This article is for those currently already travelling, not yet on the sustainability journey, and struggling to start. Specifically, let’s try to grapple with the question of beginning to travel sustainably. And not just as a passing fad, either. But in a way that you can effectively turn sustainable travel into a new normal – easily.
To be clear, I’m not talking from the bigger perspective of what counts as sustainable travel. I’m talking at the personal level, about becoming a sustainable traveller.
You see, I believe that sustainable travel doesn’t begin with a list of things you do, or change. It actually begins with a change in your mindset. This happens more quickly and completely for some of us. But for many others, you don’t quite get there.
It doesn’t mean you can’t. People’s brains are different, with some changing readily while others have more inertia. Some change after an emotional event, and some change after understanding. Some are early adopters and change before others, and some change along with a social group.
So in this article, I will recommend the easiest two steps to begin this mindset change, with an emphasis on travellers. But though they seem ridiculously simple, they are essential to building a new mindset. Your new habits will grow from this mindset, and you will grow into an effective sustainable traveller.
Step One: Become aware of your impacts
Every change starts from a decision, and that decision is to take responsibility for yourself. In the context of sustainable travel, it is about accepting responsibility for your own impacts.
But this leads to the question: exactly what am I taking responsibility for? Which leads to the practical action that you can turn into a habit – measure your impacts.
You see, we might be aware of what kinds of impacts arise from our travel decisions. Maybe, because of this awareness, we made some changes here and there. But until we measure our impacts, this awareness doesn’t become sustained change. And until we get to sustained change, becoming a sustainable traveller feels hard, because it feels like we’re accumulating an ever-increasing number of change decisions. To do what we ‘should’ do.
However, once our mindset begins to change, it changes the things we want and demand. We don’t think about the things that we want – we just want them, and we notice when we can’t get them.
The good news about this approach, is that it kind of doesn’t matter which impact we choose to measure first. Because the main outcome that we’re trying to cultivate at this step, is inside. Sustained change means that we will get around to becoming aware of all our impacts eventually. At the first step we just need to start with one. So start with the one that is easiest for you.
Here are some examples.
You could go with the biggest travel impact: Flight emissions
There can be no doubt that there are considerable costs to the climate system from air travel. As with virtually anything we buy in the economic system (for myriad reasons I’m not going to cover here), most of the cost to the environment is absorbed by the natural system rather than borne by the service provider. These are not factored into what you pay, and so in a way this makes air travel ‘artificially’ affordable.
The popular view is not to take flights at all. However, if you’re just beginning this journey, that probably feels too hard. So let’s just start by becoming aware of what the flight emissions are.
The good news is that this is really easy. It’s also easy to progress to offsetting those carbon emissions, which helps to make that impact real to you. At the moment voluntary carbon offsets are still quite affordable as only a few countries have imposed a carbon trading framework (this is on its way to becoming universal).
So, for travellers, I recommend calculating your flight emissions footprint. There’s just enough effort in this that it makes you think, but simple enough that it can easily be made into a habit.
You could do Plastic Free July
Another impact you could focus on is single-use plastic. This is good if you want to start at home, since our plastic consumption habits at home often gets carried forward into travel.
One way to do this is by joining or organising Plastic Free July. (It can be another month, but Plastic Free July is the default one; I personally joined an April one.) The way this works is you measure all the plastic waste you threw away in July, and try to eliminate them as best as you can.
You will probably fail. That’s not the point. The point is to become aware of your real plastic consumption habits because you will probably be surprised. Plastic is so ubiquitous, you’re probably wasting it and you weren’t even aware. While you’re doing it you would also be exposed to zero waste groups and stores. Maybe there’s a local zero waste store and you never knew. So you can progress after July and start to make permanent changes.
Plastic Free July isn’t easy, but it’s fun when you do it with a group. So I recommend this for people who want to do something right away, and like to do things with others.
Other sustainability examples
Of course, there are other things you can measure than the examples above. If they don’t really suit you, I recommend picking some kind of consumption that matters to you. Either because it really bothers you, or because getting better at it saves you money or time (these things are incentives that will improve your attention span!).
For some, this could be to start segregating household waste, to see what kinds of things you actually throw away. This can be powerful, because waste is so easily taken away, so we don’t think about it at all. You might find that you could use something you throw away, to stop buying something else.
For others, it could be buying a power consumption meter and understanding where in the house you’re wasting electricity. It might lead you to discover energy saving devices and low carbon energy providers.
You can go to some of my article series, to get inspiration on types of environmental impacts.
Step Two: Make a conscious intention
My second habit recommendation is psychological. It is to set – and re-set – your intention. Whatever action that you resolve to do to travel more sustainably, take some time to actually make that intention to yourself.
We take intention for granted. Our modern culture measures progress by activity. More things are happening = progress. But sustained change, and more importantly integrated change, comes from clarity of intention. In the long run, it’s more important than people credit it for, although you can’t see intention from the outside.
Making a conscious intention cultivates the habit of creating the space to recognise your own habits. When there is time between trigger and action, we gain the insights required to change the action.
Now, as anyone who has ever made New Year’s resolutions would testify, sticking to the intention is hard! That’s why I specifically mentioned repeatedly setting the intention, over and over again.
Reflect. Don’t give up.
Maybe it was too much, too soon. Maybe you discovered an obstacle. Whatever it is, learn from the attempt. What this does is gets you to a place where you get to know yourself better, and used to not giving up.
This is the most important thing for any long-term change journey; it can be slow and with small steps, but you have to keep going.
The importance of intention to sustainable travel
We are a collection of very different people, and each of us values different things in the way that we travel. Here, I’m just going to let those many intentions stand with each other without judgment. I don’t need to know your reasons for travel.
But responsible travel begins with you knowing yours.
There is great gain in travel, and there is also cost. It is a thing still out of reach of so many, and so remains a privilege. Reflect on that privilege, and choose an intention for your trip. Be honest, and even if reflection is all you can do for now, reflect on the intention for your trip, the one that you have now. Even if it’s not exactly a noble intention, even if it’s frivolous, accept that this is the intention you have for today, and leave it be.
Just don’t skip this step.
Then tomorrow do it again, at breakfast perhaps, or before sleep. And again, all the days of your travel. Even if you don’t change anything. Just think about it, and know why you’re there. Do this one small thing, if that’s all you can commit to doing.
Something happens when you honestly set an intention, over and over again. It makes you aware of your feelings about your intention. It changes what you notice when you’re travelling. Then in time, it becomes possible for travel itself to change you.
Then, you will find that you’re on your way to becoming an effective sustainable traveller.
There is a reason why I did not give just one of these two steps, and make this article about ONE simple first step to become a sustainable traveller.
There is a positive feedback between action and decision that stops either one from becoming aimless and petering out.
It’s like a left leg and a right leg. Using both helps you make sustained progress, in the same way as you need both legs to sustain walking.
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For the other articles in this series, see:
Environmentalist, but literate in all 17 SDGs. Promotes insightful travel & sustainable transitions with collaborative Global South worldviews.