Sometimes, in my folly, I make the assumption that everyone knows everything I do. (I just think you all are so darned smart!) But then I realize that sometimes you don’t know everything I do, because your brains are stuffed full of info that I don’t know! You know I’m a travel agent who specializes in sustainability, but perhaps you don’t really know what sustainability is. It’s more than just being eco-friendly—much, much more. So in this blog post I outline and describe the pillars of sustainability and how they can apply to travel.
Pillars of Sustainability
Sustainability, whether in travel, food, or clothes, is founded on three equally important pillars: people, planet, and profit.
The pillar of people represents social justice & culture. People have to be happy and healthy—have a sense of well-being—in a sustainable society. Planet represents the environment. A sustainable industry has to support a “defined level of environmental quality indefinitely;” in other words any resources we take out of the environment must be replaceable. The pillar of profit represents economics. If a sustainable business (or country) wants to be truly sustainable it must be able to financially support itself indefinitely. Sustainability acknowledges that a lot of our current social and economic systems cannot support themselves indefinitely. Let’s take a look at what that means for travel.
As we’ve entered the 21st century, people have had a radical awakening of how their daily lives impact others. For example, when I heard of the disastrous building collapse in Bangladesh, I started to question where our clothes came from and how the working conditions were for those who made them. And as I looked into other industries, it became clear that many, many people were being exploited.
The people pillar signifies all people being able to live with a sense of well-being and harmony. In the travel industry that means avoiding resorts that cause the displacement of local people, and staying in locally-owned lodging. The people pillar also means respecting the cultures of the destinations traveled to. If it’s customary for a woman to cover her hair, for example, we respect that as travelers.
In addition, traveling sustainably means staying aware about hotel chains and souvenir producers who rely on child or slave labor. One example of people exploiting children for profits is orphanages that bill themselves as voluntourism. A last example of sustainable travel is not handing out donations to beggars while we’re in another country (begging is not sustainable), and using the money we would have handed out to help build infrastructure and jobs for the people of the area.
When people think of sustainability, this is what pops to mind! Things that fall into this category are carbon footprints, animal welfare, destruction of rainforests and water tables, ocean conservation--any sort of environmental protection you can think of falls under the planet pillar.
Being aware of carbon footprints during our travels is imperative. So it’s good to try avoiding those forms of travel (i.e. planes) with the biggest footprint. Destruction of the environment is another issue that must be considered when traveling. Since travel is the number one export of many developing countries, it can be very tempting for them to increase building of lodgings at an environmentally unsustainable rate. As travelers we have the obligation to ensure that we are not contributing to that problem by staying at accommodations that haven’t exploited or damaged the environment, or by avoiding travel to countries that have un-sustainable, irresponsible tourism practices.
One last issue that falls under the planet pillar--animal welfare—also has a wide range of problems. Souvenirs can come from animals, and if you don’t know from which animals, you might be contributing to the killing of endangered ones. Animal transportation can seem like a sustainable alternative—especially because of the smaller carbon footprint. But some types of animal transportation are not sustainable. Riding elephants is a popular activity for tourists in Thailand and the surrounding countries, but it’s become so popular and the tourist demand so high that elephants are regularly abused during their expedited training. Thankfully, this is starting to garner more attention as tour companies like G Adventures are dropping elephant rides from their tours.
Without sustainable economic systems, having sustainable environmental and social systems isn’t productive. If a country’s highest export is tourism, but two-thirds of the money is leaving the country and going to western-owned companies, that’s not a sustainable industry. But if we spend our travel dollars on locally-owned travel infrastructure, 100% of the profits are going back to the local economy. The economy then becomes more sustainable, and it encourages countries’ tourism industries to focus on the people and planet pillars as a long-term, economically sustainable investment for their countries.
As Americans with the privilege to travel—especially out of the country—it is our responsibility to make sustainable choices. The more often we vote with our dollar to make sustainable choices, the less expensive those sustainable options become for everyone else!
Now get out there and go!