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No, Your Zoom Meeting Will Not Be Enough To Address Business’ Impact on the Climate
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The pandemic of 2020 was disruptive in a variety of ways. Not least of which was the way that it halted business travel the world over. According to a McKinsey study, business travel expenses worldwide plummeted by 52 percent that year. Corporate employees found themselves sequestered at home, or worse, in an empty office, having no idea when travel would return. This sudden reality caused a paradigm shift for certain companies. They realized that some travel was non-essential: from commuting to the office to traveling on-site and visiting clients. With web-meeting hosts like Zoom standing in for boardroom conferences and encrypted file-sharing services like Egnyte replacing the typical manila folder handoffs, it seemed that the complexity of modern business was made much simpler in some respects by the pandemic. In 2021, the business travel industry began to pick up by a cautious margin of 14 percent, according to the Global Business Travel Association. The organization believes that by 2024 we will see a Parousia of the business travel industry back to pre-pandemic levels. While this may be cause for celebration to some, it also is cause for alarm to those who believe that the cessation of business travel was the break that the environment has long needed.

And they may be right. Since 2013, carbon emissions from commercial airline travel increased 29 percent, as reported by the International Council on Clean Transportation. The Global Carbon Project found that CO2 emissions from aviation were reduced by 60 percent in 2020. It is no secret that one of the biggest contributors to climate change is transportation, and the year of 2021 has given us stark reminders that this crisis is for real, whether one looks at the unprecedented wildfires in California and Colorado, the flash flooding in Nashville, the Texas deep freeze, or the fatal summer floods in China, Germany, and Belgium. This is the paradox: the world of business wants to “return to normal”, but at what cost? And what does a “return to normal” look like for business travel? How can we reinvent our approach to business travel in order to be more sustainable?

One answer is by taking inventory of the benefits had in a year with little business travel. According to  Deloitte, many companies experienced substantial cost-savings on travel in 2020. Amazon, for example, saved nearly $1 billion on employee travel expenses. These recovered travel costs become excess capital for companies to reinvest. Additionally, 2020 afforded the opportunity for employees to not have to sacrifice family time and other responsibilities for work travel, according to PwC. It tilted the pendulum toward more flexible work expectations, which were found to have little to no negative impact on employee productivity in a study done by Mercer (an HR and workplace benefits consulting firm). And what about our business conferences, summits, and industry events? Thanks to the pandemic, many of them have adopted hybrid capabilities for the future! Finally, technology platforms of all kinds have improved upon themselves in order to be more secure and reliable for a world where remote-working might be the norm. Still, as Deloitte points out, competition and growth expectations necessitate some degree of business travel. Some business leaders maintain that nothing is better than a face-to-face interaction for winning business, staving off competitors, strengthening teams, or succeeding in negotiations, and there is room for that perspective in the sustainable business travel conversation. However, we must use this pandemic as a reason to innovate on our conventional business travel practices, not maintain the status quo.

Another answer is to commit to what is hard, but arguably necessary: a significant reduction in non-essential business travel. The nuance here is that the call is not for a reduction in all business travel, but simply that which cannot be justified as important. The degree of travel reduction will obviously depend on how a company defines “essential travel”. For example, we know that for multinational companies such a commitment would look quite unique. Especially because, as a Harvard study by Coscia and Neffke suggested, business travel is an imperative in the management of multinational organizations. Be that as it may, we have seen companies already taking up the cudgels on travel reduction: HSBC, Zurich Insurance, Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group, and more. On a broader scale, conferences like COP26 have dedicated time to map out the future of global business and travel. So, change is ineluctable. If companies want to continue to thrive, be leaders in their industries, and orient themselves toward what is good and sustainable, they need to re-think business travel. They must make public commitments to change their procedures. The benefits are plentiful and current technology is versatile, so that they are without excuse. It will be up to the next generation of business leaders and travelers to usher in the new normal of business travel or vote with their feet, if they have to.

Michael Mitole is a junior at Penn State University studying Finance. He is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Over his college career, he has worked in student government, conducted research funded by McKinsey & Company, given 2 TED talks, and hopes to pursue a career in management consulting.


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