Sustainable Air

Profit doesn’t have to be at odds with values. For Air New Zealand, profit comes from their commitment to honesty, transparency and accountability.

Amélie Touroyan

Consultant at C Space

Amélie Touroyan is a consultant at C Space Boston with an unending passion for travel. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from Mount Holyoke and working at a non-profit for several years, she’s now driving her clients to reach new heights – in every sense. When she’s not creating impactful work, she returns to ground level and spends her time blogging about travel. Amélie also loves lists: she’s working on summiting the highest 115 peaks in the Northeast and traveling to all 50 states.

There’s a tiny surfing spot tucked away in Massachusetts. It’s close enough to the airport that surfers watch massive commercial jets roll by before launching into the sky. On busier days, the board wax picks up engine exhaust and turns the surface black.

Pollution is nothing new to the surfers on the break. Or to the airline industry. Air travel is particularly toxic — airlines contribute 2% of total man-made carbon emissions, and rising fast. While that number sounds small, it has significant negative effects on our environment.

Airlines have been attempting to alleviate the problem for the last 20 years, investing in more efficient aircraft, creating customer carbon offset programs, exploring more sustainable alternatives to jet fuel and reducing inflight waste, amongst other practices. But so far, incremental steps like planting trees, or encouraging onboard recycling have not been enough to demonstrate a larger commitment to the environment or to overall sustainability.

That’s because sustainability is about more than doing what’s right for the planet. It’s that and doing what’s right for the 7.4 billion people who inhabit it. Those people are now demanding it.  This increased desire for sustainability means that consumers, especially millennials, are demanding more from their airline experience than free snacks or extra legroom. They demand value alignment. They want to buy from and work at companies where the pursuit of profit doesn’t come at the expense of our environment, our economy, or our society.

The pressure for value alignment is coming from outside and from within. Millennials will soon make up more than a third of the global workforce; their influence on companies is intensifying from “voting with your wallet” to “lobbying with your job.”

The values a company embodies (or ignores) partly defines how any consumer experiences a brand. Except companies can’t sustain themselves on values alone. They run on profits. They pursue growth. But in the airline industry, more growth creates more pollution. How do you resolve this tension?

The first step is not to hide from it.

“As Air New Zealand continues to grow and add more flights and carry more freight, we are not ignoring the problems our growth creates,” says Lisa Daniell, Head of Sustainability at Air New Zealand. “The reality is, as an industry, we can’t continue to increase aviation emissions indefinitely. That’s why we’re facing these challenges head-on and are embracing sustainability as a fundamental part of our company’s long-term strategy.”

The company recently published its third annual Sustainability Report, written with a stark honesty that you seldom get from a corporate report. But it’s that honesty that lends the report so much credibility and reinforces the notion that this is a problem we can’t ignore.

This honesty is backed up by progress and held to account across a range of sustainability targets. For example, last year Air New Zealand achieved the goal it set in 2015 to transition its entire light vehicle ground fleet to electric options, where operational options exist, and is committed to doing even more this year. The company has also supported Antarctica scientific research for close to a decade to better understand climate change. To help share Maori culture, which is unique to New Zealand’s tourism proposition, the company is weaving Maori culture into the fabric of its business, and employees are encouraged to become more confident in using Māori language, te reo.

The big question is, can Air New Zealand — a relatively small player from a relatively small country — reshape the perception of an entire industry? Can it change the behavior of other airlines? Can it be the leader the industry needs? Time will tell. But time is also running out with every taxi, takeoff, and landing.

Profit doesn’t have to be at odds with the values that matter most to consumers and employees. Quite the contrary. Focusing on values — through transparency, action, and accountability — can prop up profit, attract the best talent, and lead to more sustainable growth.

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