When the COVID-19 pandemic restricted everyone to their homes, the one experience unanimously missed was the freedom to explore and travel. Even as the world starts to open up, what was a necessity is now a luxury. Like much else, travel was not a sustainable activity but now people are becoming more mindful of the experiences they want to invest in. That is the niche Sustainable Guides wants to tap into and help people indulge in their favourite activity, without it costing the planet. WorthWhile spoke to Shreya Ghodawat of Sustainable Guides about the change she wants to bring in the way people travel, shop and consume.
I’ve always made a list of places to visit when travelling. In 2017, when I became vegan and more conscious of my carbon footprint. In a bid to travel more consciously, I created Sustainable Guides. Most industries you think about – fashion, retail, food and hospitality are indulgent, and travel lies at the intersection of them all. People don’t act the same way while traveling as they do at home. They’re okay with travelling long distances for food and luxury. People need to be mindful that they affect the local environment, people and their culture even if they go on a week-long trip. We help people vote with their wallet and make better decisions
Sustainability has come a long way from being ‘inconvenient’ or ‘foregoing luxury and comfort’. For us, it’s about understanding where the money is going – to know whether it’s having a positive or negative impact and what it’s funding. When you go to a sustainable fashion store, instead of funding modern day slavery or plastic waste, you pay for local producers and recycled or natural fabrics. When people support something sustainable, they are in consonance with their values and there’s an understanding that the product will be durable, which is better for them and the planet. People definitely derive pleasure from knowing they are making the right choice.
The pandemic caused an eco-awakening as people realised the importance of nature when walking in parks and public spaces became a luxury. Locals also appreciated the lack of mass tourism as they could enjoy their own cities.
Travel is now seen as a luxury and privilege. People are more conscious and intentional in the way they travel. Domestic tourism is rising as people are exploring their own cities. People are staying longer at places, with the average AirBnB stay increasing from 10 to 28 days.
We started covering Australia and New Zealand and want to expand to Asia Pacific. We are building guides on India but sustainability looks different in the western context than it does in India. The priorities and challenges differ. People are not thinking about their carbon footprint when they’re thinking of survival.
We can’t have the same guide for Sydney and Mumbai. For India, we will cover businesses that have ethical supply chains and employ locals, as well as empower consumers to make sustainable choices. When consumers start asking questions like ‘is this vegan/where was this grown/where is my food from’, it shows their changing consumption patterns and it plants a seed in the server’s head that it is important for
them to incorporate these parameters into their business.
Not enough people know of carbon offsetting or even do it. It costs as little as 20 dollars, to offset with reliable and certified companies. Our guides walk people through the offsetting process, so they understand how easy and economical it is and how to choose the right company to offset with. It’s not just about flying but also what they do at the destination. We encourage walking, cycling, focusing on the diet and choosing longer stays.
We extensively research for any category using filters like ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’, ‘zero waste’. Our writers are locals from the destinations, so they have a good idea about authentic spots. After a round of shortlisting, we have a sustainability checklist for each category covering different areas of operations like where the energy comes from, how they treat their waste and social responsibility like how employees are treated and whether they receive a living wage. When a destination fulfils 70% of our criteria, we list them. We rely on businesses to provide accurate information.
One needs to be mindful that certifications are not 100% trustworthy and are prohibitively expensive for small businesses, which could be socially and environmentally sustainable and responsible but can’t afford a USD 25,000 certification. That doesn’t make them unsustainable. Travellers need to be discerning that a small business without a certification doesn’t necessarily mean unsustainable and a big business with a certification doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable.
We want to make people conscious consumers who ask the right questions, as that will push businesses to change. We’ve seen a drastic shift in the plant-based industry with KFC, McDonalds adopting plant-based into their menus. Businesses will move where the demand is. We want consumers to understand the power they hold over not only their decisions, but also over the decisions of businesses. When people travel, they don’t have the right information or the time to look for it. So when they pick up our guides, they know which businesses are vetted and can get the best experience that’s good for them and the planet.
Sustainable travel is niche so till it becomes mainstream and we don’t get a larger buy-in, it won’t become easier. As sustainable options are limited, we need to be mindful of the businesses we write about. There is a lack of awareness and urgency, on the consumer and business side. Change is hard and inconvenient. We would love for a time when these considerations don’t have to be made because every choice is sustainable, but that will take time. We want to do behavioural guides, because when you travel, choices are harder to make given the location, price or how many businesses support the same values as you. Greenwashing is a trend in communication about hotels and restaurants and the responsibility to counter that lies with consumers, which should not be the case.