Sustainability is about culture as much as it is about numbers

Last year the ‘Woke & Confused’ podcast (which is all about personal environmental dilemnas), devoted an episode to flying.

Hosts Livvy Drake and Jessica Ferrow asked guest Anna Hughes of the Flight Free Movement the very same question aviation insiders often ask – why are you so focused on aviation, and not on an industry like agriculture, which accounts for more greenhouse gases?

Anna Hughes’s response was simple: ‘Because everyone has to eat, but not everyone has to fly.’

Some aviation executives still misunderstand flight shaming (or flight shame).  They think activists are taking aim at flying because it’s a soft target. Anna Hughes’s answer gives a clue about what it’s really about – social norms.

Flight shaming is part of a wider movement to shift consumer behaviour.  It’s also about the single most effective thing people can do to lower their personal carbon footprint.  One return transatlantic trip from Europe will typically burn through two tonnes of carbon. That’s already a quarter of the average person’s annual carbon footprint in the EU.

This is why you get a constant drumbeat of articles in the European media extolling the joys of train travel.  It’s also why UK environmental charity, HubBub yesterday  issued a story claming that not flying on your Hen or Stag (Batchelor) party is as beneficial to the environment as going vegan for a year and a half.

Hen and Stag dos are very much a rite of passage and part of popular culture.  Looking at it from HubBub’s point of view, weaving flying and people’s carbon footprint into it was smart.  First of all, HubBub didn’t act as killjoys.  They are not telling you to not to have a party before getting married, simply not to fly.

And framing the issue in this way, gives it personal relevance.  It’s the kind of story you can see people talking about in the coffee shop.  And slowly over time, these stories do start shifting consumer perceptions of what is and isn’t acceptable.

Sustainability is about culture and credibility

This is why we believe that sustainability is about culture, as much as it is about targets.  For it to work, you can’t just throw the word ‘green’ around and talk about your brand new A321neo’s. 

First of all you have to understand what’s being said.  You have to understand that this is about consumers increasingly grappling with lifestyle choices.

You then need to use the right language to respond to them.  Note that the airlines doing the most on sustainability, such as easyJet, JetBlue and Delta don’t use the word ‘green’, because consumers are not fooled.

You need to show that sustainability is part of your organisational DNA. This is one reason why initiatives such as cutting out single use plastics and wider CSR campaigns are effective when combined with initiatives to reduce your environmental impact.

And related to that, sustainability is more credible if there’s a clear fit with your overall brand ethos.

One reason why Delta’s $1 billion announcement last week was powerful, was because it was announced in tandem with a $1.6 billion employee profit pay-out.  Delta has also worked on being more consumer friendly, for example by investing in its international economy cabin, at a time when competitors are cutting back.

Contrast that with Ryanair. Not only are many of its ‘green’ claims questionable, it doesn’t square with the almost ruthless way it’s done business over the years. After all, Michael O’Leary may be known for many things, but being a famous humanitarian probably isn’t one of them.

Want to talk more about sustainability?  Email- dirk AT


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