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How To Travel Ethically And Sustainably In 2020

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With the flygskatt or ‘flight shame’ movement growing and eco-anxiety gnawing away, how can you become a more conscious, ethical and sustainable traveller in 2020? Discover Octer's top 11 tips for eco-friendly travel now.  

At the start of 2019, the Swedish concept of flygskam - literally translated as ‘flight shame’ - was largely unknown outside of its mother country. Then came a year of the climate crisis’s devastating truth - fires in Brazil and Australia, floods in Venice, droughts in India and Somalia - and major environmental shakeups; teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s much publicised European tour travelling via train, Extinction Rebellion’s controversial takeover of London Underground trains and the biggest global climate protest ever seen taking place across 185 countries. It was time to evaluate our travel habits and, in October 2019, Swiss bank UBS conducted a survey that flygskam is spreading across Swedish borders. In fact, they revealed that one in five people from the UK, US, Germany, and France are choosing to cut back on flying because of its impact on the environment. Further research also revealed that 16% of Brits had purposely avoided flying over the last year for the same reason. 

Currently, the aviation industry makes up 2.5% of the world’s carbon emissions (around 860 million tonnes of CO2), while tourism in general accounts for 8%, and these numbers are sure to rise quickly. There are 20,000 plans currently in operation right now serving more than 3 billion people - it’s estimated this number will increase to more than 50,000 planes by 2040.

Of course, completely disregarding air travel - whilst admirable - is far from realistic. Planes are, after all, sometimes the only viable form of transport for some. Cheap flights have opened up travel options previously only enjoyed by a select few, offering equal opportunities to those on low incomes, especially when alternatives (travelling by car or train) can be incredibly expensive.

The answer to the flygskatt is simple: travelling realistically but also being aware of the impact your holiday will have and then counterbalancing that in other ways. For example, if you can only afford a budget flight this summer, then there are other steps you can take to offset the carbon footprint left by the plane journey. We’ve rounded up fourteen tips below - some may be small changes to make, but small changes can sometimes constitute a big difference.

Image by: Sebastián León Prado

1. Research the carbon offset of your trip beforehand

If you’re keen to make a difference to your travel habits, it’s key you know what the impact your journey will really have. Before you set off, use a carbon calculator site like to really get an idea of its imprint on the environment.

Calculate your holiday's carbon footprint here
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2. Make a donation or fly with an airline that offsets its carbon footprint

Making a donation to a climate change charity or project is a positive action that balances out some of the negative effects of the flight. If you’re a frequent flier then it’s a great habit to adopt and make second nature by flying with airlines that have made it part and parcel of their system. For example, British Airways has its own carbon offsetting programme, The Carbon Fund, for customers who want to mitigate the impact of their journey. As such, donations can be made as you’re booking your flight to support low carbon, energy efficiency or renewable energy projects in the UK and Africa. Since setting up in 2011, The Carbon Fund has sponsored 38 community projects like installing solar panels on school roofs and a biomass boiler in a leisure centre, generated more than £3,000,000 in community benefit funding and has impacted 450,000 people.

Other airlines also operate their own carbon offsetting schemes which customers can buy into and this list is steadily growing. So far, it includes Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Qantas Emirates, Virgin Australia, KLM, Delta Airlines, Jetstar, United Airlines, JetBlue Airlines and Gulf Air. While Qantas has pledged to go net-zero on carbon emissions by 2050, in late 2019 easyjet announced that it will offset all jet fuel emissions and is set to become the first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights.

Find more airlines that offset their carbon here
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3. Fly with airlines that offer carbon emission details during the booking process

Currently, the only airline that offers the carbon emission details of each flight is Dutch airline KLM and they have done so since 2008 alongside the choice to offset carbon emissions. With this information readily available, you may be inspired to make different travel choices, such as assessing how much a train would cost instead, both in pounds and carbon. Hopefully more airlines will take note. In a survey conducted by Friends of the Earth, it was found that almost two thirds of people want to know how much pollution their flight will produce when they book so they make greener choices.

Read more about KLM's sustainable practices here
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4. Look into which airlines have the lowest emissions

Another great way to choose which airline to fly with based on their carbon footprint is researching which airlines have the lowest emissions per passenger per mile. Currently, easyJet has come top of the league for the lowest carbon emissions in 2020. 

See the 2020 carbon output ratings here
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5. Fly economy instead of business or first class

A small change to make, but flying economy makes a plane more fuel-efficient. In economy, each individual passenger’s share of carbon emissions is “relatively less because it’s spread out over more people,” according to travel expert Lara Barlow. In fact, flying first class can result in nine times more carbon emissions than economy.

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6. Fly non-stop and don’t take domestic flights

Studies have found that take-off and landing causes a whopping 25% of a plane’s emissions, so avoid unnecessary stop-overs where you can. For the same reason try to avoid domestic flights - instead opt for land-based public transport like the train or a coach.

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7. Forget the plane - consider a train holiday

In the UK we’re pretty lucky - sure, our trains can be expensive, especially when compared to the distance you can fly for much cheaper. But if you’re looking to travel sustainably, trains can often be your best bet. Also, we live in a pretty well connected country - it’s relatively easy to whizz away to Edinburgh for a weekend, escape to Cornwall for a week by the sea or - thanks to the Eurostar - hop across the Channel to visit France. Europe also has some of the most picturesque train routes going, from the Grand Alpine Express from Budapest to Venice to the Glacier Express through Switzerland and Le Train Jaune through the French Pyrenees. All you need is a good book or a great playlist and you have yourself one hell of a romantic ride.

If you’re travelling through the UK it’s important to know where you can make savings. If you’re under 30, the so-called ‘millennial railcard’ saves you a third on off–peak fares over £12. Also super handy are split saving apps and websites like, TrainPal, Rail Europe, Split Ticketing and the Trainline’s SplitSave. Instead of buying tickets for the whole journey, these sites split the tickets up for you to cut the price, even though you’re staying on exactly the same train.

Discover more European train routes here
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8. Support local businesses 

A great way to give back whilst on holiday is simply by booking with local businesses - stay with locally-owned accommodation, visit local restaurants, shop from local gift shops and opt for locally-owned tour guides. In doing so your money is going into and bolstering the local community, rather than a faceless multinational conglomerate.

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9. Stay in shared accommodation

Staying in shared accommodation like Airbnb can not only often save you money, it also saves your carbon footprint. Whilst in a holiday flat or villa you can regulate the air conditioning or heating and towel and sheet washing yourself, in a hotel, these things are done for you, every day, sometimes without needing it; leading to huge waste of water and energy.

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10. Avoid all-inclusive holidays

All-inclusive holidays not only drain local businesses, they also produce a huge amount of food waste. Heading out for dinner not only helps the environment and local restaurants and food suppliers, it also means you get to really experience the country you’re visiting.

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11. Ask for responsible tourism policies

Ask for your holiday provider or accommodations responsible tourism policies. While there is no global accreditation scheme for responsible tourism, these policies show that companies are aware of their environmental responsibilities and are aiming to implement eco-conscious strategies into their business. For example they might use solar panels to heat water, offer a free bus shuttle to and from a nearby beach or only source local, organic food. If you don’t find that they are up to scratch, tell your hotel manager or holiday provider - prompting them about their food waste, plastic use or unnecessary towel washing could spark change within the company.

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12. Reduce your holiday waste

Watch out for any waste you might accumulate on holiday. Cut down by filling travel bottles with your own shampoo and shower gel instead of using the free hotel miniatures, pack your own reusable water bottle, canvas bag and cutlery for on-the-go, and use biodegradable makeup wipes to cleanse. 

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13. Visit animal welfare sites

When it comes to animal tourism, ensure that your money is going towards an ethical organisation by doing plenty of research first through organisations like World Animal Protection and ABTA’s Animal Welfare Guidelines. Funnel your money into local animal welfare by visiting national parks and conservation charities, prioritise any excursions that puts animals first, and if you ever feel uncomfortable about what you see, ask questions.

Read more about the World Animal Protection here
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14. Travel with eco-conscious companies

A great way to ensure your holiday is ethical and sustainable is by booking through an organisation that prioritises this. Our favourites are Responsible Travel who require companies meet their strict environmental, social and economic criteria before promoting them, the Good Travel Company who audit all hotels, packages and tours for an environmental audit and makes connections via train wherever possible, and Adventure Company who ensure that all of its trips are environmentally sound; trekking guides followed, litter disposed and fuel and water sources are eco-friendly.

Image by: Jakob Owens