In conversation with TUI Travel’s James Whittingham

This week, TUI Travel's group environment manager James Whittingham talks to edie about the increasing popularity of sustainable holidays and why he thinks the human race can overcome environmental challenges.

What area will you be focusing on next in terms of sustainability?

One of the things that we’re going to be doing is continue to deliver on our sustainable holiday’s plan, which is a three year plan. We’re nearly at the end of year two, so we want to ensure that we deliver the 20 commitments that are publicly stated in the plan.

What are the major changes you see happening in your industry?

We’re seeing customers actually demanding more sustainable holidays. In 2010, we commissioned some international research across a number of key source markets, mainly in Europe but also beyond, in Russia for example. The research, which had 500 holidaymakers in eight source markets participate, showed that one in two are now saying that they are willing to book a more sustainable holiday if it was available. We’re trying to stimulate the demand for sustainable holidays and one of our headline goals from our sustainable holiday’s plan is that we will provide 10 million greener holidays. We’re not only trying to respond to demand but we’re also stimulating demand at the same time.

What are the challenges for someone in your position?

As group environment manager, it’s about keeping up to speed with everything that is happening in the industry. We’re a FTSE 100 organisation and we have 53,000 colleagues all around the world operating across 200 countries and we’re headquartered in the UK and listed in London, so it’s keeping up to speed with the demands placed upon us as a UK registered PLC and keeping up with the reporting and disclosure that goes with being a large organisation. But, also remembering that we need to prioritise activities and deliver our commitments that we’ve publicly made as well. It’s trying to juggle between the need to disclose because you’re a large organisation, to achieve your targets and improve the overall environmental and sustainability performance.

What motivates you?

Trying to make a difference on the ground. Remembering that we do have these disclosure requirements as a large organisation but actually trying to make a difference on the ground. We’re quite a small sustainable development team; we’ve only four people at the centre and we have around about 45 FTEs who work on this topic around the business, so what motivated me is building engagement and capacity within our colleagues, either the sustainable development coordinators or ‘champions’, or just people who have a day-to-day commercial role and to be a differentiator for the way that they work.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

Working in the world’s largest industry, travel and tourism, and working on the products and services we do, which are actually things people desire more than once a year. We’re not trying to sell widgets to people who are not sure they want to buy widget A or widget B; it’s working on something that despite economic pressure on their household expenditure, holidays are something that people really want to try and hold onto and try and maintain. It’s not dull working in a large organisation and working with an organisation as diverse as ours as well.

What green innovation do you think can revolutionise the economy?

Putting information in people’s hands. This will help them make a difference to the way that they conduct their lives and their lifestyle etc. It will make them think a little more about activities and actions, that we’re all in this together and it’s not necessarily just left to industry, business or Government to necessarily green the economy. We all have a collective responsibility, and there may be things already out there, like an App that can actually tell you these are the key things that you’re already doing and these are the little tweaks or checks and balances you can make to reduce your environmental impact perhaps.

What’s the big focus over the next 12 months for the environment?

In 2013, one focus will be the impact of the Governments mandatory carbon reporting legislation. We are one of the guinea pig companies of the eleven hundred companies on the main market, the London Stock Exchange, along with around 80 other organisations that have a financial year end on the 30th September and the regulations come into force the following day. So when we publish our annual report at the end of this calendar we will be one of the first 80 or so companies listed of those eleven hundred that have to include a carbon footprint.

Looking ahead, water is going to emerge as a bigger issue for bigger parts of industry and commerce than it perhaps already is. The Water Disclosure Project, which is a sister project of the Carbon Disclosure Project, I think will reach out beyond some of the more obvious water intensive industries. So I think water and biodiversity will escalate in terms of focus.

What tips or advice would you give to newly appointed sustainability professionals?

If they are not already a member, I would suggest joining a professional organisation such as IEMA. Try and get a broad range of experience where possible. My career started in environmental/sustainability consultancy so I had a broad range of clients in a broad range of sectors that I was working on, which allowed me to gain a wealth of experience. You also need to remain commercially minded because people don’t necessarily just do environmental management initiatives because it’s a good thing to do, it has to provide some tangible benefits at the same time, whether it be a specific return on investment or it may be that it actually helps you focus on improving a process or activity and therefore there is a financial as well as an environmental benefit. Don’t have your head in the clouds and be too idealistic, you have to be quite pragmatic and commercially focused.

What do you like most about your job?

Again, working for a large organisation, internationally based makes it very interesting but also challenging at times. We’re based here in the UK and the UK has a very different type of working culture to many other cultures that we work with. I think working in an international organisation and with a group of colleagues who are in different countries and they’re in different places on the sustainability journey. Some of them are more closely aligned, such as the UK, the Nordic’s, Netherlands and Germany, where as working with colleagues in France and increasingly with colleagues in Russia they are in very different places on the journey of sustainability and I’ve been informed by my Russian colleagues that there isn’t a word for sustainable development in Russian, so that presents its own unique challenge. But that is what keeps it interesting and exciting.

What’s the worst aspect of your job?

Sounds a bit trite but ‘time’ in terms of there are things you would perhaps like to do in more detail with more breadth but there are some things that are much more pressing. And as a FTSE 100 listed organisation there are some things we have to do routinely like make responses to the Carbon Disclosure Project for example and then as we continue to increase our profile in the sustainability world we get more requests to participate in calls in care of our investor relations department because they are interested in what we’re doing and our plans. It’s about prioritisation and there are things that you would really like to get your teeth into but you know you have to continue to do an assessment of what is actually going to help the business.

What do you think the next twelve months has in store for the green economy?

I think it will continue to increase and boom. As more legislation is introduced, ultimately that drives the ‘must-do’ activity like carbon reporting. Then organisations, perhaps outside of the 100 list, will realise that actually there are some interesting things that they could be doing and they can turn their attention to creating their own environmental management programmes.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

A collective achievement for our department would be two fold. Firstly, one of the business’s values is responsible leadership. Not long after we merged there was a big workshop that took place back in early 2008 with 500 or so of the most senior management of the business and they came up with four values and one of those was responsible leadership. Although we didn’t play a specific part in that, having that as a value has helped to provide a raison d’etre for the sustainable development team. More recently, it’s been getting the agreement to launch our sustainable holidays plan from so many colleagues from around the business. Working in such a large, diverse organisation, with different time zones, cultures and ways of working etc, and getting everybody to agree on 20 commitments that will actually further propel us to a more sustainable organisation has been a particular achievement.

What period of time would you visit if you had access to a time machine?

We’ve gone a bit bike crazy here in the UK in recent times, with the Prudential Ride 100 event and the festival of cycling put on by London and Surrey recently. So I would visit 1903, which is the first year of the Tour de France. I’m quite keen on cycling and I’d be interested to see what the technology was like then and how brutal that first year was.

If you could go back in time, who would you most like to meet?

Mozart – he was a genius at such an early age. I think only J S Bach was more prolific in terms of output of music, but he lived considerably longer than Mozart.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

It was something I learnt transitioning from a consultancy background to being ‘in house’ effectively. It’s very different writing reports or notes for clients rather than writing for senior colleagues in the business – and my boss gave me a piece of advice early on that if you can’t get what you’re trying to say, a briefing paper of a discussion note for example, onto one side of paper it’s not going to get read. If you can’t get all your arguments straight and clear in that time then it will not get the attention that it deserves.

Worst advice?

Take A level physics. I did an A level in physics and I thought I wanted to be a surveyor and I wasn’t particularly capable at maths, so somebody said why not try physics and a lot of it is just applied maths…so it didn’t go well.

What’s your top tip for employee engagement?

Keep it simple. Make it engaging. The tone has to be right, and it has to be sufficiently engaging to create a call to action but not by nagging, preaching or being too dictatorial. People have to want to do it because they feel they can play a part, albeit a small part, in the organisations overall aspirations to be a more environmentally responsible business. But there is a fine line between dictating and being engaging.

What state do you see the planet in in 30 years?

Hopefully a fully functioning, healthy planet as by then my children will possibly be thinking about whether they want children. The human race has been particularly successful at overcoming many technical and challenging problems, everything from the first IVF children to walking on the moon, that seemed impossible a number of years before. So technical innovation has been particularly good, so I’m hoping that the same will happen with environmental issues, whether that’s carbon capture and storage (CCS) or a silver bullet for energy that will be much less carbon intensive.

What do you say to the climate change sceptics?

Get real. There has always been a natural variation in CO2 but surely even if you don’t necessarily believe in it whole heartedly, oil and fossil fuels aren’t going to last forever and the sooner we decouple carbon from economic growth the better. And not relying on a finite resource just makes good environmental and economic sense.

What’s been your biggest win (environmentally)?

To be the tour operator of choice when it comes to a more sustainable holiday and rather than cherry pick a particular individual action or initiative, I’d look at how we tend to be acknowledged by many to be leading in this area. We’re a pioneer partner of Forum for the Future, the sustainable development think tank founded by Jonathon Porritt 15 years ago. We’ve been working with them for the last ten years and being recognised by our peers within our own industry and in industry in general that we are doing some of the right things is a great achievement. However, we’ve certainly got some way to go. So hopefully being spoken of as being a responsible business and one that newly qualified graduates, school and college leavers aspire to work for because they think we are taking a responsible approach to these issues.

If there was one word you could remove from the English language what would it be?

Can’t or cannot

Books or Kindle?

Books, but library books. Because they are borrowed and not purchased. With library books you’re not sending a signal to the market saying print more.

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