The Pursuit of Sustainable Travel: 10 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

There are many ways to significantly reduce our carbon footprint in travel and make positive impacts on our environment and the communities we visit.
walking to reduce carbon footprint

Is Sustainable Travel An Oxymoron? 

It is impossible to travel, let alone live, without creating some sort of carbon footprint. As humans, simply existing, we breathe in oxygen and out carbon dioxide.  However, as in daily life, there are many ways to significantly reduce your carbon footprint in travel and make positive impacts on the environment and the communities you visit.

Traveling sustainably, also known as eco-friendly or responsible travel, is all about exploring the world while minimizing negative impacts. Just as you might partake in other earth-friendly activities– recycling composting, sharing rides, and turning off lights–sustainable travel is a philosophy that encourages us to make conscious choices that prioritize the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.

Why Sustainable Travel Matters

The more I travel, the more I become increasingly aware of my carbon footprint, and the disparities that exist when it comes to taking social and environmental accountability. Many of these inequities are power-driven or have to do with political dynamics, however there are still ways in which we can take responsibility for our own actions. As travelers, it is important to understand how tourism affects the environment and our communities, accounting for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.  

In terms of travel, how we interact with the planet and with others can yield all kinds of outcomes. There are ways to incorporate your personal commitment to being an environmentally conscious traveler while pursuing life-altering experiences and positive behavior change. Just by making the effort to practice sustainable tourism, you can help reduce emissions and the rate of climate change. There are many efforts and practices that can be adopted, as you will find below, where you will have the opportunity to create a positive impact on the environment. 

Choose Eco-Friendly Accommodations & Tourism Companies

One of the key aspects of sustainable travel is choosing eco-friendly accommodations.  Many establishments have implemented practices to minimize their environmental impact, such as updating to energy-efficient systems, adopting renewable energy sources, and choosing to use products and follow standards that reduce waste and conserve water. When possible, look for certifications like LEED or Green Globe when selecting accommodations. Home stays can also be an eco-friendly and culturally-sensitive alternative, but keep in mind, families may not have the opportunity to achieve these types of certifications even if their practices would qualify. 

Choose to put your hard-earned dollars into companies and organizations making efforts to create a positive change.  For example, Positive Polar, an expedition cruise company, is working to generate a positive impact on arctic regions during exploration.  “We will work responsibly performing the necessary studies with scientists to improve the Ocean Wildlife, while boosting the Biological Carbon Pump while cruising. This could result in Carbon Sinking that could potentially help to restore the climate to pre-industrial levels.”  Other ways various expedition cruise companies are making sustainable travel efforts include architectural design of the ships, zero emission shore power connectivity, biodigester systems and dehydrators to reduce food waste, as well as utilizing renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind. 

Use Shared Transportation, Walk or Bike

Public transportation and slower travel options, such as walking, not only reduce cost but also reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. Many cities offer efficient public transportation systems, bike-sharing programs, and electric scooters, allowing you to explore at a different pace that will provide more opportunities to immerse yourself in the local culture and connect with people.  Consider planning how you will get around in advance to reduce both the high financial and environmental costs that can occur during travel. 

Pack Light to Reduce Emissions

Packing light can help you avoid lugging around heavy bags, potential loss of luggage and airport wait times for pick up and drop off. Keeping it on the lighter side can also reduce emissions during travel. The weight of your luggage actually affects fuel efficiency of any vehicle, so pack thoughtfully with versatile clothing and lightweight materials. While this may require collective efforts to make a significant impact, it is another practice that can counterbalance your carbon footprint.

To pack light, consider bringing clothing items that can be mixed and matched in various outfits. Choose lightweight materials that take up less space in your luggage. Plan your outfits in advance, think about what you will feel comfortable in and what you would like to have for specific events to avoid overpacking. 

I tend to pack a pair of comfortable black dress shoes that can serve as comfortable walking shoes and will pair nicely with a dress. Also consider minimalist or sustainable travel gear options that will help you pack light. For a few examples, I like lightweight and compact travel towels made from sustainable materials such as bamboo or organic cotton, collapsible water bottles, and buffs to protect from the sun during the day and keep me warm during the cooler evenings.

Bring Reusable Water Bottles

Single-use plastics contribute to pollution in oceans and landfills. Bring reusable water bottles and bags to reduce your consumption of single-use plastics and support sustainable travel practices. Invest in a durable and reusable water bottle you can refill throughout your trip. Look for bottles made from stainless steel or glass, as these materials are more sustainable than plastic. Many destinations have water refill stations or offer filtered water, so you can easily fill up your bottle.  If you will be in a region you do not feel comfortable drinking the water, bring a small filter.  

Use Cloth Bags and Plastic Free Packaging

Bring sustainable travel products that reduce reliance on single-use plastics. For example, reusable produce bags can be used when shopping for groceries. Reusable bags are great for carrying items during the day, when you do not need to carry around all of your luggage.  Opt for bags made from natural fibers, such as cotton or jute. These bags are not only eco-friendly, but also more durable than plastic bags.

Support Local and Sustainable Businesses

Supporting local businesses contributes to the local economy and can lend to sustainability within the community. Look for locally owned restaurants, shops, and tour operators that prioritize sustainability and align with your values. Seek out businesses sourcing local ingredients and products and those that support sustainable farming practices or fair trade.

Reduce Energy Use in Your Accommodation

Reducing energy use in your accommodation is another easy way to minimize your carbon footprint. Just as you would at home, while traveling, be mindful of your energy consumption. Turn off lights, air conditioning, and heating when leaving a room. Also, consider whether the air conditioner is necessary, or if a fan and opening the windows may be sufficient to create a comfortable temperature.

Take advantage of natural light during the day instead of relying on artificial lighting. This can also help minimize jet lag symptoms. Unplug electronic devices when they are not in use, as they still consume energy even when turned off.  As mentioned above, it is becoming more common to find sustainable accommodations implementing energy-saving features to minimize environmental impact. For example, The Brando in French Polynesia uses solar panels to generate electricity and a seawater air conditioning system that reduces energy consumption. The 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge in New York City has energy-efficient lighting and a smart thermostat system that adjusts the temperature based on occupancy.

Eat Locally Sourced Meals

The food we consume during travel also impacts our environment and the communities we visit. Production and transportation of food contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and water pollution. By choosing locally sourced and plant-based meals, you can reduce your carbon footprint and support sustainable farming practices. 

Of the food categories, meat -though not all meats are equal in contribution- provides the largest carbon footprint, which is why plant-based meals tend to be encouraged for environmental sustainability.  What positive changes may look like will vary from person to person.  Perhaps that means reducing routine meat consumption and increasing the amount of plant based foods in our diet, or maybe it is simply selecting more locally-sourced foods. 

 Learning more about plant-based options, meat alternatives, and where your food comes from can be good stepping stones. Finding the practices and food options that are most appealing and enjoyable to you can be an experience in itself, and can be a move toward a more sustainable way of living and traveling. 

Consider Offsetting Your Carbon Emissions

Carbon offsetting is a way to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions produced during travels. It involves investing in projects that reduce or remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, such as reforestation or renewable energy initiatives. By offsetting your carbon emissions, you can make your travel more sustainable and contribute to global efforts to combat climate change.

To offset your carbon emissions, calculate your carbon footprint using online calculators that take into account factors such as transportation, accommodation, and activities. Once you have determined your carbon footprint, you can purchase carbon offsets from reputable organizations that invest in sustainable projects.

Participate in Sustainable Tourist Activities

Participating in sustainable tourist activities allows you to explore a destination while minimizing your impact on the environment and communities. Sustainable tourist activities prioritize conservation, cultural preservation, and community engagement. 

When looking for sustainable tourist activities, consider activities that promote wildlife conservation and responsible animal tourism. Avoid those involving captive animals or ones that contribute to their exploitation. 

Look for tour operators implementing sustainable practices, such as waste reduction and environmental education.  Some examples of sustainable tourist activities around the world, include snorkeling or diving tours focused on coral reef conservation. There are also hiking tours promoting responsible outdoor recreation and education to participants about local flora and fauna.

Finally, sustainable travel is not just about exploring new destinations; it’s about making a positive impact on the planet and its inhabitants whether in your backyard or in a completely new environment.  There is no perfect way to travel, but we encourage you to think about how you will travel and the changes you could implement into your routines.  By practicing sustainable travel, we can protect the environment, support communities, and create a better future for all.

 Let’s embark on a sustainable journey together and inspire others to do the same!

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