From plastics to rewilding: How Eurostar is gaining a competitive edge in the era of eco-travel

EXCLUSIVE: With flight shaming placing the profitability of the aviation sector at risk, international high-speed rail service Eurostar believes a legacy of action on carbon, plastics and now rewilding will help build customer trust.

From plastics to rewilding: How Eurostar is gaining a competitive edge in the era of eco-travel

Eurostar has pledged to plant a tree for every train service that it operates across its routes

The general public isn’t just aware of the irreparable environmental damage being caused by climate change, it is also willing to act as a force of change. From cutting back on single-use plastics to mobilising global days of climate strikes, change is happening, albeit perhaps not at the required pace.

The movement is causing some sectors to sweat. It is no coincidence that airlines have launched new sustainability strategies in recent months, in order to appease public demands to limit carbon emissions. The International Air Transport Association (Iata), recently warned that “flight-shaming” could limit industry growth.

Renowned public figures including Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough have led the growing calls that individuals and businesses need to limit flights to combat climate change. Known as “flygskam” in Swedish, the idea is still at a grassroots level across Europe, but is beginning to gain momentum. In fact, a survey from UBS has found that 20% of the public has reduced the number of flights they take because of climate impacts.

Bad news for one sector is good news for another and Eurostar, which operates train services from London to Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris looks ready to reap the rewards of a 12-year-long legacy aimed improving the environmental footprint of its operations and services.

“For a service business, we rely on our people to interact with our customers,” Eurostar’s chief executive Mike Cooper tells edie in Paris. “People feel a sense of pride here, because our way of operating is more environmentally friendly than jumping on a plane to Paris, so sustainability becomes part of the culture.

“It creates a virtuous circle and it clearly it helps in terms of our commercial proposition in the marketplace and it there is a competitive edge to come from that as well.”

The train operator enjoyed a record-breaking 2018 with passenger numbers increasing to 11 million, a 7% year-on-year increase. 2019 market the company’s 25th anniversary and Eurostar invited members of the press on-board the 10:24 London to Paris on Thursday (14 November), it’s first-ever plastic-free train service between the two locations.

Birthday wishes

Accompanying the birthday trip is the announcement that the company is building on its Tread Lightly sustainability strategy.

The programme, established in 2007, has steered Eurostar to reduce its carbon footprint by more than 40%. Over the last 25 years, Eurostar has carried more than 200 million passengers and the Tread Lightly strategy places a big emphasis on energy efficiency and carbon emissions for these journeys. Eurostar claims that high-speed rail emits up to 90% less carbon when travelling from London to Paris compared to flying and produces less carbon per passenger than individual car journeys from central London to Heathrow Airport.

One of the new announcements for the 25th anniversary is a pledge to plant a tree for every train service that it operates across its routes. This will be achieved in partnership with the Woodland Trust, ReforestAction and Trees for All. Eurostar predicts that 20,000 additional trees will be planted annually across the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Restoration projects aren’t anything new, in fact, entire sectors are turning to tree planting to help reach carbon neutrality by 2030. For business, this area of a sustainability strategy can have a more controversial name, offsetting. In the aviation industry alone, British Airways, Heathrow Airport and Qantas are all using offsets to mitigate “unavoidable” carbon emissions, but critics argue it creates a platform to avoid delivering any meaningful action on emissions reductions.

Eurostar’s energy and environment lead Rebecca Cranshaw tells edie that the tree planting is not part of any offset scheme for the organisation.

“It’s definitely not a part of offsetting,” she says. “As a business, we still believe that there is a lot we can do to reduce our carbon emissions before we look at offsetting and moving to renewable energy is a big focus for us and how we can reduce the actual energy we use.

“The tree planting is a tangible thing for us. We take our work on carbon seriously, but it’s not as visual to the public as plastics – so it is a tangible way to highlight the issue.”

On renewables, the 10-point Tread Lightly plan aims to reduce energy used by trains by 5% by 2020, while reducing traction energy, installing energy metres and delivering energy-efficient driving programmes to drivers. Eurostar will target low-carbon alternatives to fuel train journeys by 2030 and will invest in renewable energy at its UK depot – Eurostar’s biggest industrial facility – by installing “banks of solar panels”.

Commitments are also in place to replace all owned vehicles with electric alternatives by 2020 and Eurostar will work with suppliers to switch to electric refrigerated HGVs.

While the company can’t directly control energy consumption at stations due to ownership and infrastructure challenges, it currently sources around 25% of its energy needs from renewables across its entire network, with its Netherlands footprint covered entirely by renewables.

According to strategies outlined by the Committee on Climate Change for the UK Government’s net-zero climate target, UK woodland coverage will need to increase from 13% of land to 17% by 2050, but Cranshaw told edie that the tree planting wouldn’t be considered in Eurostar’s carbon accounting.

Rather, it is a way to engage with customers, to provide tangible proof that the company can offer an environmentally conscious, low-carbon form of travel into Europe.

Indeed, chief executive Cooper reiterates that there isn’t an internal business benefit to rollout tree planting, but rather it created “a way to present sustainability to the customer”.

“We offer something airlines can’t and we’ve got a radical agenda for sustainability to deliver,” Cooper adds. “We can layer tree planting on top of that and the combination starts to differentiate us in terms of our market offer and culturally in terms of our people.”

Plastic-free journeys

Another way that Eurostar will engage with customers is through the use of its onboard products. The high-speed rail service has pledged to halve the amount of plastic it uses over the next two years and is phasing-out plastic water bottles from its business lounges during 2019 – a move that will reduce the organisation’s plastics footprint by more than 100,000 bottles annually.

The plastic-free journey featured wooden cutlery, recyclable cans of water, glass wine bottles, alternative paper-based coffee cups and environmentally friendly packaging for food served to customers and Cranshaw notes that there have been challenges to overcome that relate back to the carbon intensity of the business.

“We’re meeting with on-board services teams, catering and suppliers every two weeks to think about our approach to plastics, and the end of life disposal,” Cranshaw says. “We look across the whole lifecycle to make sure we don’t have any unintended consequences.

“It would’ve been really easy for us to switch everything to glass on day two, but we always wanted to think about the consequences of our carbon footprint and disposal, so it’s taken time to find some alternatives in some areas.”

The ongoing plastics phase-out, along with the fact that Eurostar has now been awarded the highest three-star rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) for onboard catering, are just two ways that the company can present itself as sustainably to the ever-more eco-conscious travellers of today.

The company realises that it is time to strengthen the trust it has with its customers and believes that sustainability is the cornerstone to do so.

 “You need to demonstrate incrementally how you’re changing,” Cooper summarises. “For us its changing and reducing how we use plastics. We’ve made huge inroads, but I think customers are respectful and realise there is no magic wand we can wave overnight to get this done.

“With every decision we make there’s a trade-off, and people mostly understand that and are sympathetic to what we do. I think if it comes across as naked commercialism or greenwashing, then I can understand the lack of trust, but we’ve got a legacy of demonstrable improvements and intent and that’s how we know we’re genuine.”

Matt Mace

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