Sustainable by Design – Part 1: A Story

(Photo credit: Markus Spiske/ Unsplash

With this 2-part article we take a look at how behavior-smart thinking can provide easy and low-investment solutions to help businesses, sites and attractions make sustainability a non-negotiable principle in their operations, rather than an optional extra for visitors to select. 

The first part of this article is primarily written as a story to provide examples of how a business can ‘tweek’ its offer to become more default sustainable. The second part of the article provides the technical basis for why and how a business can adjust its offer to become more sustainable as well as why the onus should be more on the business, site or attraction and less on the visitor themselves. 

This article is part of a series, co-written by Simon Jones (NatureScapes) and Milena Nikolova (BehaviorSMART), focused on understanding human behavior and how it impacts tourism in natural spaces.

The commitment is a fact, now what?

Just a few days ago the global tourism industry came together behind the Glasgow Declaration for Climate Action in Tourism, launched during the UN Climate Change Conference COP26. In essence, industry stakeholders committed to cut emissions in half by 2030 and reach Net Zero as early as possible before 2050. While there is no question that travel should be moving towards a future in which sustainability is a non-negotiable principle of operation, we would not be honest if we did not recognize the daunting complexity that comes with this transition.

The challenge is especially significant for businesses, which feel pressured from two forces. On one side there is the fact that any serious transition to sustainability requires significant investment to replace current infrastructure much of which is inefficient, unsustainable and polluting. On the other side there is the pressure of dealing with clients who seem hesitant to select more sustainable options despite declaring commitment to responsible consumption. So, between these two forces and the fact that the travel sector is trying to emerge from a long and exhausting crisis, many entrepreneurs are faced with questions such as “where to start?” and “how to take the next steps?” while also recovering profitability.

Despite the huge burden of the pandemic and the expected slow recovery from it, many tourism entrepreneurs have invested time and effort in rolling out operational changes inspired by sustainability principles. Others are planning to begin making investments in this direction once their business recovers. In this context, wouldn’t it be nice if businesses could benefit from a toolkit that helps them kickstart or accelerate their sustainability transition in ways that does not require large investments? Could there be a way to roll out sustainable principles without the risk of going against the will of clients and without risking a slip in traveler satisfaction?

As you may have guessed, later in this article we will share that there is… but before we do that, let’s dive into a story that reflects today’s realities for a small tourism business emerging from the crisis.

Photo credit: Tim Mossholder/ Unsplash

Photo credit: Tim Mossholder/ Unsplash

Educate or Authomate: a story of a small tourism businesses in a marine park

Steve is the owner of a small adventure camp located near a marine park. Most of his guests come for a few days to enjoy active outdoors breaks involving nature walks along the coast, kayaking, diving and snorkelling. The rules of the marine park prohibit visitors from engaging in any water-based activities without a local guide, so Steve has partnerships with several providers of guided experiences. One of them is Mike – a passionate kayaker and owner of a small sea kayaking operation in the park. Steve and Mike have become good friends and often meet to talk about business and exchange ideas. Today they are meeting for a coffee and a chat:

Photo Credit: Brandon McDonald/ Unsplash

Photo Credit: Brandon McDonald/ Unsplash

‘Steve, good to see you!’ said Mike as they sat down for coffee, ‘Did the two families you sent me two days ago leave? They surely had fun and enjoyed their time the other day. Did they give any feedback?’ Steve grinned, ‘they were ecstatic about the kayaking….. The kids loved the island adventure, the parents loved the picnic… they said they are coming back with more friends next time.’

Mike took a sip of coffee, ‘they are more than welcome! We need more people like them coming back after this crisis. By the way, I noticed you started selling lunches in the reusable boxes and bottles again. They each had one. I thought you gave that up because people were not buying lunch boxes and would just pack lunch with whatever they had? …And then we would run around picking up their litter!’

Flipping Options

‘You noticed well!’ Steve said with a laugh. ‘I did bring the reusable lunch boxes and bottles back, but in a different way. Now I no longer sell them as an option for guests, I include them as part of the pack-and-go lunch service and this is non-negotiable if they want to have lunch in the park. I figured that the lunch box and the bottle are the options with the least possible footprint on nature in the park. The plastic waste people were bringing into the park was too much! You have a beautiful locally made wooden lunch box with our logo on it that costs the same as a cappuccino at a downtown cafe and you go with a plastic bag? I could not allow this anymore. . And you know, now that the boxes are a given, guests love them! They are happy to keep them after their holiday and by removing the choice we eliminate the chance that they will inadvertently litter in the park.

To be honest with you, the slow time during the pandemic gave me some time to think this through: I realised that first, I live and work by the park, and am so much more connected to its nature than any guest. I am in a much better position to know what is the best option for the plants and the animals here. So if I know better and my business and quality of life depend on how well we protect this nature, why am I transferring the responsibility for the choice to my guests?!

Photo Credit: Anh Nguyen / Unsplash

Photo Credit: Anh Nguyen / Unsplash

Being Realistic about Customer Choices

In addition, I realised that my guests care about nature – that is why they are here, but I also see that they are here to get away from the responsibilities of their busy lives so they focus on relaxing and having fun. I noticed that many visitors choose automatically, choosing whats easiest, without realising the implications that sometimes simple choices have for the nature they are here to see. How would they know that the paper bags they all think are better than plastic can actually be more damaging for particular species if they are left out in nature? Not everybody knows that leaving some food behind is actually more damaging for wild animals than not leaving anything. So, we think we are giving guests more freedom to choose but we are not… because they actually do not fully realise their options and the impacts they have. And frankly, they are not eager to spend time figuring these options out; they are eager to have fun and enjoy nature… and let us do the thinking for them.

I decided that if I am their host and I know best what is right for nature in this area; and if my guests love nature but are not motivated to analyse the implications of certain decisions, then I should make the option that is best for our park the only option. It makes it easier for our guests because we eliminate the burden of fairly insignificant choices, and at the same time help protect the park. Long story short – I decided that no guest of mine will go to the park with anything else but a reusable lunch box and water bottle so I included them in my pack-and-go lunch service by default.

After breakfast and before going off for their activities, guests get a lunch box and are invited to create their own lunch in the box. Children have fun with this of course, and adults love it because it is their own self-created lunch, nicely organised in the lunch box. They all enjoy this and nobody has asked to give the box back and take a plastic bag. The whole thing turned into a fun lunch-crafting experience that everybody enjoys, and it is good for nature.’

‘This is brilliant, making the most sustainable option automatic,’ said Mike! ‘I wonder how I can use the same model! Tell me more; did you make any other changes during the pandemic?’

Photo Credit: Kate Trifo/ Unsplash

Photo Credit: Kate Trifo/ Unsplash

Ultra-local, Carbon-Light Food Service

Steve pondered the question for a minute. ‘Yes, I did a lot of rethinking with my food service. During the pandemic imports were so irregular and this made me worried about the variety of food products I could offer for breakfast and dinner. People liked that we served fresh avocado and that we always had several varieties of jam. But as it became harder with supplies I thought that I should find other things about the food that would appeal to my guests, rather than continue emphasising variety. I decided that the best way to be less dependent on deliveries was to not rely on them and to transition to a 50-mile menu. Now almost everything we serve for breakfast, lunch and dinner is sourced from the villages, farms and fishermen within 50 miles from here. We have fewer options and we have to change menus depending on what is available each season, but guests love it and pay much more attention to the food than before. They ask us about the spices and the recipes, they even ask whether they can visit the farms or fishermen with whom we work…. We developed small cards with information about local herbs or with some of the recipes of the meals we serve. I want to experiment with cooking demonstrations too – once a month I will have someone from the area come and demonstrate the preparation of a local meal. Clients love all of this  but also, to be honest, I feel I am supporting our community here. So many of the farms and the fishermen were hit by the crisis so the least we can do is help each other recover faster by creating business opportunities for others and keeping more of the spend of our guests in the area.’

Photo Credit: Autumn Mott Rodeheaver/ Unsplash

Photo Credit: Autumn Mott Rodeheaver/ Unsplash

‘If you are bringing in most of your food from the area, then you have actually managed to lower some of your carbon footprint… you do not rely on long-haul transportation, everything is just a short ride away’ said Mike.

Steve had considered this. ‘Yes, I actually thought about that too during the lockdowns. I attended a couple of virtual training with tips on lowering your carbon footprint in tourism. So, one of the things that happened easily with my transition to more local offerings is that I naturally emphasised more vegetarian and seafood-based options. There are some fantastic vegetarian recipes that are traditional to the area and they are highlights of what we offer. With no long-haul transportation, much more focus on seafood and plant-based options and less meat, we have moved to much more climate-friendly food service. I am very proud of that.’

Traveler Attitudes Towards Sustainability by Design

‘I think this is fantastic but what do the clients think about that?’ asked Mike. ‘Aren’t they upset that the menu is not as rich and that you are biased towards local suppliers only? Or predominantly vegetarian options?’

‘Not at all,’ Steve responded, ‘I am fully transparent about what I am doing and why I am doing it. I have a note on our menus and at the breakfast buffet that explains that all ingredients are sourced from within a radius of 50 miles. My clients love it! I told you – people get excited about the local aspect and are curious to experience more… ‘

‘Perhaps that is an opportunity then, said Mike, what if we do something together… perhaps a culinary and kayak journey? We can build an itinerary around the discovery of edible plants, herbs and other ingredients that we find in nature on land and water… We can set up a nice outdoor lunch at the small bay demonstrating how we use these in local recipes, guests can even take part in some of the preparations. What do you think?’

‘I think this is a fantastic idea,’ Steve said, pulling out a notepad! ‘Let’s do it.’

Photo Credit: Marianela O.M/ Unsplash

Photo Credit: Marianela O.M/ Unsplash

What is next?

Take a look at part 2 of this article where we look at the frameworks and concepts that explain why behavior-smart thinking has worked for Steve and explains the reasoning behind automating sustainability by weaving it in the design of the offering.

This article was brought to you by:

NatureScapes & Behavior SMART