Climate change: is global mobility part of the problem, or leading the revolution?

Climate change: is global mobility part of the problem, or leading the revolution?

Sending corporate executives around the world has a significant carbon footprint. This is not news; but as movements such as “Extinction Rebellion” gain traction, now is a good time to consider our motives, our solutions and our progress to date.

Are we really one of the bad guys?

Climate change: is global mobility part of the problem, or leading the revolution?

Flygskam: shame on you in Seat 34E

The Swedish sum it up in one word: “flygskam”, which literally means “flight shame”.

It is well known that aviation is a major cause of the climate change problem (5% of the problem according to The Financial Times), so it is understandable that individuals have a sense of guilt for contributing to this.

In a survey of Western travelers conducted by UBS, 21% of respondents said this had prompted them to reduce the number of flights they took in the last year.

The paradox of the Thunberg generation

This awareness of our environmental responsibilities is even stronger amongst younger travellers – and herein lies the paradox facing global mobility.

There are many reasons for large organizations to adopt a global mobility program, but one of the most often cited is the need to attract the up-and-coming talent. The opportunity to travel is something that the younger generations want, so the global organizations that offer it have a carrot to dangle under the noses of potential recruits.

However, new entrants into the job market are more likely to want to work for an organization with moral fibre – one that is actively working to reduce its carbon footprint.

So can you have it both ways?

Climate change: is global mobility part of the problem, or leading the revolution?

Mitigating the imprint

Airlines are responding to the problem by carbon offsetting, i.e. adopting green practices that balance out their less environmentally-friendly activities.

But for the global mobility industry, this goes beyond just reducing airmiles. Companies are analysing their relocation processes in order to find greener ways to achieve their goals. These may include using more environmentally friendly packaging material and methods (such as electric vehicles), or following the example of relocation companies Graebel and Santa Fe and partnering up with global initiatives such as the United Nations Global Compact.

Graebel, for their part, are also taking a number of steps to actively reduce their carbon footprint, and that of each relocation they manage for their clients. These include planting trees, and introducing initiatives to reduce transportation miles and minimize fuel usage. Graebel estimates that 48,500 gallons of fuel were saved last year.

There are inspiring individual examples too, such as NASA scientist Peter Kalmus, who took the decision never to fly again. In his podcast (The Guy Who Quit Planes for Good) he explains how he handles life, work, vacations and even invitations to international conferences – without getting on an airplane.

Reducing carbon by adding value

Global mobility can cover the cost of launching sustainable initiatives by finding ways to get greater value from each assignment. Not only that, green programs can help assuage the flygskam of its assignees.

And how do you drive greater value?

  • Mainly, by avoiding assignment failure, which means adopting best practice in terms of preparation, administration and communication. A well-run assignment is more likely to be successful, which means it delivers value.
  • Cultural integration programs are increasingly popular, as these are shown to improve the success rate of assignments.
  • We are also seeing shrewd use of different assignment formats; while short-term assignments may be popular, longer-term assignments may come with a smaller overall carbon footprint.

A tale of two humanitarian crises

It seems ironic that a short-term humanitarian crisis (Coronavirus outbreak) has succeeded in grounding flights completely, whereas the climate crisis (the effect of which is measured over decades rather than years) has had only a small effect in changing attitudes.

But the recent pandemic has shown that businesses learn quickly and can find inspiration in adversity.

They have responded with alternatives to travel, such as video-conferencing. And they have also seen the true value of global mobility; it has become clearer than ever where there is no substitute for putting the right people in the right location.

Climate change: is global mobility part of the problem, or leading the revolution?

Building a natural reputation for value

The global mobility industry knows that it runs the risk of being labelled a ‘dinosaur’ if it endorses jet travel. But it is also increasingly aware that it can address the issue not only by adopting other green practices, but by adding more business value through more successful assignments.

Careful consideration needs to be given to each trip, and it needs to justify its carbon footprint as well as its monetary cost. Perhaps we should be driven more by shame of unsuccessful relocations (with its unjustified carbon emissions) than simply flygskam itself.


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