Sustainable (ish) Ethical Travelling in 2023

Airplane wing over beautiful sky

Travel can be devastating for our planet and our future, particularly when it involves air travel. So how do we indulge in this life enhancing activity while minimising the environmental impact of our trip. This article outlines all of the steps you can take to make your trip more sustainable, from carbon offsetting to avoiding attractions the exploit animals.

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Photo by Ross Parmly on Unsplash

Did you know that your return flight from Ireland to Malaga this year caused 2.4sqm* of arctic ice to melt? WTF! In fact even a short-haul return flight from London to Edinburgh contributes more CO2 than the mean annual emissions of a person in Uganda or Somalia, and that’s before you take into account the heat-trapping-effect of contrails. We know the melting of the arctic ice is bad, but why? Here’s a quick explanation.

  • Firstly it results in a loss of biodiversity (creatures to you and me) in this area, mostly notably polar bears and penguins.
  • Secondly as ice melts it pours into the seas, raising the sea level, which threatens coastal communities forcing them to migrate to other areas or countries, putting pressure on resources and land-use.
  • Thirdly melting ice affects salt levels in the ocean. This is because the ice is typically freshwater and as it melts into the salt sea it makes the sea less salty. Salty water is denser than fresh water and when this desalination occurs it effects ocean currents like the Gulf stream that we in Ireland rely upon for our temperate climate. If this current changes direction, which is increasingly likely, our weather would be more like Alberta in Canada, which sees average daily temps in December of -17.
  • Fourthly the melting of arctic ice also speeds up climate change and it does this in two ways. Remember your physics? Well white ice reflects solar rays back into space, whereas the sea that replaces the melted ice is dark and, because dark colours absorb more of the suns rays more than light colours, it absorbed the suns rays causing it to heat up, which causes the water to expand therefore threatening more coastal communities quicker. The second way is that, to date, the permafrost up around Greenland and Russia, have acted like carbon sinks, that is trapping carbon and keeping it locked in the ice and out of the atmosphere. As this permafrost melts it releases carbon and methane into the atmosphere, therefore speeding up climate change.

Depressed? Well I am, and when you consider that in 2017 less than 20% of the world’s population had ever flow, the problem is only set to increase. Here’s an interesting infographic on the amount of carbon saved versus other environmentally conscious behaviors.

how bad is flying for the planet

Source: Statista

So what are we going to do about it? Given the severity of the crisis we really should all stop flying tomorrow, but I know and you know that this is not going to happen until the flood waters are lapping at our own front doors. I’m torn between wanting to do what I can to help slow down climate change and wanted to lead an interesting life, and for me that involves some travel. So my compromise is one return flight to Europe once a year. It allows me to get my fix of a foreign culture, while keeping my carbon footprint reasonably low. I’m not saying that you need to do this. Everyone’s efforts will look different. This just happens to be mine.

Even if we do fly abroad there are still some opportunities to lesson the environmental damage of journey. Here are a few;

Before you go

  • Opt for flight-free forms of travel where possible. This is a really good article outlining the carbon footprints of various transport methods and another one comparing the emissions from flying, rail and car travel
  • If you have to fly choose your location wisely. Short flights (less than 3700 km [2,300 miles]) are often less carbon intensive than long flights (greater than 3700 km) because they generally have higher occupancy and lighter fuel loads. This doesn’t hold for very short flights (less than 1000 km [621 miles]) which are in fact more carbon intensive as they spend little time cruising, and are often not very direct. (Source: Shrink that Footprint via Ensia)
  • When flying pick the most efficient airline (2018)
  • Book sustainable accommodation and trips with ethical organisers. (see below for links) websites.
  • Support the work of conservationists and visit well-managed nature reserves on the IUCN Green List
  • If you use visit the site through They’ll plant a tree in Southern Thailand for every bed you book – at no cost to you. They explain how it work on their website.
  • does a similar thing, in that it’s an accommodation website that donates some of it’s profits to environmental charities,
  • Fly economy rather than business or first class. The more people we fit on a plane the more efficiently we’re being with the fuel. Here’s an article on this very issue.
  • Don’t buy travel books, they’re only valid a year or two and so wasteful to buy. Instead borrow from your local library and use Google maps to make your own personalised travel guide.
  • Check out my Sustainable Summer article and limit the impact of your sunnies, cossie and shades and opt for coral-friendly toxin-free sunscreen
  • Pack reusable bottles, cups, lunchboxes, cutlery to use on day trips.
  • Pack your own toiletries and avoid those offered by hotels as they often get chucked once you’ve checked out
  • Bring your own clear plastic bag to put toiletries in when going through airport security
  • There are water refill points after security at most airports allowing you to avoid those nasty single-use plastic bottles of water.
  • Buy package-free locally grown plant-based food in the airport if possible. I’ve used my own containers at Sprout in Dublin airport and bought organic coffee in my own cup at Soho Coffee there too.
  • If you must buy a magazine for the flight do some good with it and buy the Big Issue
  • Aim to take public transport to the airport
  • The more a plane weighs, the more carbon emissions it produces so pack as lightly as you can. Two useful minimalist packing lists can be found on the websites Travel Fashion Girl. You could also go one step further and rent your wardrobe when you arrive in a Marriot Hotel!
  • One exception to the pack lightly rule might be to bring supplies to communities in need at your destination via pack with a purpose
  • Offset the carbon generated by your flight via a website like Atmosfair. This tip comes with a caveat, offsetting your carbon emissions while continuing to fly with abandon is akin to putting a plaster on your wounds while continuing to stab yourself.

When you get there

  • If you’re travelling around it can be hard to find stores that suit a low-waste lifestyle but these store locators can make it easier.
  • Avoid buying bottle water by sterilising the tap water in your hotel room. According to the World Health Organisation doing this allows you to sterlise tap water, killing all pathogens (Source: Gippsland Unwrapped)
  • Eat as much locally grown, organic, plant-based food as possible
  • If drinking alcohol drink locally make beer, wine or spirits.
  • Walk or use as much public transport as you can.
  • Aim to travel by train instead of taking internal flights if possible. Here’s a useful guide to travelling Europe by train and the Green Tickets app is a good way to negotiate the route with the lowest carbon footprint in Europe.
  • Spend your money locally with locals. You can find some interesting options on Airbnb’s experiences and Sustain Your Style has some Sustainable Shopping Guides or you can use the app Tookki to find ethical merchants
  • One way to increase the sustainability of something is to maximise it’s use. Swimply allows you to do that with swimming pools. Through the website you can book slots in private swimming pools around the world, although most seem to be in the US for now.
  • In a similar vein Riders Share allows you to share use of your motorbike with visitors to your country and visa versa.
  • If your heading to Finland you can even rent a boat from boat owners with Skipperi

Responsible Travel
There are plenty of websites offering advice on how to travel responsibly. World Nomads is a tour company that helps travellers, particularly backpackers, be more responsible on their trips. They’ve lots of great articles on responsible travel on their website, which are worth checking out before you head off.

Ethical Animal Attractions
My family love visiting animals but animal attractions can be a double edge sword. Sometimes you’re supporting the misuse of animals by visiting them. It can be so hard to tell if a place is a genuine sanctuary or not. In fact a report published in 2015 studied and scored the conservation status and welfare impacts of animals in 24 types of Wildlife Tourist Attractions (WTA) and then compared their findings to tourists’ reviews on TripAdvisor. Despite only 7.8% of all tourist feedback on these WTA’s containing negative comments regarding the welfare or conservation of the animals the study reported that an overwhelming majority of WTA’s were bad for the animals. To avoid supporting such attractions here’s a few tips on how to spot a genuine sanctuary from one that’s exploiting the animals;

  • There is no direct contact with the animals, i.e. animal rides etc
  • Animals don’t perform tricks and are allowed to live out their lives in a natural way
  • There is no breeding programme because the focus is on caring for injured or orphaned animals rather than creating more
  • Is it a member of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. It doesn’t have to be but it’s a good sign if it is.

Sustainable Accommodation
If you can’t find accommodation that suits your needs in my previous articles on Ireland and the UK, The Americas and Asia and need to research your own, Green Suitcase Travel have a good article on how to ensure your hotel is actually green. In summary, they believe hotels are on the right track if they

  • have someone in charge of sustainability,
  • have initiatives that go beyond asking guest to reuse towels
  • keep surrounding development to a minimum, i.e. no manicured lawns and golf courses
  • clearly state their sustainability policies
  • measure energy, water and resources consumption
  • support local causes or charities
  • use organic, ethically sourced products
  • are sustainably built
  • are independently certified by a credible organisation
  • pay their staff a fair wage

There are a few websites dedicated to sustainable accommodation but they’re either hard to search or have a very loose definition of the terms green / eco. Here are the ones that I found while researching.

  • Eco Hotels is an aggregate website of hotels around the world that have been certified as being sustainable by the following eco hotel certifiers. The website plants a tree for every booking made.
  • Ecobnb in an online listing of a wide range of environmentally friendly accommodation from hotels to organic farms
  • does exactly what it says on the tin; let you find a house in the middle of nature, and for every night booked they’ll plant a tree.
  • Vegan Welcome offers a small directory of Vegan Friendly Hotels around the world.
  • Veganvisits is the Airbnb for vegans, vegetarians and the ‘veg curious’
  • Positive.Travel seeks to match make travel companies, venues, restaurants and hotels with conscious travellers. Great idea, but I found their website hard to use.
  • Although sparsely populated for now the Kynder has the potential be a great tool for the ethical traveller. It is a directory of accommodation and food outlets options found to provide all or some of the organic products, fair/direct trade products, energy/water conservation, waste reduction, humanely-raised meats, sustainable seafood, vegan options, local sourcing. They also must pay a fair wage and have other supportive practices and benefits.
  • The website Green Hotelier is a treasure trove of information on sustainable hotels, but it doesn’t have a user-friendly search facility. You can only list destination by continent, which gives you a series of articles, rather than just information on accommodation.
  • Responsible Travel is a much more user-friendly website for traveller and holiday makers, allowing you to search for sustainable holiday accommodation by country, date and type of holiday. The only downside is the extent of their database. I searched for accommodation in Ireland and only one place came up.
  • During my research I came across the Green Tourism website where you can search for businesses that have won a Green Award by location. Green Tourism is a not-for-profit organisation established in 1997 with a mission to encourage and enable companies in the hospitality / tourism industry to make sustainable choices that reduce their impact on the planet. They have 2000 member in the UK and abroad. They claim to be one of the most rigorous certification programmes of its kind, stating that it is the only one independently validated by the International Centre for Responsible Tourism (ICRT). I have searched for eco-accommodation in Ireland using it’s website and I was surprised at the results. None of the destinations I listed in previous articles appeared, in fact the main result was for a Jury’s Inn, which wouldn’t strike me as a particularly ‘green’ hotel. I’m listing the website here but I personally won’t be using it to source green accommodation.
  • One Planet Rating appears to be a green version of Trip Advisor, where you can view hotels, restaurants and attractions based on their eco-rating. It seems to depend on the rating of the public and could be great if it works like Tripadvisor but so far the only hotel in Dublin that received a rating was the Radisson Blu, which I’d hardly rate as a particularly green hotel.
  • Green Pearls is a directory of sustainably-minded accommodation providers and appears to be member based. There aren’t currently a lot of members in some countries but hopefully it’ll grow in time.
  • Goodwings allows you to offset the carbon footprint of your trip.

Travel Companies & Travel Planning Resources
There are also some companies specialise in tailoring trips that are low-impact and ethical.

  • Midnight Trains in France has a range of luxurious overnight journeys from Paris to Scotland, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Portugal and Italy.
  • The Main in Seat 61 and Rail Bookers are two great resource for train travel
  • Travel Time Map allows you to work out how far you can travel in a chosen time period, using a chosen form of travel, including publc
  • Byway Travel specialise in flight-free travel in the UK and Europe.
  • Rome to Rio is a great tool for finding how to get anywhere and gives various options using different transport methods, and the website
  • Undiscovered Mountains is an mountain focused adventure holiday tour company that use small independent accommodations wherever possible and local guides and instructors so the money you spend on your holiday is ploughed straight back into the local economy in Tibet. They also run an Eco-Challenge to raise money for Tourism Concern and operate a carbon offsetting program through a rewilding project with their partner Mossy Earth
  • Impact Trip is a certified B-Corp that promotes Responsible Travel Experiences in Portugal, Spain, Croatia, and Italy.
  • Better Places Travel connect local travel experts with travellers to deliver experiences that are focused around nature and the local population. All of the local travel experts are Travelife certified, or in the process of obtaining their certification. To minimize the negative environmental impact of travel, they make sure that when booking through them you are travelling carbon neutral by compensating not only the in-destination travel you book through us, but also the emissions from the flight you took to reach your destination. Better Places Travel is also a Social Enterprise, and part of the Social Enterprise NL community.
  • Eco Explorations organise community and conservation focused trips in the Philippines. Their ecotours primarily focusing on natural experiences and the local communities are at the heart of their operations, and everything we do revolves around them.
  • Jumbari organises responsible travel trips in Africa and donate 1% of each booking value to the the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, a South African based organization that focuses on the conservation of rare, vulnerable and endangered species with cheetah conservation as their core focus.
  • Floogle Binder is a London-based B Corp that connect students with community projects that drive the sustainable developments goals set out by the UN.
  • Balance Travel runs a series of retreat in luxury accommodation that the company views to have demonstrated a commitment to sustainable ingredient sourcing, growing native flora, energy efficiency efforts and water conservation. They have received a butterfly award from a private certification company Positive Luxury.
  • Intrepid Travel is the big daddy of all the responsible tourism companies. They help travellers give back to the places they visit by matching all donation to their our not-for-profit arm, The Intrepid Foundation, dollar-for-dollar. They cover all administrative costs too, so 100% of giving goes directly to the projects. Since 2002, they’ve donated over AU $7.5 million into grassroots projects around the world. Intrepid has also been a carbon-neutral business since 2010; we now have 42 carbon-neutral offices and offer over 2000 carbon-offset trips. Now they’re taking action to become a climate-positive business by investing in a project in Tasmania to restore the disappearing kelp forests – Seaweed: The (re)generation. They were also the first global tour operator to end elephant rides, and visits to orphanage visits and to bringing awareness to the cruelty of lion walks. We’ve also taken a leadership position on child protection by removing orphanage visits from our itineraries. They’re also committed to promoting gender equality and are working to double their number of female leaders by 2020.

And above all enjoy your trip.

Elaine & Paul

PS – The calculation of how much arctic ice melts is based on a research paper published in the academic journal Science in 2016 by two climatologists, which I learned about in this article in the New York Times. The amount of carbon emitted by the flight was obtained using this carbon calculator

Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

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