Why you shouldn’t just be an “eco-friendly traveler”

Traveling is not eco-friendly.

Looking at the data, flying one less trans-Atlantic flight a year is the third most powerful thing you can do to reduce your individual level of carbon emissions.

Or second, depending on how you look at the study, since the “having less kids” in number one only applies to the top 1%.

But that’s on the individual level. Really, only 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of our greenhouse gas emissions. Your individual choices to reduce your carbon emissions, while still important, pale in comparison.

And sure, you might live in a city where everyone is forced to start taking environmentally friendly action, but a recent Yale study summarized here says that citywide actions to reduce carbon emissions will not be enough to slow down these impacts. They argue that we need change at the national level. So if entire cities committing to reducing their emissions is not enough to make a strong impact, why would your individual sustainable choices?

But most of those posts don’t go into that. They are largely about buying certain products. If they talk about sunscreens that don’t contain harmful ingredients to coral and bodywashes without microbeads (which are already banned in the US anyway)– that makes a lot of sense. Buying carbon offsets can make sense if you think about it like “hey, I reduced as much as I can but still would like to be closer to carbon neutral” not “I can travel freely and excessively because I’m going to dump money into offsets and feel like a good person”. Plus many airlines are offsetting their flights independently anyway- thanks to the UN.

Buying reusable products is where most of the focus is, yet it’s more nuanced. Reducing the amount of single use plastics you use is important because it creates less waste. Or at least it sounds like that makes sense. According to this study, using a single plastic bag once and then reusing it (for example, as a trash bag- go first gen immigrants!), could be the most environmentally friendly thing- since so many resources go into making reusable paper or cloth bags, only paper bags biodegrade, and most people don’t reuse all 30 of their cloth bags enough to offset the resources that go into making them. So reuse your reusable stuff instead of buying more!

If you’re worried about plastics in the oceans or beaches, then you should be worried about proper waste management. For example, even though the US by far uses the most single use plastics, plastic waste from the US makes up only 0.9% of plastic waste in the ocean. It’s because of the lack of proper waste management infrastructure in other countries that there’s so much plastic floating in the ocean. You can bring your reusable water bottle, but if you forget it on a bus in a place that mismanages its waste, you’re likely still responsible for stuff going in the ocean. I mean, plastic sitting in landfills is not good either. And cigarette butts in the ocean are more of an issue than straws in the ocean. But no one cared until the video of the turtle with the straw in its nose.

Anyway, proper waste management is, again, really a government or corporate level issue. They also have the power to ban single use plastic bags/straws outright, which many cities who are working towards zero waste do already. But somehow, smoking cigarettes and leaving them on the ground is still trendy.

Posts that don’t go over these nuances are just plugs for capitalism, not attempts to address how we as travelers can actually have a strong impact on the environment. “Buy these bamboo straws, and you can save the planet” ignores the issues above of resourcing, reuse, waste management, and its low impact on the larger issues that the environment faces, like the fact that the planet is heating up. And how many resources go into delivering it to you? Does it balance out with reusing the straw?

Your choices to buy eco-friendly products and tours, and stay in eco-friendly lodges are still important, though, because it sends a message to companies that this is important to consumers. And spreading awareness to other travelers helps increase the movement, getting more people to start thinking about their choices to the environment.

But if being an eco-friendly traveler means you buy reusable products, but still fly 20 times a year or vote for people like Donald Trump, then you are not being eco-friendly.

So what can you do?

There’s the obvious “fly one less trans-Atlantic flight.” If you are that person who’s lucky enough to fly tens of times over the year, try cutting back. You don’t need to decrease the amount of time you spend in new places- you could try traveling locally by bus or bike more often, or grouping your trips so that you are making the most of your time there (like, fly to Europe once and spend two weeks there, instead of flying to Europe four times a year for a few days).

If you’re already only able to go abroad a few times a year, I don’t think you should feel guilty to reducing it. Traveling is important and enriching, and like stated above, your individual actions aren’t as impactful as national actions- especially if you’re not the excessively consuming class who fly a multiple times a month.

And if you really care about the environment, not just trendy consumerism, you need to vote for climate focused leaders.

Note: This is coming from a US perspective, the country with the second highest carbon emissions, most plastic waste, and also the country that ever since January 2017, has been moving backwards in terms of national level actions to address climate change. Climate change denying leaders keep getting elected here. People from other countries are doing a lot better though, in which case, yeah- just buy those bamboo straws, you’re doing great! It’s probably harder to travel by plane less in, like, New Zealand anyway.

You need to vote, engage your friends and family to vote, or support organizations to get out the vote for politicians who will make a commitment to tackle climate change. They exist, just not on the party of white nationalists (who else remembers 2008-2016 when we made plans to raise fuel emission standards, limit the amount of coal pollution that goes in our water, and join the Paris Agreement- all of which are no longer true in 2018).

We need change at the corporate and national level. If you’re able to, go to protests, organize rallies, attend town hall meetings, write to your congresspeople. Make your crazy family members stop supporting right wing extremists who deny climate change. Get your school or city to divest from fossil fuels, volunteer at beach cleanups, raise awareness when you go places that these issues are happening. It’s harder than buying bamboo yoga mats, for sure, but it’s a much more impactful choice. The environment will thank you.

If you want to be a more eco-friendly traveler, reduce, reuse, vote, and stay engaged.

Agree or disagree? The environment is a complex issue, and I’d love to hear your thoughts- let’s talk more in the comments section!

Angelica

Traveler. Foodie. Student debt haver. I love finding the best things to do and eat when traveling, and sharing them with everyone else who likes experiencing local culture or exploring the outdoors too! You can read more about me in my about page.

13 Comments

  1. November 14, 2018 / 7:41 pm

    Love this post and couldn’t agree more! (Although I could do waaay better.) The first sentence about one less trans-Atlantic flight made me sad because I love to travel, but then I saw that having kids is number one and I don’t have any so I feel like I just made up for that extra trans-Atlantic flight LOL. Just kidding. Sort of. πŸ˜€

    • Angelica
      Author
      November 15, 2018 / 10:09 am

      That’s how I feel too! One less is so hard when you love travel… I feel like I’ve actually cut back on flying but replaced it with a ton of road trips πŸ˜‚. And no kids either so it’s fine πŸ˜‚

  2. February 2, 2019 / 7:32 am

    Very good points. I always try to reuse my towels and encourage the hotels to use soap dispenser rather than the single soaps. Often I don’t even open them. However, all this is rather petty if I want to fly and travel overseas a couple times per year. We have the desire to travel. I admire people who for example in Europe have decided only to use the train. Personally, I couldn’t do that. I’m too selfish to explore more. However, we can always to do something about the environment and choose options that are more environmentally friendly. It’s way better than doing nothing.

    • Angelica
      Author
      February 2, 2019 / 8:39 am

      I know! In the US our train system is pretty bad and it’s not like it’s to different countries like in Europe. People in Europe are lucky to have that choice. I agree that choosing environmentally friendly options is better than nothing, and I like that you’re helping encourage the hotels to use soap dispensers! Sometimes people don’t realize these things until you bring them up. And I think theres nothing wrong if you want to fly a couple times per year πŸ™‚

  3. February 2, 2019 / 7:45 am

    This is a really thought provoking post. Going on a bit of a tangent: I can’t stand all the Lush fans. I jumped on the Lush bandwagon and got those shampoo bars and conditioners and soon realised that those overpriced tin boxes they sell are entirely useless, and I have to keep wrapping them up in butter paper then pack them, so much for saving the environment.

    • Angelica
      Author
      February 2, 2019 / 8:46 am

      Haha I am so on the anti Lush bandwagon! Their products also don’t work that well for me, I have dry skin and fine lines so I like buying more effective stuff! But it feels like a cult when you’re inside the stores!

  4. February 2, 2019 / 8:50 am

    This is such a great post, seriously. You are spot on when talking about the eco-friendly/capitalist bandwagon, and the fact that you go into detail about systemic level change is so important. I myself write about sustainable and eco-friendly travel (and I’ve written eco-friendly product guides too, full disclosure) – and one thing that I’ve come across is that as a writer who writes about travel, it’s very challenging to call for systems-level change without full-on discouraging travel. Because you’re correct that individual choices pale in comparison to what’s happening at a governmental or corporate level, but the actual out of the system change that we need in environmentalism, travel, and more is a shift away from rampant consumerism, especially in the developed world. And travel culture commodifies travel – it is an industry, after all. And travel bloggers maintain their livelihoods by “selling travel” to consumers, so we’re kind of stuck in an ethical paradox, I think.

    Anyway, it’s a big discussion and I don’t want to fill your comment space with my rambles, but I love this piece and am glad that other travelers and travel writers are talking about these issues. Great post πŸ™‚

    • Angelica
      Author
      February 17, 2019 / 10:35 am

      I absolutely love reading your rambles, I’m glad you shared this comment and happy to have found your blog!

      The paradox you brought up is really interesting. We do need a shift away from rampant consumerism, but travel culture thrives on it. And coming from the US, capitalism and encouraging others to consume at these levels is how most industries thrive, so I think it becomes an *even harder* mindset to change. So maybe that’s why only sharing eco friendly products can feel like the right thing to do and probably resonates better with consumers since they are able to buy and feel empowered that way.

      I’m not sure in what ways we can balance encouraging travel but at levels that are more sustainable, and also encouraging having less of a consumption mindset in general, when it’s so ingrained in everything. We’ve just encouraged to “buy” more and “reuse” or “decrease as applicable” less.

  5. Sarah
    February 2, 2019 / 10:47 am

    Awesome post. Love what you had to say and made me think about. We love to travel and are trying our best to fly less this year and make more intelligent decisions about our home lives. But it’s so hard to keep motivated when you know the biggest problems are so many levels and degrees above you.

    • Angelica
      Author
      February 17, 2019 / 11:48 am

      I agree… it is hard to stay motivated when the big problems are way above you!

  6. February 3, 2019 / 9:46 am

    Great post!! This is actually a big reason that I haven’t written about eco-friendly travel, because as much as I try to help the planet, I know it’s a FAR bigger issue than eliminating single-use plastic. And like you said, most of what is in the oceans isn’t from countries like the US. I am all for change in our own countries though, and after all we can only start at home. Really, it’s only recently that the UK started charging for bags. But Thailand for example gives out endless plastic bags and straws, and that’s a big problem. Let alone thinking of bigger countries. I think a call of action to international corporations is the number one step, but also raising awareness in countries that don’t realise how much damage they’re doing. It’s such a huge issue, it’s hard to know where to begin! So thank you for addressing the bigger things.

    • Angelica
      Author
      February 17, 2019 / 10:58 am

      Yes, these are such good points! We have so much power and things we can change at home, and it feels wrong telling other countries what to do when we aren’t familiar with the culture. But at the same time, I think we can at least raise awareness for those other places, because it can be hard to realize what you’re doing wrong until someone else points it out. And yes, if there was a call to action at the international corporation level for more sustainable practices, that would be so impactful! They really have a lot of the power.

  7. February 6, 2019 / 4:51 am

    I totally agree with this. I’m always encouraging people to explore their own backyard. I have lived in New York all my life and I have discovered so many new places just outside of the city in recent years, mostly by bike!

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