With the climate crisis a hot topic these days, ‘sustainability’ is a buzzword that gets bandied around a lot. You see it gracing the marketing bumf for those in the tourist industry, eager to tap into the growing trend for green travel. But sustainability isn’t only about hotels cutting back on washing towels or putting their recycling into the correct bins. It means balancing our needs with the needs of those around us, and generations to come.
Sustainability includes protecting the natural environment, conserving resources and having a positive impact on local communities. With that in mind, our 10 tips for sustainable holidays covers how to travel, where to go, what to do – and how to leave a positive footprint.
For more information on sustainable travel, buy the Rough Guide to Green Britain and Northern Ireland by author Rachel Mills. It’s packed with suggestions and useful information to help you plan your sustainable holiday in Britain.
When it comes to travel, flying is the most obvious culprit of damage to the environment, responsible for around 2.4% of global CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases. If you think that one flight won’t add up to much, consider this: taking a round trip from London to LA could more than double your carbon footprint of driving an average family car over a year.
There are times when replacing air travel with an alternative mode of transport just isn’t practical. Maybe you have only a two-week holiday window to visit family across the globe, so you don’t want to spend half of that time crossing the ocean or days crossing countries on a train.
But you can still lessen the negative impact of touching down half-way across the world. Choose to fly with an airline that uses newer, more efficient planes, which emit less CO2. Atmosfair Airline Index compares the CO2 emissions of different airlines, and Glooby also reveals the most fuel-efficient flights.
If possible, take fewer flights and stay longer, and choose a direct route. Take offs and landings are both the most fuel hungry, so minimising the number of stop offs will reduce the amount of CO2 emitted on the way to your destination.
You can also buy a carbon offset. It won’t diminish the negative impact of CO2 on the environment. But putting your guilt-laden cash into a carbon offset venture means you’ll at least be doing some good somewhere. Take a look at the Gold Standard, widely recognised as having the highest standard for carbon offset projects.
It may seem a sacrifice to forgo that trip to far flung Fiji. But travelling by other means, such as by rail, coach, or electric car, is not only kinder to the environment, it’s not necessarily slower. Also, you can strike up a conversation with the stranger sitting next to you – and surely meeting people is all part of the joy of travelling.
Travelling by train is generally more eco-friendly than flying, especially on electric trains. So if you’re planning a holiday away from UK shores, why not take the Eurostar across the channel? Their rail to flight comparison chart puts the amount of CO2 on their London to Paris route as 4kg per passenger, compared with a soaring 57.8kg by plane.
With many European rail networks running on electric power, you can connect with regional services and continue your eco-friendly journey to your final destination. Or perhaps buy an Interrail pass, which allows you to explore a country or several countries, with a hop-on, hop-off approach. For even greener credentials, travel by train in the Netherlands, where passenger trains run entirely on wind-generated power.
The predominant view is that flying is always quicker. Well, yes and no. It may well be that as the crow (or plane) flies, you can get from A to B in less time than a train travelling the same distance. But it doesn’t take into account the amount of time given up to crawling through airport security, or that a ‘city’ airport may be miles away on the outskirts, meaning another schlep before you can kick off your shoes in the hotel room and empty the mini bar. City train stations, on the other hand, are more likely to be where they claim to be, so you can be slap bang in the middle of the action in no time.
Coaches are one of the most climate-friendly modes of travel, scoring higher even than trains in the UK (international trains, which tend to be electric, come out on top). According to the UK Government’s Department for Transport, a car running on petrol emits roughly four times more CO2 per passenger on a journey from London to Glasgow than the same journey by coach, while a plane would emit over seven times more.
Until recently, taking to the open road meant driving a gas guzzling, pollutant pumping vehicle. Now, we can choose to clock up the miles with eco-friendly alternatives. Switch to an emissions-free electric car, or plug-in hybrid driven in electric mode, for travel without harming the environment.
Even if you plan on covering big distances, you don’t have to worry about running out of power with an electric car. Many of the newer models can cover over 200 miles on a single charge, and the number of chargepoints in the UK is ever increasing.
In fact, the UK’s network is one of the largest in Europe. Almost every motorway service station has rapid chargepoints, (you can be back behind the wheel in the time it takes to finish your latte), and many hotels and attractions have charging facilities on site.
Download the Zap Map onto your mobile device to check the locations of chargepoints on your journey.
If you intend on navigating the roads of England’s capital during your holiday and you’re driving a fully electric car, you’ll also be able to dodge the pricey London Congestion Charge.
And those of you who want to head over to mainland Europe, the E-Grand Tour of Switzerland offers a 1,600km road trip that takes in stunning Alpine views, crystal lakes and medieval villages, with over 300 charging stations enroute. The AA provides a guide to charging electric vehicles in Europe.
If you’re planning to go through a holiday company, pick one that’s committed to ecotourism. For example, it might be that a portion of their profits go into reforestation, or animal conservation, or they dedicate time and money to employ and train local people.
Much Better Adventures gives 5 percent of its revenue to fund sustainability projects, mostly focusing on rewilding and reforestation, although they also recently provided aid for families of local guides whose livelihoods were decimated by the pandemic.
Responsible Travel are major players in ecotourism, having been around for the past 20 years. Their site offers trips run by partner travel companies, which have to pass its sustainability screening process first.
There’s also Intrepid Travel, which uses local guides, carbon offsets all trips and pledges to use only renewable energy on all trips by 2030, while G Adventures promotes itself as a social enterprise as much as a travel company – working to directly benefit the people and places their tours come into contact with.
This is just a handful of companies demonstrating active involvement in eco initiatives – with so many to choose from it's easy to combine adventure with an eye on the bigger picture.
With awareness of issues around sustainability growing all the time, accommodation options that address responsible tourism are also on the rise. Whether it’s a solar-heated hotel, a B&B using home-grown produce, a campsite using compost loos, or owners ploughing profits into community projects and nature conservation, more places are making positive, eco-related changes to how they run their businesses.
If you’re holidaying in the UK, there’s a wealth of places to choose from. For example, the National Trust has a list of eco-friendly cottages (some with electric chargepoints), and its profits are ploughed into conservation projects, such as protecting wildlife habitats and preserving historic buildings.
For inspiration, see the UK's best eco-friendly hotels and restaurants.
You can also check Bookdifferent.com, which gives a green rating for many hotels around the world and includes the carbon footprint of a night’s stay.
It’s also worth looking at trusted accreditation schemes, such as Green Tourism and Green Key, which promotes sustainable tourism across the world, and the David Bellamy Conservation Award, for holiday parks that take steps to protect the environment.
Another resource is the B Corporation Directory, which lists hotels that demonstrate high standards of social and environmental responsibility. We should add, however, that there’s no baseline standard across certification schemes, for example, how much waste a business can produce, how much energy or water it can use, or criteria for workers’ rights. But they can be a good place to start.
Whether you’re looking to dine out, tuck into breakfast at your B&B, or stock up in a deli for picnic provisions, there’s no shortage of places that employ sustainable practices alongside dishing out top-notch grub. This could be in the form of seasonal menus featuring ethically-sourced fish and meat from local suppliers – such as the bangers in your morning fry-up made from free range pigs at the nearby farm.
It could be a restaurant with a kitchen garden supplying fresh produce and operating on zero waste. Or perhaps it’s a café using Fairtrade teas and coffees, running on electricity generated from 100 percent renewable sources. Where you choose to spend your hard-earned cash can, even in some small way, help to promote sustainability.
Britain is packed with outstanding eco-friendly attractions. Nature provides an abundance, from dramatic mountain ranges and cliff-hugging coast paths to great swathes of woodland and an abundance of wildlife – perfect for quiet immersion in nature, or outdoor adventure. You can hike and bike on land, paddle and swim in the seas and waterways, even shriek your way through the air on a zip-wire.
Visit pioneering rewilding initiatives, such as at Knepp Wildland in West Sussex, and Alladale in the Scottish Highlands, which has transformed a vast area of land into a thriving wooded wilderness, and reintroduced red squirrels and Scottish wildcats. And while you’re in the Highlands, why not hit the road on the North Coast 500 in your EV? It’s non-stop stunning scenery on this road trip.
There are also eco centres specialising in sustainable development, such as the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, and the Eden Project in Cornwall – its giant biomes showcasing the richness of the natural world, including the world’s largest indoor rainforest. The Eden Project is also not far from the geothermally heated outdoor Jubilee Pool in Penzance.
For more suggestions and info on eco-friendly places to visit in the UK, as well as accommodation and places to eat, read The Rough Guide to Green Britain and Northern Ireland.
You’re trying to pack light, but don’t be seduced into buying those little travel-sized plastic bottles of shampoo and other beauty products – they’ll only end up tossed in the bin at the end of your holiday. Keep small bottles at home that you can refill any time you go on a trip.
Take a look at what goes into your suncream too, as many of these contain chemicals that are deemed harmful to sea life, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate. There are companies producing eco-friendly, ‘reef-safe’ products, such as Green People, Organii and Tropic, so research and shop around.
Also think about whether you really need to buy that new itsy bitsy bikini for the beach. The fast fashion industry contributes significantly to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the plastic particles in man-made fabrics, such as polyester, often end up in our oceans. If you want to update your holiday wardrobe, at least buy from a company with evidence of a green and ethical ethos.
Whether you’re buying supplies for a self-catering holiday, or choosing gifts to take home, it’s better for the local community if you buy from local businesses. So give the supermarkets a wide berth and seek out crafts and farmers’ markets, and independent shops.
From beach clean ups to bat monitoring, dry stone walling to veg tending, there are many opportunities to combine holidaying with activities that benefit the environment and local communities – and gain some new skills in the process.
If you’d like to spend time outdoors and learn about organic and sustainable agriculture, try WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). You could be milking goats in Portugal, making cheese in the Lake District, looking after bees in Ireland, and helping with the wine harvest in Italy. As long as you’re willing to get stuck in to 4-5 hours work each day, you’ll get free food and accommodation.
Organisations in the UK offering working holidays include the YHA (Youth Hostel Association), which offers free accommodation in return for doing general odd jobs at their hostels, often in gorgeous locations. The Waterway Recovery Group puts volunteers to work on Britain’s extensive system of waterways – you could be restoring canals or learning how to repair bridges.
If conservation piques your interest, The Conservation Volunteers lists projects taking place across Britain, and The Landmark Trust offers volunteering stints on tiny Lundy Island, off the North Devon coast.
If you don’t have much time to devote to a working holiday, you could take part in a beach clean-up. The Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage runs beach cleaning events along the UK coast.
Top image: Sustainable holidays by coach © Shutterstock