Sustainable by Design – Part 2: Making Sustainability Non-Negotiable (the solutions)


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 second part of this article offers an overview of the behavioral mechanisms and principles that explain why ‘sustainable by design’ works. We take a look at the approaches applied by Steve (in part 1) and explain why they work and make sense of all players along the tourism supply chain.   

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

Steve, Mike and Weaving Sustainability in the Design 

In part 1 of this article we presented a short story about Steve and Mike. It reflected on examples of how  tourism businesses can undertake simple changes in the way they operate. Some of the changes were motivated by their desire to be more sustainable on an everyday basis and others by the need to reorganise costs.

So, let’s put on our behavioral ‘hat’ and understand better why Steve’s approach worked for him, why it is so hard to persuade travelers to choose sustainably when the choice is left to them and what might be some effective behavior-smart solutions on our path to sustainability and Net Zero.

Why are travelers hesitant to prioritize sustainable and responsible options?

For years we have been investing in education and awareness programs in an effort to shift traveler choices to the more responsible options. The pursued strategy was that providing travelers with information about sustainable/responsible alternatives and explaining why they are good will translate to change in preferences. While trends in responsible consumption are moving in the desired direction, the desired change in preferences is too slow for the urgency of the transition that tourism needs to make. 

There are objective reasons why this educational path is not as effective as we have hoped. These are associated with traveler psychology. Behavioral science has proved that:

  • During holidays travellers release many of the controls in their behavior, including those that guide their “being good” actions. When we are in our daily routine we stick to healthy and responsible consumption habits. For example, we may avoid sweets and alcohol during weekdays, we exercise and we recycle regularly. When on holiday we often depart from these behaviors — we allow ourselves a glass of wine with lunch… maybe two…, we taste local desserts every day, we do not get up for our daily jog and we do not make an effort to separate plastics from the rest of the waste in our hotel room. We simply take a break from being good and responsible, and go with what feels easy and enjoyable.
  • While there is a growing segment of sustainability-conscious travelers, the majority continue to perceive sustainability as overwhelming, a chore and in conflict with relaxation. This means that even when we are presented with information about responsible options and education about why they are the right thing to choose, many people intentionally avoid and ignore it.
  • People are challenged when they are faced with a complicated and vague choice, the outcomes of which are extended in the future (such as sustainability). They are much more likely to focus on choices that are immediate, easier and more fun. So in most cases our holiday selves will place emphasis on the choice of where to go for dinner tonight and push aside the worry about saving the planet.
  • Also, in most cases travellers are at their holiday destination for a short period of time and that leads to an important behavioral consideration — their actions and the likely effects of their actions are disconnected. They can overuse water or leave behind a few plastic bottles but they will depart the place before the area experiences water shortage or is overwhelmed by plastic waste. The fact that they are unlikely to see these negative impacts makes irresponsible choices even more likely and easier for visitors.
  • Last but not least, contemporary travelers are more and more likely to make decisions under the influence of their System 1 rather than the mindful System 2 thought process (see our earlier article on this subject). Decisions made in the pre-trip phase are now often made on mobile devices while we are on the go and with limited time to think through our choices. Decisions at the destination also need to be made while our attention and senses are engaged with other things, such as new places, sounds, sights, smells and tastes of the destination we are visiting. This is why traveller decisions are often driven by default options and other shortcuts (System 1 thinking) rather than mindful choices that include the impact we may be having (System 2 thinking) .
Photo Credit: Edward Virvel/ Unsplash

Photo Credit: Edward Virvel/ Unsplash

All of these traveler behaviors explain why the expectation that once travelers are made aware of the more responsible option, they will pursue it, is not very realistic.

What is more realistic? What are the approaches that can achieve higher commitment to sustainability now?

Sustainable by Design: What is it?

The last few years have seen growing awareness of the invisible burdens of tourism, i.e. the undesired pressures that the tourism economy puts on natural and cultural resources, as well as the quality of life of host communities. The growing importance of climate change on the global agenda has placed climate action at the center of discussions about tourism’s future in the world economy.

All of this is indicative of the fact that we have entered an age in tourism when sustainability should be a non-negotiable principle of doing business. What does that mean for a small tourism business that operates in a natural area? Can it rely on the fact that more and more travelers are becoming aware of sustainability and climate change and can translate that to responsible consumer choices? Is it a matter of making these choices available? Is it a matter of educating?

Our position is that it is a matter of being realistic about traveler behavior and about the fact that it is not effective to leave consumers to carry the weight of the transition to sustainability. They are frankly the least qualified to understand the optimal sustainable choices at the destination or business level. They also have to overcome many more psychological barriers (listed earlier) that break the connection between their good intentions and actual actions. Businesses, sites or attractions have a leading role to play in making sustainability easy, fun and to some extent automatic. This is possible if sustainability becomes an integral part of the design of travel products, services and experiences…. by default.

Photo Credit: Maria Ilves/ Unsplash

Photo Credit: Maria Ilves/ Unsplash

Sustainable by Design: How to make it happen?

It is difficult to expect that in this crisis tourism companies can invest significant resources in transforming their energy sources, adopting new technologies and introducing dramatic innovations in their business models. The majority of tourism businesses have limited financial resources due to the slow market and limited workforces due to downsizing. That means that realistically most will not be able to make huge leaps in transitioning to new technology and infrastructure.

Despite this, tourism businesses can still achieve a lot through behavior-smart solutions that account for the realistic way in which travelers act and make decisions, and make it easier to pursue. Just like the story with Steve and Mike reveals, there are many design tweaks we can use to make sustainable options an integral part of the delivered service without impacting profit or the quality of the experience. In fact these tweaks can often improve the quality, positive impact and profitability of the tourism experience.

We know that we must make sustainability non-negotiable. We also know that many unsustainable choices are made by travelers due to incorrect behavioral assumptions, i.e. that all their decisions are mindful or that they are always aware of the full set of implications behind each option. So if travelers go for unsustainable options because they are easier or the default, can we flip the design and make the sustainable option the only available option, or alternatively the easiest, or default option? Many of the design adjustments that are needed to make this happen are not complicated and do not require significant investments (consider Steve’s experience). They can be executed in a way that further enhances the benefits for travelers and that increase the experiential value of the offering.

The Behavior-Smart Approach to Sustainability 

Fig.1: The Behavior-Smart Approach to Sustainability

Sustainability as a Norm

The journey to fully sustainable and Net Zero operations of tourism businesses is complicated and long-term. Taking a behavior-smart approach secures two significant benefits. First, it helps us understand what are the objective psychological barriers that make the traveler education approach to sustainability less effective. This helps us understand that activating responsible consumption requires different methods that transfer some of the decision making weight from the travelers to the businesses and service providers. If tourism companies adopt sustainability as a non-negotiable principle of their operations they can start applying this by making it an integral part of the design of experience.

Second, behavioral solutions are often easier to implement and at a low-investment cost, so they represent a fantastic kick-start of the transition to fully sustainable and net zero operations. This can help companies ‘walk the first mile’ in sustainability now while the travel economy around the world recovers. Just like our story in part 1 illustrated, these can be small and easy “tweaks” such as making it easier for guests to use lunch packing options that eliminate waste or emphasizing local food or vegetarian meals as the more attractive and exciting options that lower the carbon footprint.

Photo Credit: Denise Johnson/ Unsplash

Photo Credit: Denise Johnson/ Unsplash

Sustainability as the Norm in the New Normal

An additional important consideration is that making sustainability part of the design contributes to a very important long-term behavioral effect, which will be the sure sign that the tourism economy is making a turn towards sustainability as the norm. If more and more businesses authomate responsible consumption and make it easy and fun for travelers to align with sustainability, they will contribute to the adaptation of traveler behavior towards desired patterns. This will lead to a reality in which sustainability is part of the way visitors automatically act in the new normal of tourism.

Sustainability by Design Tips

The transition to a ‘sustainable by design’ model does not have to be costly and complicated but it requires smart consideration of several factors. If you are considering exploring such solutions to accelerate your sustainability transition, start with the following aspects:

  1.  Who is your clientele and what matters to them?

There is no universal recipe for tour operators, for accomodation facilities or activity providers on where to start with sustainability. The decision should be influenced by a good understanding of your clients. A small bed & breakfast operating near a protected area and serving outdoor enthusiasts may find it easy to roll out a small increase in the price of the pack-and-go lunch package to include the cost of a reusable box. A larger hotel operating close to a city water park may face resistance from its more diverse clientele if it tries to adopt the same change. An evaluation of the clientele and identification of the areas where you can switch defaults or tweek designs with little resistance is a good first step.

  1. Which unsustainable choices are made automatically?

Carefully review the journey of your customers to identify the moments when your guests make less involved or automatic decisions with sustainability impacts. If the decisions are automatic, then switching the default option will not matter to the visitors but will matter for your footprint. Perhaps your guests use plastics to pack a sandwich from the morning buffet and then take it for their nature walk without considering the impracticality of bringing a single-use plastic in the park. Or perhaps they ask for a taxi to a nearby attraction without realising that a 10-minute pleasant walk will get them there too.

Photo Credit: Shelley Pauls/ Unsplash

Photo Credit: Shelley Pauls/ Unsplash

  1. What are the benefits of the sustainable option?

It is important to identify the benefits that the sustainable option brings to guests and the business in addition to the fact that it is… well, more sustainable. If you decide to rely on locally sourced food ingredients, study their benefits and strengths so that you can communicate them in a behavior-smart way. You can decide to place focus on local jams and highlight that they are handpicked and prepared based on a century-old traditional recipe kept by families in the nearby village. Or you can highlight the health benefits of the herbs that are used in a vegetarian meal. The idea is that you place emphasis on factors that will appeal to the client and excite them about the option rather than frame it as the ‘more responsible thing to do.’

It makes a difference if the ‘sustainable by design’ transition is made at the individual business level or at a destination level. Destinations can benefit from the same philosophy as we have described for businesses, through coordinated adoption of ‘sustainable by design’ tactics across the local tourism economy. For example, a destination can leap forward in its sustainability transition with small behavior-smart tactics that address specific issues and are adopted simultaneously by everybody. If it desires to improve local economic impacts of tourism, it can achieve that by engaging all local businesses in rolling out behavior-smart tactics that increase buying of local products. If it wants to lower the plastic waste generated by tourism, it can coordinate the adoption of behavior-smart tactics that design out plastics use across the local supply chain.

As we make the steps towards a sustainable and Net Zero future it makes sense to explore service and product designs where unsustainable options are removed as a choice. We can achieve our first successes in optimising the footprint of our business or a local tourism economy by scanning our portfolio of tourism experiences and identifying areas where we can flip options to make the responsible alternative the default. Incorporating sustainability in the very design of its offerings is the proof that a company or a destination treats sustainability as non-negotiable.       

We explore behavioral topics in additional articles in this series, including how behavioral thinking can apply to:

Watch for our next article “Planning Tourism Based on Behavioral Realities” in early December. 

This article was brought to you by:

NatureScapes & Behavior SMART