 

“In addition, the Wilderness Group will continue their work with local rewilding, wildlife and conservation charities through their Conservation Contribution Scheme. Over the next decade, the Wilderness Group’s carbon reduction strategy will involve complete electrification of their vehicle fleet, deeper partnerships with low carbon accommodation and restaurants, and innovative product design to further reduce the carbon footprint of its itineraries.”

Of course, the lion’s share of tourism’s carbon footprint is eaten up by how folks travel to and from their destination. And that means, carbon labeling or not, the actual emissions for someone traveling from North America to participate in these tours would be decidedly different from those of someone in the United Kingdom, Ireland, or mainland Europe. It would be interesting, then, to see if companies like The Wilderness Group might eventually also consider retooling their marketing and sales efforts—placing a greater emphasis on target audiences from closer to home. 

As someone whose mother just visited—and whose mother couldn’t stop talking about the carbon footprint calculation she had just done, and the difference in emissions between two different itineraries—I am newly sensitive to the idea that well-designed, clear and targeted communications on emissions really can help educate customers and influence their buying decisions. The trick, however, is in making sure that labeling is accurate, easy to understand, and displayed at key decision points when customers actually have the power to make informed choices. 

For that to really take hold, we may eventually have to look beyond voluntary schemes designed by each individual company. (After all, food manufacturers don’t all get to invent their own nutrition labeling schemes!)

For now, however, it’s encouraging to see that Google Flights will be broadcasting the emissions of how folks get to where they are going. And companies like The Wilderness Group will be broadcasting the emissions of what folks do once they get there. Taken together, if adopted more widely across the industry, it really could lead to significant shifts in behaviors in one of the most emissions-intensive areas of many peoples’ lives.