Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with Brian T. Mullis

The cofounder and president of Sustainable Travel International offers hints, help and a healthy heaping of hope for our future travels.

By Amy Nelson

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President and Co-founder, Sustainable Travel International

Brian Mullis co-founded Sustainable Travel International (STI) in 2002 with the mission to promote responsible travel and facilitate the travel and tourism industry’s move toward sustainability. Brian began his career spending college summers working in national parks in the western U.S. More recently, he was president and owner of The World Outdoors, an international adventure travel company specializing in active and eco-travel. Brian holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology with a focus on Business from Auburn University and a Master’s Degree in Recreation Management from Springfield College. With over 19 years of experience in the travel and tourism industry, he has assisted numerous travel companies and destination management organizations in the areas of business and sustainable development, sales and marketing, finance and budgeting, and management, operations and programming. His bio on the STI web site states, “Brian lives to make a qualitative difference in the world.” Looks to us like he’s well on his way.

There appears to be no universally accepted, official “seal of greenness” out there for the travel industry.  Your organization, along with NSF International, developed the Sustainable Tourism Eco Certification Program (STEP).  Do you think STEP could evolve to be such a universal stamp of approval, at least within the US?

That’s our hope. Right now there is only one other global sustainable tourism certification program by the name of Green Globe . Green Globe is a for-profit initiative that’s been around for over a decade. It’s a great program; however, there are some significant barriers to entry–-predominantly financial. What we tried to do in creating our program was to look at the Green Globe program and a number of other regional certification programs in the marketplace and incorporate their strengths into what we’re offering, as well as address their limitations. Our goal is to complement and support other credible sustainable tourism certification initiatives while offering the program in regions where none exist.

How and where was Green Globe started?

My understanding is that it was started by the World Travel and Tourism Council in the early 90s. Since that time, I believe ownership rights were transferred to Reg Easy who is based in the U.K. The primary distinguishing characteristic is that it’s a for profit initiative primarily geared toward large businesses.

About 73 percent of our readers say they have taken a vacation they consider to have been ecologically sustainable. Many say they take steps such as booking on-line, composting and recycling, and using mass transit; however only 40% say they have stayed in “green” lodging facilities. Many said they do not know how to find such lodging. Any suggestions?

I don’t think there is any one, really great source of information on ecologically sustainable tourism. Our Eco-Directory is good. It’s essentially a database of our members. As part of joining, companies are required to report, at a minimum, how they are contributing to the triple bottom line. There are no barriers to entry to becoming a member; however, you do have to detail how you are supporting environmental conservation, cultural heritage preservation and local economic development. If a consumer is looking at businesses that operate in the same area, this directory enables the consumer to decide which is the best fit and which one has the higher level of commitment and sustainability. Beyond our web site, I’d recommend responsibletravel.com, ecoutourism.org, worldsurface.com,  and earthfoot.org.

For hotels specifically, there are some good resources here in North America, such as the Green Hotels Association. Greenseal.org, provides certification only in North America for hotel chains. There is also a section on our web site that has a number of other certification labels that are available on a regional basis and there what we’ve done is try to list links to those certification organizations.

Some readers requested help for those occasions when they find themselves without the time or ability to research eco-friendly accommodations (for example, when they’re on the road for work and unexpectedly need to pull over and find a place to stay for a night). Are there any organizations that provide sustainability comparisons of the major hotel chains?

I don’t think anything like that exists yet. In terms of major hotel chains, Marriott and Fairmont are clearly two of the leaders in sustainability at this point in time.

In an article you wrote for Sustainable Industries in December of 2005, you mentioned how difficult it was to find car rental companies that offer hybrid and electric vehicles in the U.S. Is this still the case, a year and a half later?

It seems like more and more companies are getting involved now. Hertz has a green initiative. I have heard that Avis has been identifying, measuring and managing their impact across the triple bottom line but I haven’t read any details regarding their specific initiatives other than what’s detailed on the Avis web site. Out here in the Pacific Northwest, Flexcar is doing a lot in terms of not only offsetting emissions associated with their vehicles, but also only purchasing hybrid and fuel efficient vehicles. There’s been a little bit of movement in that space.

The STI web site states “In the U.S. alone, nearly 55.1 million people express a preference for unique and culturally authentic travel experiences that protect and preserve the ecological and cultural environment.” It also states that “58.5 million Americans say they would pay more to use travel companies that strive to protect and preserve the environment.” What’s the source of this information?

That data came from a study that the Travel Industry Association of America and National Geographic Traveler released. There were two phases of the study – one in 2002 and one in 2003.

Has this data ever been gathered in the past? If so, I’m curious as to how this figure compares to, say, 10 years ago.

I believe that was the first study. Nothing has been released since to my knowledge.

I’ve read a lot about green washing in the travel industry. What’s one of the worst cases of green washing you’ve come across or heard about since you started focusing on sustainable travel?

I think it would be more constructive focus on the primary issue instead of mentioning specific cases – green washing is a big problem. With the advance in the green movement, more and more companies that perhaps want to do the right thing are inadvertently over-promising or boasting without really characterizing the true extent to which they are actually engaging in sustainability.

Take the “carbon neutral” phrase, for example. A lot of companies in the travel and tourism industry – as well as other industries – are saying “we’re carbon neutral.” What does that mean? There are several tour operators, for example, that are claiming to be “carbon neutral” in their advertising. I know a few of them have offset their trip-related greenhouse gas emissions, but I’m fairly certain they haven’t offset all of the related emissions such as their clients’ flights. I’m also fairly certain that all of them are not offsetting their internal, office related emissions such as waste generation, energy consumption, and employee commutes. Are they carbon neutral? Probably not. How can they better characterize what they’re doing? They can make it clear what specifically they’re offsetting and what they’re not offsetting. It doesn’t sound as nice from a marketing standpoint, but it’s realistic. By taking this approach, they can encourage their clients to offset the balance of their trip-related emissions.

But there is no one currently governing these claims, correct?

Not yet. There are some organizations – like Green-e and The Gold Standard– that are looking at it, though. What we strongly encourage our clients to do is qualify their statements. The more information you can provide about specifically what you’re doing, the better it is, not only for your business but for the consumers you may be helping to educate. The consumers may then end up helping you to achieve the sustainability goals you set for yourself.

We always go back to the statement that “it’s easy being green.” All you have to do is identify, measure and set up systems to manage your impacts. At the end of the day, you can’t manage what you don’t know how to measure. Once you know how to measure those impacts, you can more easily communicate them to all of your stakeholders. For example, if you can say, “we installed energy efficient light bulbs and saved a thousand kilowatts of energy from being used last year,” that translates into true savings. That’s something that’s marketable. We encourage people to take that approach rather than using catch phrases and buzzwords.

Several web sites out there offer tips on “green travel,” such as on-line booking, requesting that your linens not be washed every day, etc. What would you say are the TOP 5 things people should do in an effort to travel and vacation more sustainably?

First, I think the most important thing is to do your homework, because there is not yet one-stop shopping for sustainable travel (experiences, hotels, etc.) Seek out hotels, etc. that are actively engaging in sustainability. To do this, the consumer, first and foremost, needs to determine if the company has a sustainability policy, which typically would be marketed on their web site or in their marketing materials. If not, be comfortable picking up the phone. Our theory is that if a company is actively engaging in sustainability, at a minimum, their staff should know what they’re doing. If a consumer were to call a hotel and ask, “are you considered a green hotel and why?” the person on the other end of the phone should be able to answer that question – at least on a rudimentary level. So that’s one.

Our position on the matter of global climate change is that we can all become more energy efficient, reduce our waste, travel less (use public transportation, carpools, plan business trips back to back, etc.) but some greenhouse gas emissions are unavoidable. For those, we feel that investing in credible offset projects that are certified and verified by credible, independent third parties, which support renewable energy, energy efficiency, reforestation and aforestation, are the way to go. We believe consumers should voluntarily engage in offsetting unavoidable greenhouse emissions. That’s two.

Number three is to learn about the places you plan to visit. For example, learn to speak basic phrases and a few words of the language such as “please,” “thank you,” “hello” and “goodbye.” You should also learn about local cultural mores and norms so when you are visiting other cultures and people, you can more easily put yourself in their shoes rather than imposing your own culture upon them. When you immerse yourself in another culture, and you’re able to communicate, even on a very basic level, you can gain an appreciation of and respect for your differences.  Furthermore, learn about how you can give back through donations of time (e.g., engaging in Voluntourism or money (e.g., donating financial resources, heath car products, school suppliers, etc.).  If engaging in sustainable tourism is important to you, be sure to find out what the local environmental issues are, for example, determine who is doing something about them, and contact them to find out how you can help.

Four is: spend money. When you’re traveling abroad, always consider how you can support the local economy. Search out locally owned businesses, local guides,  locally owned hotels and restaurants, etc. This way, your money is not only going to people who live in the community you’re visiting, but it’s also going to be re-circulated throughout that local economy. By taking this approach, which requires a bit more research, you can ensure that the financial benefits go directly to the locals.

Number five revolves around reducing waste. Our culture in America very much revolves around consumerism and consumption. Taking that mindset with you when you travel is something that needs to be re-evaluated. For example, we might have exceptional recycling facilities in many cities throughout the U.S., but those same waste removal facilities might not be available in the developing country you plan to visit. When you’re traveling, consider bringing a water purifier with you so you don’t need to buy plastic bottles of water or other drinks every day of your trip. Also, be careful not to utilize more than you need to in terms of water, electricity, etc. The local infrastructure might be pretty limited and you might be competing for limited resources. If you’re using more than you really and truly need, that might not leave anything for the local people. So my fifth recommendation is to be cognizant of how much you are consuming and how that consumption affects the places that you’re visiting.

We asked our readers whether they think sustainable travel/vacation is merely a trend or the beginning of a lasting change. Approximately 94% of our readers think it is a real movement. What do you think? (I’m going to guess you agree with our readers.)  How do we cultivate and sustain the practice of sustainable travel?

I think it’s more than a short-term fad. I think it is a true movement. The way we perceive it here at STI is that our culture is evolving. More and more individuals are focusing on collecting experiences instead of material wealth. I would also argue that it’s not going to be a fad because the problems are not getting any better. They will not go away. The media attention to the green movement may wane over time, but I still think it will be a strong message in major media outlets and other outlets consumers are exposed to for years to come because it’s newsworthy and timely. It’s going to take change in the consumer marketplace to actualize the full potential there, which is going to take education and outreach. Without the media’s support, I don’t know how non-profit organizations like ours are going to reach the masses.

What kind of attention are you receiving from the media?

Quite a bit. We take half a dozen phone calls from travel writers, editors, etc. on a weekly basis. There is a lot of interest in carbon offsetting, sustainable tourism in general, travel philanthropy, voluntourism, eco-lodges, etc. In addition, I can’t help but think there is going to be a real shift in people’s travel habits.

We get phone calls all the time from individuals who are traveling and want to make the right decision, enhance their positive impact and limit their negative impact, but they want some guidance. We try to fill that role to the extent we can. There’s really no return on investment there from an operations standpoint, but we feel that as a non-profit whose mandate is education and outreach, it’s a role we should fill until someone else does like the travel agent community, travel aggregators, etc.

How does STI raise funds to keep the organization going?

My partner and I founded STI in 2002. Realizing that the grant and foundation money wasn’t readily available, we created business models that are in line with our 501(c)(3) status but also generate money so that we would become self-sufficient. With our certification program, carbon offsets, distance learning and advisory services, we are able to generate revenue. There are also programs like travel philanthropy and fair trade, which don’t generate revenue but meet our mandate, which is very important to us.

Of all the providers you have come across in your travels and work, what is one absolute standout (in terms of the travel experience it offers as well as its everyday practices and maintenance)?

My wife and I did a series of three treks – one in Northern Thailand, one in Northern Vietnam and one in Northern Laos. My interest in that trip was not just the travel and tourism component, but also to see what the countries have all learned from each other. A lot of people critique the trekking market in Northern Thailand for being too commercial, not benefiting the local people, not necessarily being environmentally sustainable, etc. My hope was to go into Laos and Vietnam and see how they have learned from those mistakes and see how or what, if anything, had changed in Thailand. I was really impressed with the program outside of Luang Nam Tha in Northern Laos because the local people really have true ownership of the trekking programs. They are working with private tourism companies to get the word out and bring people, but the majority of the economic benefit is going to the local people. They are also very cognizant of the environmental impacts as well as socio-cultural related impacts but perhaps need more direction in terms of business management and marketing in order to achieve a higher level of independence from tour operators, development agencies, and non-profits. That said, we loved trekking in all three regions and were able to do so in a sustainable manner because in each case, we traveled with companies / organizations that actively support community-based tourism.

When tourism begins to develop or grow in an area where it was previously nonexistent or a minor part of the economy, do you work with communities to help tourism grow in a sustainable way?

We have done some ground level projects focused on community-based tourism development. However, it’s an area we haven’t spent a considerable amount of time on. But, as our other programs become more financially viable, we are very interested in getting more involved. Fortunately, we have several board members who are helping us secure consulting or advisory service related opportunities around the world. With our 30+ years of experience in knowing what works and what doesn’t in travel and tourism, we can not only help communities create viable business models, but we can also help them set up programs like the one I mentioned in Northern Laos where they’re supporting the preservation of their cultural heritage and environmental conservation at the same time. That’s a unique perspective that we bring to the table. We know what works from a financial sustainability point. This is important because most business owners in travel and tourism will tell you that if they’re not financially sustainable, they’re not going to put a lot into environmental conservation and socio-cultural preservation.

What does the future of sustainable travel and vacation look like to you?

I’ve learned that I need to be an eternal optimist. I believe sustainability is not only the future of the travel and tourism industry, but it is our future. Things have gotten off to a slow start, but we’re going to see that consumers, to a very large extent, control big business. Whether we like it or not, in many parts of the world, big business controls the government. If consumers continue to demand sustainability as part of consumption patterns, we will see exponential improvements in the ways in which industry is addressing sustainability: from governments supporting mandatory legislation for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, to buy-in to third-party sustainable certification programs like STEP and Green Globe.

Our readers are involved in ecological restoration, conservation planning and regenerative design. How important do you think these fields are in your vision of sustainable travel?

I think they are absolutely key. A project comes to mind: Loreto Bay in Baja. I don’t think many people realize that the Baja Peninsula was wooded when the first explorers came through the region. To learn not only the history of a place but the fact that ecosystems can be regenerated is cause for hope. I know there’s a lot of interest out there that relates to the work that your members are engaged in. There’s really a natural connection.

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